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Barry Jones's Dictionary of World Biography: An E-Book for the Ages

Launch address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of the Australian National University, Canberra, 28 November 2013

Barry Jones is an irrepressible, irreplaceable living national treasure. The polymath’s polymath, and gadfly’s gadfly, he has had over the last fifty years an extraordinary amount to say of interest, relevance and influence, over an extraordinarily wide spectrum of issues ranging from capital punishment, to science and technology, to history and higher education, to the arts to the quality of Australian politics.

This new edition of his Dictionary of World Biography is only a fraction of the legacy he will leave us, but what a fraction it is!  The product of a lifetime of learning, and a passion on which he has been working since the 1950s, here we have it: 900 pages, 7,300 entries, with coverage extending from the earliest times to the present and embracing not just Western but all major civilisations: a marvellous smorgasbord of information, comment and entertainment, not just a reference volume but a book to be skimmed and surfed and constantly dipped into for the sheer pleasure of discovery on every page.

And all this written by just one man. Not the 17 authors, 17 advisers and consultants, plus large publisher’s editorial team, credited in the Chambers World Biographical Dictionary also published this year. Nor the literally thousands of contributors to the biographical entries in Wikipedia, with which we have to acknowledge Barry’s book is now effectively competing.

Those who make Barry’s Dictionary, rather than Wikipedia, their first port of call in chasing up biographical references in the future won’t be disappointed.  This Dictionary is probably considerably more reliable, and certainly more readable, than the effusions of Wikipedia’s anonymous thousands. One other difference is that Wikipedia’s editors pride themselves – to the extent that they can stay ahead of their loopier contributors – on keeping their postings reasonably neutral, whereas Barry has no such inhibitions. On Madonna, for example (the current one, not the original, who receives a more respectful mention), he says in his 8 line entry “her fame depended on shock appeal rather than talent”.

But you don't get just snap judgments. Read in particular the longer entries – and they are mini-essays, packed with both hard information and succinct analysis and evaluation – on major historical figures like Homer, Caesar, Jesus, Columbus, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart, Napoleon, Lincoln, Darwin, Wagner, Marx, Freud, Picasso, Roosevelt and Hitler.

Of course Barry being Barry, the content does inevitably reflect his enthusiasms: strong on music, theology, science and political and intellectual history, variable in its literary references, and rather threadbare in its attention to sport and popular culture. But who would read a book by Barry Jones to find out more about Pele or Arnold Palmer?  

Certainly there are more Australian references than might be expected in a Dictionary of World Biography published anywhere else, but that is to be expected, and enjoyed. We have for example, Elizabeth Blackburn, Cate Blanchett, Don Bradman, Peter Carey, Peter Dawson, Russell Drysdale, Weary Dunlop, Percy Grainger, Sir Robert Helpman, Fred Hollows, Emily Kngwarreye, Henry Lawson, Mary MacKillop, Douglas Mawson, Nellie Melba, Sydney Nolan, Kerry Packer, Geoffrey Rush, Peter Singer, Fiona Stanley, Patrick White, Judith Wright – and that doesn't begin to exhaust the list.

What I found particularly pleasing, wearing my present hat, is the number of ANU people with entries of their own. It has our staff members who were Nobel laureates: Florey, Eccles, Harsanyi, Zinkernage and Doherty, and now Brian Schmidt who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae’”. It has our historians Keith Hancock and Manning Clark, scientists Frank Fenner and Mark Oliphant, and public servant extraordinaire Nugget Coombs.

And I see even me … though I am a little disconcerted to find myself mentioned in the past tense: “was a prolific author and Chancellor of the ANU”. While I’m glad that Barry has adopted a different rule to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and that you don’t have to be long-dead before winning a place in his dictionary, it seems that as a trade-off he has felt obliged to treat his living subjects as though they were dead.

Of course what delights me most about the ANU connection with this book is our name on its spine, with the ANU E Press publishing the book, as Melanie Nolan has told you, as part of her National Centre for Biography’s ANU-Lives E Press series.

