February 16, 2018

Oxford U. Press, U. of Utah Library Collaborate on Study of Suicide Ethics

Ethics of Suicide_coverOxford University Press (OUP) and the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library have joined forces on The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources, a hybrid print book and interactive digital archive. Compiled over nearly four decades by Margaret Pabst Battin, distinguished professor of philosophy and medical ethics at the university, the scholarly work comprises a 752-page volume published by OUP, linked via embedded QR codes to an extensive archive of source material hosted by the Marriott Library. The searchable archive contains excerpts, links to primary texts where available, and local library catalog records, and can be accessed independently of the book and free of charge. In addition, readers may submit comments to the archive—corrections, addenda, or suggestions of other material for inclusion.

While scholarly works are often published in both print and digital versions, the scope of this project breaks new ground, explained Rick Anderson, the Marriott Library’s associate dean for collections and scholarly communication. “There have been books that have been published with companion websites that include additional content—there’s nothing new about that,” Anderson told LJ. “But this level of collaboration between a research library and a major university press on a product like this is really unprecedented.”

The work includes original worldwide texts taken from philosophy, literature, theology, legal theory, medicine, anthropology, and history, from ancient Egypt to the modern era. In addition to the common definition of suicide, the book examines physician-assisted suicide, hunger strikes and social protest, self-sacrifice and martyrdom, religious and ritual practices, suicides of honor or loyalty, and wartime suicide bombings. As the book’s Introduction states, “[A] full exploration of historical and cross-cultural thought concerning suicide must also explore the many additional ways in which the phenomenon of self-destruction has also been understood—some of them bizarre, many of them profound.”


Battin’s research on end of life issues dates back to 1975, when she first began teaching at the University of Utah. She has authored, coauthored, edited, or coedited more than 20 books, including Drugs and Justice: Seeking a Consistent, Coherent, Comprehensive View and The Patient as Victim and Vector: Ethics and Infectious Disease (both OUP). In 1999 Battin entered into a contract with OUP for The Ethics of Suicide, a project she had been working on since the 1980s.

“You could cast this as a story of retentiveness,” Battin told LJ; she had multiple filing cabinets filled with photocopies and printouts of collected source material. The project continued to grow, and by 2010 what had been envisioned as an 800-page book had expanded to 1,200 pages. In August of that year, Battin first contacted scholarly communications and copyright librarian Allyson Mower for help on a public domain question, and the two ended up working together researching rights for the book’s source material.

As it became clear that Battin had gathered more content than would fit in a single volume, Mower suggested that maybe there was a way to publish the entire manuscript—yet still produce a print book that was within OUP’s scope. Together with digital initiatives librarian Anne Morrow, they developed a plan to publish a condensed version of Battin’s text as a print volume, and then create an archive for the full manuscript, to be hosted and maintained by the library. The book would be linked to the archive by QR codes embedded in each chapter, which could be scanned by readers using a smartphone or tablet.

In addition, to keep the price low and possibly attract a general audience as well as an academic one, OUP executive editor Peter Ohlin decided that the print book would be issued in paperback rather than hardcover. “Up to that point, it was still basically a giant collection of articles,” he told LJ. “It was a challenge thinking how to publish it—is it a big reference work? Is it a trade book? Is it a textbook? So we decided…we would try to do it in paperback to reach a broader individual audience.”


The first major challenge, Mower explained, was sorting out the rights on hundreds of sources. The second involved keying—or re-keying—Battin’s paper copies and scans that were often misaligned or missing pieces. “We had to get it into an open and common standard, all 140 original sources,” Mower said. The process took over a year of working with outside contractors to convert all Battin’s material into Microsoft Word or Rich Text Format documents, paid for by library endowment funds. At the same time, the library team developed the site’s infrastructure, matching its layout to the book’s design.

With Battin serving as point person, the library and OUP worked closely on the two formats “so that we could time things right and make sure we were matching versions and matching content where we needed to,” Mower told LJ. “As production files came along [from OUP], I could use them to help make sure the archives looked almost the same, as closely as we could.” The process of creating the archive, she said, was relatively straightforward; she was able to match the book’s layout with WordPress and some HTML coding. Working in WordPress allowed the archive’s text to be entered and tagged like a blog.

Coordinating the text, however, required additional work on Battin’s part; close attention was given to “everything from how to number the files so that the compositor can’t get them mixed up—we had a numbering system that was in every set of proofs up to the very end—to the coordination between the press and the library.”


The print version of The Ethics of Suicide was released in the UK at the end of September, and will be available for shipping in the United States starting October 9. The archive was made public on September 1 for reviewers and the media.

All parties feel that the finished product represents the best of both print and digital media, and bodes well for future collaborations. “I think we have a pretty good idea of the workflow that would be required, the amount of work that is needed, and the amount of staffing that’s needed,” said Mower. “So yes, I think we’re pretty well situated to take on something like this again.” Mower also hopes that highlighting the library’s digital capabilities will help drive faculty interest in depositing work in USpace, the University’s digital repository.

Input from registered users is encouraged; Mower will moderate comments, sending anything potentially controversial to Battin for review. The interactive component, noted Anderson, could allow the archive to mobilize its own community. “On the one hand it’s a book,” he said, “and on the other hand it’s a website as a sort of scholarly/social center, where people who are interested in the topic for whatever reason can discuss it, and can add content. It’s so exciting, if for no other reason for its dynamism and for the proof of concept that it creates.”

The new model, said Anderson, could be valuable across a number of disciplines. “Especially for history and social science-type research…. If you’re a historian, at a certain point you’ve got to finish writing your book. And the beautiful thing about a project like this is that it doesn’t ever have to be done. If a new trove of documents related to the ethics of suicide in Tibet in the 19th century turns up somewhere and somebody digitizes them, we can incorporate that content right into this project.”


Even with the project’s successful implementation, some questions remain. Ohlin is curious to find out how the print volume will fare in light of the archive’s open availability. “Everybody agonizes about the state of print as a research tool anymore,” he told LJ, “and most people would say it doesn’t really have much utility at all, because digital is so much more powerful. I think this is a real test case to see what role print might still play.”

In terms of future work, Anderson said, “One question about this is, while a model like this is certainly scalable in terms of content—we could add another 1,200 pages of content without doubling the cost…could we do ten of these? If we could do ten, could we do 100? That becomes a much more difficult question. This project certainly establishes proof of concept for the feasibility of projects like this. It doesn’t tell us anything at this point about how scalable they are.”

Anderson also stressed the fact that Mower’s involvement was crucial to the project’s success. “To some degree what we saw here was serendipity, and to some degree it was the result of a program that we put in place with a scholarly communication and copyright librarian who is not only programmatically and structurally inclined by the nature of her job description to discover things like this, but is also constitutionally inclined by the nature of her personality. She’s always on the lookout for opportunities…. So some of it is having the right programs and structure in place, and some of it is hiring the right people.”

“This is the kind of thing that we are always thinking about and always looking for in our library,” Anderson told LJ, adding: “Coming up with new things is, in a way, not that hard. Coming up with new things that are really useful and that actually solve problems for people is more of a challenge. That’s our gold standard.”

A launch event for the book will be held Monday, October 5, from noon to 2:00 p.m. Mountain Time at the Marriott Library. The event will be live streamed as well, and a recording will be available after 5:00 p.m. on the library’s media streaming site.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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