Digital Libraries Devaluing Literature?

So I hear some former and current graduate students of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are enraged by the university’s plan to digitalize MFA theses. So I hear some former and current graduate students of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are mad about the university’s plan to digitalize MFA theses. These texts, improperly named “theses” since they are creative works like novels and poetry collections, would be force-published on the university library’s website; they would then become abvailable to all of us through Google and other search engines. The writers, now up in arms, argue this is unfair and should not be implemented since it will lower the commercial value of their creative writing.

Really, is there anything wrong with having one novel (thesis) posted online by an instution like the Iowa Worshop? Isn’t it a way of credibly displaying one’s work? Oh, but the writers are saying the work might be embarrassing, and others think that’s publication without consent.

There has been an increasing trend of authors turning to the internet either to give previews of their works, or to blog their work into existence. I use the latter for my poetry. But the writers have the control of the length of time they want their work to appear online. Some will woe readers, then remove the work and let the readers beg for it to be published in print format. In short, why the digital age might be construed to devalue the art, some authors have found ways to gain value through effective use of the internet.

The Iowa Digital Library displays, however, would be a permanent record of the author’s early, or sometimes immature, hence embarrassing work. Or if the work is marketable, the authors argue that no publisher would be willing to publish it as long as it stays displayed on the Iowa website.

Perhaps Iowa should modify its open access policy by adding that the work will remain displayed until such a time when a publisher is interested in it; then it will be removed to raise its marketability value.

One thought on “Digital Libraries Devaluing Literature?

  1. Hi
    While I can understand the writing students could have some real concerns about their first major projects being publicly available so soon after completion and assessment, I’m surprised so many are actually enraged by the online publishing. For me, it immediately raises three questions: did the enraged students completely forget about how much their projects depended on the basic fact of the pre-existence of the university’s writing program? Isn’t the program why they chose that kind of writing apprenticeship in the first place? Did they actually expect the faculty and library staff would not want any tangible return on investment in the writing course and library resources the student writers used?

    OK, I know from my own academic experience and dealing with old theses in a museum collection context that copyright and use-for-research issues on theses can prove difficult. There’s a very long history of publishing and access restrictions, and for theses done in form of novels, story collections etc (plus supporting essays, interviews ) there’s the added element of personal conflicts of interest relating to making a living out of creative projects. BUT: if the students are so worried about reduced market value of exposing their work or the chance of stolen projects, why enrol for a campus-run course at all? Why not just buy a few writers’ guides, maybe go to one or two workshops at a writers’ festival then stay at home to write, and venture out to a coffee shop for informal meetings?

    For Iowa campus, and I suspect many others running such programs, it looks like it’s time for a genuine new attempt at working out a copyright-and-access deal that can be included (as soon as possible!) in future conditions of enrolment and assessment, so that prospective students, faculty staff, library staff and the registrar’s office can all get it sorted out and agreed on at the START of each new intake & changes of staff. If necessary, each interest group involved in the issue can/might need to remind each other of the conditions during the courses’ duration. Perhaps the essential conditions, including possibility and consent for digitising the projects for the university’s own website, could be included in a general declaration of originality for submitting a thesis? Surely they can manage this much at tertiary level?

    Here’s to more creating and less berating,
    Tim in Australia

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