Publishing with an institutionally-subsidised open access E Press like ANU’s, which was established in 2003 and of which this University is very proud, is rather different from publishing with a traditional publishing house, as Barry has been finding out. It does involve some interesting trade-offs.

The advantages are first, that it opens the book to a potentially much wider audience than traditional purchasers of printed books from bookshops or retailers like Amazon:  you can download it from the web without paying anything at all.

And if you are like me and can’t do without a printed copy, you can get (with an E Press, in a way that is not the case with an ordinary online text of the kind that the Biography Centre was originally proposing) a very elegant finished bound product on a print-on-demand basis. And – at least in this case – you can get it at a considerably lower price than would likely be charged for a traditionally published book, where the publisher has to carry the cost of a significant print run and associated promotion and has  to provide for bookseller’s margins. (Whereas the DWB is available P-o-D for $50, given its size, it would probably normally retail at $80-90)

The second big advantage, really important for a contemporary as well as historical reference work like this, is that with e-publishing it is technically possible to keep the work updated – and at fairly minimal cost so long as any changes to the text do not affect pagination, or require any other changes to the final in-design file, that would complicate printing on demand.

On the other hand, there are some notional downsides to going with an e-press.  For a start, authors don’t get paid (and this is a lively continuing argument between open access publishers and other university presses, notably MUP). 

Second, to keep production costs – and university subsidies - down, staff numbers and overhead budgets are low, and this means other limitations from an author’s perspective:

  • final copy has to mean pretty much final copy (with less opportunity for author’s corrections and revisions than would normally be the case during the proof stage at a traditional publisher);
  • there are limitations on the capacity to update text after publication even though this is technically possible (ANU E Press makes the point that with less than 5 full-time staff producing some 60 titles a year, it really is stretched to provide more than a basic packaging service); and
  • there are minimal resources available for traditional promotion – including getting lots of hard copies into booksellers’ displays on a sale-or-return basis, and  printed review copies out:  promotion really depends on spreading the word online and through social media (which probably works pretty well for younger generations of bookbuyers, but less well for grey-hairs like me and Barry, more used to looking in windows than Windows).

There is no simple answer as to how to balance out these pros and cons for a book like this one, which – unlike many academic texts – would certainly have found a traditional publisher as the first edition did in 1996 (although not without pain, as Barry describes at rueful length in his Introduction to the present volume).

Perhaps it is just necessary to recognise that some volumes are going to be flagship publications for ANU and the E Press, attracting wide interest and acclaim, and perhaps deserving as a result more flexible and exceptional treatment.   I know that to some extent that was accepted here – with at least the clerical trio of Pope Francis, Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop all having their most recent elevations included in the present printed volume.

I hope very much that given the exceptional importance and utility of Barry’s DWB that another exception to the normal E Press rules can be made, in the form of allowing periodic updates of the text of this kind. I am envisaging that this would occur at 3 or 6 monthly intervals – so long as Barry’s stamina held out (and on present indications I think we are good for another 20 years or so).  It would be essentially confined to subjects now still alive, and be of a kind and scale as not to require changes to pagination or other significant design alterations.   I would see these updates as not involving new editions, rather as what might be described in a traditional book as “reprints with corrections”, and I hope this would be manageable within the E Press’s resource constraints, supported as it would no doubt continue to be by Melanie Nolan’s wonderful NCB.

Concluding where I began, Barry Jones’s contributions to public policy debate, and the intellectual life and cultural life of this country have been legion, and legendary. His enthusiasms and passions, and distaste for what he describes as managerialism in any shape or form, may sometimes have been a teensy bit friendship-stretching, but Barry is one of a kind, and we are all better off for it.

The DWB is one of his finest, and will be one of his most enduring, contributions not only to Australia but to the world. My warmest congratulations to him, and everyone who worked with him, for bringing off the magnificent achievement of this book, which I am now delighted to declare – both in online and hard-copy form – duly launched.