Skip to Content

The Management of Content: Universities and the Electronic Publishing Revolution

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend to friendSend to friend

Philip Hunter attempts to throw some light on the low take up of content management systems (CMS) in the university sector.

A publishing revolution on the Web?

Just three or four years ago the Web community was getting used to the idea that the way we would work in future would be radically different from the way we work now. The world of coalface flatfile html markup would begin to disappear in favour of collaborative working, managed workflow, document versioning, on the fly pages constructed out of application independent xml chunks, site management tools and push-button publishing via multiple formats - html, xml, pdf, print, etc. Text appearing in more than one context would be stored in a central repository and repurposed according to particular requirements.

In the UK Higher Education sector, this doesn't seem to have happened. Worldwide in the university sector, it doesn't seem to have happened. Site management tools are being used here and there, and there are now decent text editors both available and widely used - this means that Web Editors are no longer expected to deal with basic markup chores all day every day. Some sites put together pages on the fly, using SSIs or ASP chunks. There are sites which interface with backend databases to provide user requested data in a user friendly format. However you will have to look hard for a Higher Education sector site which uses all of these techniques and which yokes them together with collaborative working and managed workflow. Higher Education is not using content management systems as a matter of course, and is not making use of the most sophisticated systems available.

In other words, whatever publishing model underlies the development and maintenance of large scalable Web services in the Higher Education sector, it isn't fully realised in the technology used to deliver the services. Much of what is delivered via the Web still involves a good deal of manual activity.

This half-way house position isn't a place where Web Managers and Editors want to be. So it is quite odd that this is where we are, among a community which has been so intimately involved in the early development of the Web.

It is not easy to explain how the HE community in the UK in particular has found itself in the position where its Web pages are the product of a sophisticated cottage industry. This article will attempt to cast some light on the reasons behind the current position in the university sector, and to suggest some ways in which the community might seek to move forward.

The Technology behind the new publishing revolution

Are content management systems available? Are they available in numbers from different software houses? Are they available in a form customisable for use by Higher Education institutions? The answer is ‘yes’ to each of these questions. We might ask how long content management systems have been around, since if they are new on the block, this might explain why academia isn't using them. The answer is, at least in terms of Web publishing, quite a long time. They weren't always called content management systems, but they always were designed as publishing tools. And they began to have the capacity to publish to the Web by (at the latest) the second half of 1996.

Content Management Systems are - arguably - close equivalents of the tools of the publishing revolution of the 15th century, in that they are publishing tools which revolutionise both the assembly and the delivery of information. One major difference between this and the earlier technology, of great importance, is that the current revolution depends heavily on the separation of content from its appearance and layout. This allows the possibility of customised text delivery according to user requirement (either within or outside the institution running the system), on the fly and without human intervention. For organisations such as the modern university, with its central administration surrounded by semi-autonomous faculty and departmental units, all requiring to deal with the same body of information, content management systems offer huge potential benefits in terms of the streamlining of the adminstration, and the timeliness and accuracy of the institution's published information. Content management systems use application independent markup formats (SGML, XML etc), which means that, for example, a text presented in a Gothic Blackletter typeface can as easily be adapted to another font and presentation style. Text is stored and maintained in one place, and published to wherever it is required (perhaps the apotheosis of the15th century dream). These tools are already used to a large extent in the commercial publishing community, and to a lesser extent in industry.

A Whirlwind History of University Publishing up to 1550

To understand some of the reasons why academia appears to be slow off the starting blocks in electronic publishing it is instructive to look back at how things shaped up during the first hundred years of printing. This article doesn't contain an in-depth analysis of the role of universities in the first publishing revolution, but its intention is to suggest that the comparison with the development of publishing to the Web is a legitimate one (Oxford University Press's Web site begins its own history of the institution by saying that it 'had its origins in the information technology revolution of the 15th century'), and that, despite the current eminence of our older universities in the publishing world, it is a mistake to imagine that they were necessarily eminent in the earliest days of printed texts.

