Technology and Knowledge: The University of Nebraska Press/Charles University Press Education Project, Michael Jensen, New York, 3/91

Technology and Knowledge: The University of Nebraska Press/Charles University Press Education Project

Michael Jensen

given at PUBWATCH seminar on "The Crisis in Publishing in Eastern and Central Europe," New York City Library, March, 1991

A.J. Liebling once said that "Freedom of the Press belongs to those who own one." I would modify that to "Freedom of the Press belongs to those with publishing tools." Not quite as pithy, to be sure, but a bit more precise.

Tools, in this context, come in two forms: technology and knowledge. What we at the University of Nebraska Press did, and are still trying to do, is bring those tools to the University Press at Charles University in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

The University Press there has been given two years to become economically self-sufficient, a daunting task for any scholarly press, but an especially difficult one in an economy as disrupted as Czechoslovakia's. With state supports on book prices suddenly cut off, and without experience in market-driven publishing, Charles University Press is facing unique challenges, to say the least.

And we're trying to help them respond to these challenges.

What we've done is nothing compared to what we're trying to do... but isn't that always the way? Nonetheless, we're pleased with what we've been able to achieve.

I'd like to spend the next fifteen minutes doing three things: explaining what we did, explaining why we did it, and explaining a little of what we've learned by doing it.

In early summer of 1990, then-marketing manager Diane Wanek met with Radim Palous, head of Charles University, when he was visiting the University of Nebraska at Omaha. We at the Press had all watched in admiration as the Czechs peacefully pushed out the totalitarian regime almost by force of will alone; So when she spoke with Dr. Palous, she asked what we might be able to do to help the newly free press of Czechoslovakia flourish.

As they talked, the subject of computers came up. Dr. Palous's eyes lit up. THAT was what was they needed most: Computers!

The University of Nebraska Press is one of the ten largest state university presses in the country. Over the last decade, we've become economically self-sufficient, and have done so by making the most of information technology--computers and software--in conjunction with sound, conservative, pragmatic publishing decisions. We felt we could be of assistance to Charles University Press.

With the backing of our director, Willis Regier, we proceeded to design our plan: Find a donor of desktop publishing software and hardware, visit Charles University, train the press staff in production techniques using desktop tools for generating camera-ready copy, and then depart, having "bestowed" on them the miracles of high technology.

That may sound like wide-eyed Midwestern idealism--some might even say naivitee--but amazingly enough, it worked. By October of 1990, we were in Prague, at Charles University, trying to discover what we'd gotten ourselves into.

We had, at first, expected to visit Charles University only once, but it quickly became apparent that more involvement was necessary, because the needs were much diverse than we had expected. We were astonished at what they had accomplished, given what little they had. No photocopiers. No computers. No stat camera. In short, none of the modern conveniences that we took for granted.

As I said at the outset, the tools we wanted to give Charles University Press fell into two categories: technology and knowledge.

The technology was provided by the generosity of the Apple Corporation. We had decided on Macintoshes as the destktop publishing platform of choice, since it's about as close to plug'n'play as you can get in the computer world, and we knew that the Czechoslovakians didn't have much of an installed base of personal computers. Apple Europe came through in the end--right at the end, I must admit... we were two days away from boarding the plane before we were certain that the equipment was indeed being donated... but they came through gloriously, providing us with three Macintoshes with full-page monitors, two LaserWriter laser printers, and the accompanying cables and peripherals. Without this donation, it is unlikely that we ever would have had the opportunity to make this project work.

The second "tool"--Knowledge--is at least as essential as technology, as far as Eastern European publishing is concerned, and is a much more time-consuming commodity to transfer. The technological tools are only pretty boxes without knowing how to put them to work. But beyond that--in the command economy that existed for forty years in Czechoslovakia, there was no need for marketing, or pricing breakdowns, or editorial involvement in publishing decisions, not to mention such matters as discount schedules and distribution agreements. All such affairs were handled, if at all, by a central authority. Now, in the newly free Czechoslovakia, people who for forty years knew nothing about wages, or advertising, or cost analysis, had to suddenly become expert in Western ways--and applying those western ways to their own situation.

It became clear that just plugging the computers in and teaching the Press staff how to make them go wasn't enough. We knew that we'd need to return, not only to continue with training in a true desktop publishing software package like the donated PageMaker, or to design a Czech typeface in the proper configuration for one-to-one transmission from the standard Czech IBM word-processing package "T602," as we did during our second trip. All this software, by the way, was donated by the manufacturers--Aldus gave us Pagemaker, and Altsys gave us Fontographer, the typeface-generating tool. [EXPLAIN a bit about ASCII/MAC TRANSLATION problems]

What was needed as much as hardware and software was assistance in making this transition to market-driven, modern publishing. Assuming that we can find funding for continuing our project, we have five more steps to follow: first, we want to bring Charles University Press staff members to the University of Nebraska Press to see first-hand how we operate, so that they can apply what lessons they choose to their own needs. Then, we want to send in four separate trips our production manager, our business manager, our designers, and our marketing manager, so that their brains and expertise can be applied within the Czechoslovakian context. A few more hardware tools are also necessary--a photocopier, for example. We take for granted many of the essentials of a modern office, and to effectively become a modern publisher, they need such basic tools. These people are still using carbon paper.

