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Digital publishing innovator eases access to Cornell material

The Internet-First University Press has released a complete directory of all available material as it works to make new and archival content more easily accessible. Photo by Sasha Israel

Buried somewhere in storage in the Physical Sciences Building was a 2003 interview between Nobel Prize-winner Hans Bethe, then 96 years old, and N. David Mermin, now the Horace White Professor of Physics Emeritus, as they discussed the early history of solid-state physics.

That conversation contained valuable historical insights into two leading physicists of the 20th century, yet no one could access it – that is, until a collaborative effort brought that interview and voluminous other Cornell material into the open.

Now the Internet-First University Press (IFUP) has released a complete directory of all available material – including the Bethe-Mermin interview. It’s the continuation of efforts to make the project’s content more easily accessible.

IFUP was an early effort to explore innovative ways to publish scholarly work in the digital age. Conceived by the Office of the University Faculty in 2002 as a way to slow the rising costs of scholarly publishing – costs often shouldered by students in the form of tuition – the project has helped make historically valuable archival material free online.

The press has also produced and released new content, including 28 books, video recordings of memorial events and symposia, more than a dozen public lectures from Cornell Academics and Professor's Emeriti (CAPE), 29 oral history interviews about the Arecibo Observatory, and nearly 100 oral history interviews with senior members of the faculty.

Launched in the infancy of online publishing, the faculty-led project set out to eliminate costs related to printing and inventory and reducing the physical space dedicated to archiving in favor of on-demand material available anywhere in the world via the internet.

The project is led by J. Robert Cooke, former dean of the faculty; Ken King, former vice provost for computing; and Charlie Walcott, university ombudsman and former dean of the faculty.

“This open-access publishing experiment has been concerned with re-imagining the core function of scholarly publishing in the age of the Internet. We’ve explored areas that have been largely neglected by traditional approaches,” Cooke said. “We can add value to symposia, conferences and workshops by greatly shortening the time for public accessibility.”

The collection harnesses digital search capability to include material from across disciplines in a single database. The founders said this is especially important at Cornell, with its breadth of subject expertise across many disciplines.

Lectures, dissertations, publications, even botanical images from Cornell Botanic Gardens, are all available from the IFUP. All print issues of the Cornell Chronicle (from 1969 to 2009) are online, as are back issues of Cornell Alumni News, Cornell Magazine and Cornell Alumni Magazine.

The most downloaded work is by Daniel P. Loucks, emeritus professor of civil and environmental engineering, and colleagues. The book, exploring concepts of water resources planning and management, has had more than 421,000 downloads.

A book about the art of scientific discovery authored by the late Jack Oliver, emeritus professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and one of the originators of the theory of plate tectonics, has more than 117,000 downloads.

Hans Bethe’s public lectures on quantum physics, recorded by IFUP, have been viewed more than 162,000 times. The project has also recovered reams of video previously stored as unedited footage and made those videos available online.

Incremental books, assembled over an extended period, allow access to sections as they become available. That feature was first used to publish a collection of papers by Barbara McClintock ’23, M.A. ’25, Ph.D. ’27, the winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Her papers have been assembled, and the IFUP plans to publish companion essays, which it calls “useful in illuminating the content and role of these papers in leading to her pioneering contribution.”

There are works from Nobel Prize-winners Roald Hoffmann, the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor in Humane Letters who won the 1981 prize in chemistry, and the late Robert C. Richardson, who won the 1996 prize in physics. The IPUP has also created a section called “professorial postscripts” as an online source of unpublished papers. As Cooke writes in the introduction to his own manuscripts, “we share these now, hoping that these retain some value for future generations.”

The IFUP Directory resource is available online for downloading and saving.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.