Printing did not radically change the concept of the book itself, though it did lead (during the following centuries) to a development and formalisation of the ways text might be displayed, as well as the concept of an 'edition'. By contrast the technology of printing stayed pretty much the same up until the nineteenth century. Thus the history of printing is often written in terms of the history of typography. In the case of this earlier publishing revolution, the content and the form in which it finds expression were closely woven together. Publishing underwent radical changes triggered by the introduction of moveable type, the reduction in unit costs, and the increase in the scale of production (in the first hundred years of printing, some nine million volumes were printed).

The initial period of printing ran from 1450 until well into the 16th century, and only began to settle down around 1550. In the earliest days both the printing and the retailing were done by the same firms: the roles of bookseller, publisher and printer were not clearly differentiated (consider the uncertain definitions of ‘Web Editor’ and ‘Web Master’ in our time). The whole hundred years up to 1550 represents a period of change and development, similar to our own, even if happening at a much slower rate.

OUP deals with its own early development by compressing the first two hundred years into a single paragraph. The Press

... had its origins in the information technology revolution of the late fifteenth century, which began with the invention of printing from movable type. The first book was printed in Oxford in 1478, only two years after Caxton set up the first printing press in England. Despite this early start, the printing industry in Oxford developed in a somewhat haphazard fashion over the next century. It consisted of a number of short-lived private businesses, some patronized by the University. But in 1586 the University itself obtained a decree from the Star Chamber confirming its privilege to print books. This was further enhanced in the Great Charter secured by Archbishop Laud from King Charles I which entitled the University to print 'all manner of books'. The University first appointed Delegates to oversee this privilege in 1633. Minute books recording their deliberations date back to 1668, and OUP as it exists today began to develop in a recognizable form from that time.[1]

S. H. Steinberg points to the essentially commercial basis of the spread of printing in the 15th century:

the printers were craftsmen and business men; they wanted to make a living; and they readily adapted themselves and their art to the conditions of international trade. Until printing had firmly established itself as an everyday commodity, that is to say, until well into the beginning of the sixteenth century, a map showing the places where printers had settled down is virtually identical with a map showing the places where any commercial firm would have set up an agency. [2]

Steinberg also points out that, from the beginning of the craft, 'Individual patrons.... were not enough to guarantee the printer a livelihood and to secure the sale of his books. ...The printer was faced by the alternative, unchanged ever since, of basing his business on the support of organized institutions or of relying on the fairly stable market of a literate, book-loving, and book-buying clientele of sizeable dimensions.' Steinberg lists these institutional supporters of the trade, and these were then (and still are) governments, churches, schools, and the private patronage of the educated urban middle class. The aristocracies of Europe were by contrast not well-disposed to printed editions and (perhaps astonishingly) continued to use the services of scribes to create copies written with the pen.

Steinberg also tells us that, strangely, while printing presses were established across Europe in quick succession, university towns as such 'had no attraction for printers: learning and diligence is no substitute for ready cash'. Those university towns which did attract printers (Basel, Cologne, Paris, Seville, Naples, etc) did so 'because they were thriving centres of trading, banking, and shipping, and seats of secular and ecclesiastical courts'.

As for the role of the Church in the economic life of early printers, it is the case that the patronage of the church was insufficient to maintain a steady income. As Steinberg says, the 'intellectual impetus and economic power had long since become the property of the laity. It was the big towns and the world of industry and commerce which became the mainstay of book-production'.

In short, the current importance and wealth of a number of very prestigious university presses does not reflect the share of the booktrade held by university presses during the early years of the development of publishing technology. Yet Cambridge University Press correctly describes itself as the world's oldest printing and publishing house. This does not mean that it was active at the start of printing - in fact it has been operating as a printing and publishing institution only since 1584, more than 130 years after the invention of printing with moveable type (Oxford University Press issued its first publication in 1585). It owes its status to the fact that all of the printing firms successful in the early years have since gone out of business. The landscape of the first hundred years, as Steinberg indicates, was one in which universities played no significant part in the business of publishing and printing.

