Session 10: Surviving in a Digital Environment

Prepared by Tracy Peeters, Associate Editor, Oklahoma Geological Survey

The closing session of this year's annual meeting covered ways earth-science editors can redefine their roles to meet the challenges of electronic publishing media. One of the speakers, Kate Lessing, summed it up in three words: "Stop thinking paper."

Building a "Cyberland" Library

Michael Grant, ERLIS Senior Topic Leader, Data Services Section, Ontario Geological Survey

Michael Grant of the Ontario Geological Survey, speaking first, discussed his experiences as a leader in the development of a "cyberland library" for the OGS, which was forced to stop thinking paper a few years ago when its publishing budget was eliminated. As part of its switch to all-digital publishing, the OGS decided to make all maps and publications available in electronic form--a project that involved contracting out the digitizing of thousands of documents, photos, charts, and maps. Grant's advice for organizations that are considering contracting out such a project included (1) ensuring the collection is meticulously cataloged before finalizing cost and procedures with the contractor; (2) determining how the digital files will be used, so the formats in which products are captured and delivered will be correct; (3) always taking delivery of the most flexible formats available (in the case of the OGS, TIFF format), even if images are certain to be compressed; (4) taking the time to determine what level of quality is essential for the organization or project, and requiring the contractor to deliver this standard; and (5) understanding the difference between quality control and quality assurance. (Grant suggested working with the contractor to create a manual detailing quality control and quality assurance targets, processes, and remedies, and ensuring that at least the appropriate parts of the manual are read and understood by and are available to everyone involved.)

Grant also elaborated on the aspects of the project he would do differently. He said he wished that (1) he had ensured materials were packed for delivery under his immediate supervision, so that books of each series would have been processed in sequence; (2) he had stayed at the site for at least the first 2 weeks of work, until he understood all the problems and the contractor understood how he wanted them solved; and (3) he had understood thoroughly the balance between urgency of completion and the need for accountability in the process. He concluded with the reminder, "Don't start vast projects with half-vast ideas."

Seismic Shift in the Office

Kate Lessing, Technical Writer, EG&G Technical Services of West Virginia

Kate Lessing, EG&G Technical Services of West Virginia, spoke next. She observed that folks under age 30 seem to have a "computer gene" that allows them to learn computer skills with ease. Everyone needs to realize that dependence on computers and electronic products has grown and will continue to grow--already it is hard for her to imagine how she would function without e-mail. For editors, the move into the digital environment means a "seismic shift" in their approach to work. In addition to editing and writing ability and experience, employers now are looking for computer skills in specific software. Editors must develop these new skills as well as new approaches to their work that exploit the potential of electronic media. For instance, for large projects, CDs should be considered; multimedia effects can be added to fully exploit the capabilities of CD-ROM. How could a fully multimedia project translate into print? Perhaps it couldn't, but, after all, we need to stop thinking paper.

How will Editors Survive?

Bob Fraser, Technical Publications Editor, Physical Science, U.S. Geological Survey

Final speaker Bob Fraser, U.S. Geological Survey, echoed some of Lessing's points and suggested approaches for editors in a digital era. He said that we need to think of documents in three-dimensional terms, with links; as individual layers of information that users can put together according to their needs. Publications need to be designed for a broader audience; typically, authors may write for an audience of colleagues and therefore few copies may be sold after the initial distribution. But the general public also uses geologic information and wants access to it. Editors should be brought in early in the publications process to help the author determine how best to structure an electronic document. This not only makes editing easier--it can be complex to add editorial changes to an already-complex document on a CD, for instance--but it also helps the author to understand users' needs better. Editors need to study the software available for different types of projects and be able to make sound recommendations to authors and their own agencies for a rational approach to publishing. They need to serve as "brokers of information" by conveying the needs of the readers to the author.