Again, assuming we find funding, the University of Nebraska Press also hopes to use our experience with Charles University Press as a model. We want to build a program that will let us become an educational institution, assisting University presses in other parts of the developing world as well.

Yet even with only those two visits to Charles University, we saw significant change. Just seeing these machines at work galvanized the Press staff in Prague. There was wonder, there was excitement. Such powerful tools! they said. It is like magic!

It was an awakening for us, as well. We were astonished to discover that the vast majority of books were still typeset in lead, and that most of our students had never even seen a computer before.

We were also invigorated seeing what a book culture it is. Everywhere were books. Everyone carried a book around. On main squares, we would see dozens of small cardtables, each with stacks of titles, each with a crowd of people clustered around them. Everyone reads there--and not slick magazines--books!

At that time, books were cheap. That has since changed. Books have at least quadrupled in price as the economy has been restructured, further cementing the need for such assistance as we've been able to give to Charles University Press.

What we did was small, really--bringing a few computers and laser printers to a publisher who needed them; spending a few weeks in glorious Prague working until late at night in a city where most work stops at 3 in the afternoon. Big deal.

But let me tell you, it is a big deal. Now comes the polemics, and you'll have to pardon me, because I feel very strongly about this.

A free press isn't just about the freedom to write something. It's the freedom to read something, too. Without modern publishing tools--both technology and knowledge--there can be no cost-effective Czechoslovakian publishing. Without that, the variety, the choice, declines, because hardly anyone can afford to buy the books that are published. Meaning that fewer books are published. Fewer ideas are disseminated. Fewer freedoms are exercised.

I can think of nowhere else where a little investment can yield so many benefits for so many people. Without words and ideas, people succumb to the tyranny of the image. Without publishing, words and ideas die in silence, and the seductive smile becomes the rhetoric of the realm.

The big deal was that we were providing the university with the means to inexpensively and efficiently prepare the ideas of its scholars, its professors, its fine minds. And not just for presentation to each other--but also to Czechoslovakian citizens and to the rest of the world. Inexpensively, which means that they can be purchased, and will be read.

Without diversity of thought, totalitarianism of one form or another results. Scholarly publishing is one place where texts that are not expected to become best-sellers can find a publishing home. It is vital that scholarly publishing, and publishing in general, be given as much assistance as possible.

There was a danger of cultural imperialism in this project. We went over to Prague thinking we understood what they needed. But what we understood was different from what they really needed. Three of the many lessons I learned bear repeating:

1) A good translator is vital, regardless of how much English you think your partners have. Several key misunderstandings wasted both our time. The new director at Charles University Press thought we were, in sequence, a) interested in buying the Press, b) selling printing presses, c) pulling a bait-and-switch, d) wanting to publish their books, and finally e) understanding that we were interested in helping.

2) Let your partners do the talking. Let them tell you what they need. Unless the help you're giving fills a need they have, it is no help at all.

3) Expect it to take three times longer than you think it will. That applies to getting across town, buying a loaf of bread, or teaching someone how to use a mouse.

One more paragraph that I told myself I would include: for those of you planning projects, or considering funding others' projects: don't think that Eastern Europe is a technological wasteland. These are smart people who want to leapfrog into the modern age. They are aware of the changes going on in information technology, and in many ways can benefit more from what's going on in information technology than even the western countries, because they don't have the "installed base" problem, where they're so busy paying off outmoded technology that they can't get any of the newer, cheaper, more powerful technologies. In many respects, the Eastern European countries, being small and relatively centralized, could move from industrial age to information age in a few short years.

We need to remember that publishing is not limited to just printing books. Publishing is information and knowledge dissemination. The information age is all about knowledge dissemination. There is room for more than just assistance to book production. Electronic texts are much cheaper to distribute than physically printed texts. CD-ROM systems in community centers, for example, could become virtual libraries unto themselves for Czechoslovakian communities. Multiuser technologies like online systems, or using the international Internet as a publishing platform, has a place even in a country with an outdated phone system. What I'm saying here is: aim high as well as low. We must help these new democracies for the future, not just the present.

The tools we brought to Charles university press are unfinished, and still underutilized. As I said, with additional funding, we hope to be able to finish what we began. But even if we're unable to find further funding, what we've done is a small thing that causes great ripples. I lost count of the times I heard "you don't know what this means to us," not just from the members of the Charles University Press staff, but from nearly anyone who heard about what we were doing. It meant to them that money wasn't all that the West considered important; that the US was trying to help, that the phrase "free press," that they'd heard of in quiet conversation away from party ears, was beginning to happen in their own country.

Without the assistance of the Apple corporation, or the software manufacturers, the University of Nebraska Press might never have been able to help Charles University Press. Such assistance for publishing technologies is more than just a machine, or just a little bit of ease for a secretary. These tools will be used to further free speech, the linchpin of democracy. As I said earlier: these tools--publishing technology and knowledge--may not seem like a big deal. But they represent, for the Czechoslovakians, an important beginning.

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