This might seem surprising. Even slightly shocking. The current status of the largest and oldest university presses is due not to the fact that they were in at the beginning, but rather to the fact that the universities create the possibility of a longevity rare in the commercial world:

It is in fact very hard for an ordinary firm, especially a family firm, to last for that kind of time. The family may die out; more probably the firm is taken over by another family or firm, or in modern times becomes part of a great industrial or commercial complex and in losing its independence loses much of its identity. Only if it is owned and run by a corporate entity which cannot itself be taken over in that way can it survive for hundreds of years, and there are not many such bodies. [3]

Is History repeating itself?

From the perspective of academia, this looks to be a very unlikely proposition. The Web (though not the Internet) was an idea created entirely within academia. Its initial implementation and development took place within academia. The organisation which has been created to oversee its development, W3C, is headed by an academic, Tim Berners-Lee, and has its principal base in MIT in Cambridge, Massachussetts. [4] It seems therefore absurd to propose that the role of the academic world in the development of the Web, and more precisely, in Web publishing, is minimal and perhaps diminishing.

But nevertheless the early history of printing does ring some bells. If we look out on to the Web, we can see that commercial companies are the organizations which have begun to exploit the full range of opportunities presented by the new medium. The principal members of W3C are commercial companies with an interest and stake in the future development of the Web - Oxford University as such has no representation on W3C for example. Despite the collapse of the dotcom bubble, there are still many players out there on the field, jostling for the best positions. And they are in general not finding themselves in competition with university publishers, except in a number of very restricted areas (Oxford University Press is an important exception). [5], [6], [7].

It may be that, from the perspective of four centuries further on, the development of publishing on the Web will come to seem to be a field in which the Universities were conspicuous largely by their absence of involvement. Unless something is done very soon.

What follows is a simplified version of my own view of why university publishers are not out in front when it comes to exploiting the new possibilities for publishing. It isn’t a straightforward story, just as universities themselves are not straightforward entitities to describe.

A Whirlwind history of the Web

When the Web began there was no intention to create a system which would contain rich mark-up, and which would be an equal partner with paper publishing. The point was instead to create a simple and flexible system for linking and distributing files. It was necessary to develop three things: a transport protocol, a scheme for addressing file locations, and a markup language. [4] These things were created, and once the system broke out of CERN with the spread of client browsers on users desktop machines, the Web (as we know it) began to take off. The first Web site was of course, soon followed by others, mainly in academic institutions. As the range of sites increased, so the diversity of organisations and content increased.

Eventually by late 1994 or early 1995 the idea of the Web service possibly turning out to be the most accessed face of the organization began to spread through other levels of the university, and some enthusiastic volunteers added the responsibility for departmental or project pages to their existing activities. Many of these responsibilities have now been formalised, so that Web site development is part of the job descriptions of individuals in different parts of the university.

XML was announced in November 1996, in response to the perception that publishing on the Web was going to be very important, and that the Web required a much more sophisticated mark-up language similar to that already used by the print community (SGML). Likewise, tools similar to the publishing systems used by print publishing houses, for the same reason, have to be implemented for the Web. However the understanding that the use of XML is essentially about the systematic use of electronically published resources - a species of publishing, and a very new kind of publishing altogether - has not yet found fertile soil among those who run universities.

Top-Down or Bottom-up?

Universities, by their very nature, develop very largely in a top-down fashion, whereas the Web owes its success to the fact that it can also grow bottom-up. If content was the province of a purely central administration, there wouldn’t be as much of it as there is, since a good deal of it is the result of personal enterprise.

The top-down approach has deep historical roots in the university system: universities are collective enterprises, run by committees, which take the long view (someone pointed out recently that very few other institutions can contemplate signing 300 year contracts). On the other hand, they are organisations also devoted to a breadth of interest and activity, which need to leave institutional spaces for the the development of both the university curriculum and the individual development of the members of the university. This grass-roots approach to development is as old and as necessary as the institution of the university senate, and is a characteristic of the university system which has provided the the institutional space for the initial development of the Web. What the university is, is perhaps a maintained contradiction. A bit like the Web itself.

The upshot of this maintained contradiction is that radical steps of any kind are difficult for the institution to take except at the level of the individual. Radical steps are discouraged by the actual make-up of the institution, largely because of the way institutional politics are (and have to be) reflected in committee structures. Plus the university institution is, by virtue of its size, complexity, and age, bigger than any individual interest, and sometimes (in the case of venerable institutions), bigger than the collective interest of its current members.

It is fairly easy to retroject this picture of the nature of the university institution into the publishing revolution of the 15th century, and the behaviour of the universities of the time fits the model. Universities committed to the services of commercial printing houses where desirable, but did not commit their institutions to in-house publishing facilities until it became obvious that to do so would not be a drain on finances, and that it would be the cheaper option. (Though it is very odd that it took universities nearly 130 years to realise the principal attraction of printing for their institutions: the creation of editions over which they had critical control. Individual scholars pioneered this use of text, not the institutions to which they belonged).

Fast tracking University Publishing

Is there a solution? Again this is a personal view, but it is a considered perspective on the challenge of the Web and the actual response of universities over the past few years. I would argue that is both un-necessary and unreasonable to look to the reconstruction of the university as an institution as a solution to this problem: the institution of the university is what it is for good reason, and it mostly benefits from an inbuilt reluctance to throw large amounts of its resources in any one direction (at least one college in Oxford still regrets having been foolish enough to pick either of the sides in the English Civil War). A change which I think is required however is that

a) the Web service of a university has to be understood by its ruling body as the technical and cultural equivalent of a publishing house
and, perhaps paradoxically, also understood that the service is
b) not a conventional publishing enterprise.

The speed of development on the Web is such that dog years are often invoked as a comparison (one year on the Web equals about seven real years). Using this as a rule of thumb, we are just leaving behind Web incunabula, and entering the second fifty years of the publishing revolution. If we push this parallel further, we ought to expect university Web publishing to become a properly integrated university activity sometime around 2008 or 2009. By this I don’t mean that universities will be publishers of Web pages, since they do that already. I mean instead that the process underlying Web publication ought to have by then some technical maturity, that universities should not be involved in publishing as a cottage industry. This means that appropriate technology should be in place; also that every significant aspect of the process should be properly understood within the context of an appropriate business model, and that the whole enterprise should be adequately resourced.

What is University Publishing? Here I should expand on why universities ought to consider their Web services to be publishing institutions, if of a different stripe to those which have gone before. In simplistic terms, not all universities have been formal publishers in the past. Some very prestigious universities have functioned entirely without an official university press: the LSE doesn't have one, Imperial College London doesn't have one, and University College London didn't have one either until relatively recently. Their formal publishing activity was confined to the university calendar, the various prospectuses, and suchlike. The members of these universities, did and do publish of course. Their work might appear either on a not for profit basis in academic journals run by commercial publishers, or as authors for other universities' presses, or private publishing houses. However, the picture is more complicated than this - apart from formal publications, universities both now and also in earlier centuries, 'published' many other more ephemeral works, which fall under the now familiar heading 'grey literature' - sometimes produced by the university as a whole, or otherwise by faculty, school, department, institute or laboratory. These might be working paper series, conference proceedings, departmental histories and yearbooks, guides to the architecture of the university, proto-journals, papers compiled for the students attending the department of continuing education, etc. The contents of university Web pages are often close cousins to these documents. (Two articles elsewhere in this issue of Ariadne - one by Michael Day [8] and the other by Stevan Harnad [9] - deal with some of the issues surrounding e-prints and the self-archiving initiative).

All of these categories are in flux. The technology of the Internet means that Universities potentially now face competition from all other universities on the planet. All universities with a Web site can already advertise their institution to would-be students worldwide. They also have the potential to sell courses delivered electronically, to students anywhere in the world, via distance learning packages and 'e-learning' tools. Given that this competition is already happening, and is likely to intensify over the next few years, all universities not dependent on a secure supply of local students perhaps ought to alter their perception of themselves, if they are going to survive. Now that universities see their futures bound up to some extent with e-learning initiatives, delivered at a distance, perhaps all such institutions ought to consider themselves as a species of publisher. The Web will not only deliver the 'brand' (the concern of the marketing department), but also part of the curriculum, which is (or ought to be) a purely academic responsibility.

The mediation of the curriculum to the public outside the lecture room has hitherto been the responsibility of the university publishing house. The publishing house has also had responsibility for licensing issues, and matters relating in general to dealings with other publishing institutions. If in future much of a university's transactions are taking place on the Web, then these matters have to be dealt with by a similar institution, with similar scope.

Publishing to the Web also involves the development and deployment of a publishing process. This bears many similarities to the print publishing process. Content Management Systems have adapted the print publishing process to the electronic environment, not least because the systems were originally designed to streamline the former. The whole enterprise can be understood as a business process, which, in the case of print publishing companies, has to give proper account to the cost of staff, plant and machinery, overheads, capitalisation, licensing, etc.

This perception of publishing to the Web as a whole business process is currently weak in most university administrations. Many working within existing Web services are aware of the need for this view of Web publishing, but the concept of a Web service as a industrial-strength process has yet to find acceptance among many university decision-makers. Some departmental heads still have the idea that if they send their administrative staff on half-day courses they will return equipped to create and maintain their departmental Web site. In tandem with the mistaken notion that the Web is already a mature technology, the idea that publishing on it is not as serious an activity as print publishing, is a recipe for long-term disaster. This underlying view is responsible for the fact that realistic resources are not being allocated to university Web services: since the perception is that expensive proprietary tools are neither desirable nor necessary, the budgets remain small.

The argument of this article is not meant to suggest that university Web services should be passed over to the university publishing house, where one exists already. It does mean that the future function of university Web services might be best regarded as a species of publishing, and that many aspects of the print publishing model are, despite some key differences, applicable to the future development of these services. Content Management Systems make industrial-strength university publishing possible, and in future are likely to be regarded as an essential component of the business of being a university.


  1. History of Oxford University Press:
  2. Steinberg, S.H: Five Hundred Years of Printing, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1955 (Third revised edition by Moran, J.H. 1974).
  3. Introduction to: Black, Michael: A short History of Cambridge University Press, CUP, Cambridge, 1992.
  4. Berners-Lee, Tim: Weaving the Web: The Past, Present and Future of the World Wide Web by its inventor, Orion Business Press, London, 1999.
  5. Juliet New’s article on the Oxford English Dictionary Online in Ariadne 23
  6. Pete Cliff’s review of the Oxford English Dictionary Online in Ariadne 23
  7. Laura Elliot’s article on the technical background of the Oxford English Dictionary Online in Ariadne 24
  8. Day, Michael: 'E-print Services and Long-term Access to the Record of Scholarly and Scientific Research' Ariadne 28 June 2001:
  9. Harnad, Stevan: 'Six Proposals for Freeing the Refereed Literature Online: A Comparison' Ariadne 28 June 2001:
  10. Printing and Publishing at Oxford: the Growth of a Learned Press 1478-1978 (Bodleian Library Exhibition Catalogue, Oxford, 1978)
  11. Feather, John: A History of British Publishing, Routledge, London, 1988.

Author Details

Philip Hunter
Information Officer
Web site:
Date published: 
22 June 2001

This article has been published under copyright; please see our access terms and copyright guidance regarding use of content from this article. See also our explanations of how to cite Ariadne articles for examples of bibliographic format.

How to cite this article

Philip Hunter. "The Management of Content: Universities and the Electronic Publishing Revolution". June 2001, Ariadne Issue 28

article | about seo