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Bound to change
Doctoral dissertations are meant to be original contributions to scholarship. To do that, they need to be read-and they need to last.

CHICAGO IS NOT THE ONLY doctoral-degree granting institution whose dissertation guidelines delve deeply into the details of margins, acid-free paper, page numbering conventions, and approved adhesives.1 It is not even the only university with its own brand of archival-quality paper; for the record, however, University of Chicago Dissertation Bond, watermarked with the University seal and currently priced at $20.64 per ream, has been sold at the U of C Bookstore for 40 years or more. Nor does Chicago lead the nation in number of dissertations produced each year. Its output in 1999-when 41,400 doctoral degrees were conferred nationwide-totaled just 384, ranking 26th, compared to No. 1 University of Texas at Austin, with 752, or No. 50 Iowa State University, with 257. Yet in dissertations, as in so many matters, the University marches to its own drummer: serious but not solemn.

Nowhere is that Hyde Park trademark more apparent than in the online posting of the University's dissertation deadlines. Like an electronic Grim Reaper, the black and red type stalks inexorably across the computer screen, counting off hour after hour, quarter by quarter. As this article is keystroked, a Chicago A.B.D. ("all but dissertation") student has "84 Days 5 Hours left!" to get two unbound copies of a department-approved dissertation to the University's Office of Academic Publications in time to make the spring 2001 convocation.2 Too close for comfort? There are "161 Days 5 Hours left!" till the summer 2001 cut-off date.

Once the copies reach the office, an unprepossessing suite of rooms in the basement of the Administration Building, the initial way station on the road to archival preservation and scholarly dissemination, they undergo a bibliographic physical. Not only must the final two copies, an abstract, and the completed forms be present and accounted for, the copies must pass muster on a number of vital signs, including type ("dark, crisp and large enough for microfilming"), spacing ("double spaced, printed on one side of the paper"), and page numbering ("all pages are numbered consecutively and no page is missing"). Bunked in rows of cardboard boxes the new recruits await quarterly transfer to the next academic outpost.

One copy of each dissertation joins the University Library collection, making the short trip through Hull Gate and across 57th Street to the Regenstein. On arrival, notes acquisitions librarian James Mouw, dissertations "receive cataloging priority," leapfrogging over other incoming materials. Most are assigned a "dissertation classification list number" (999) within their field's call number. There are some exceptions: mathematics, statistics, and computer science share a call number field (QA999). Cataloging complete, the copies are shipped to a commercial bindery,3 with the library paying for rush service.

That hasn't always been the case. For at least some of its early years, the University required its Ph.D. recipients to bear the cost of having 100 copies of their work professionally typeset 4 and printed. Such self-publishing did not come cheap: an 1899 Ph.D. graduate protested that he couldn't afford to spend the necessary $600, about $11,000 today. By 1922, however, the rules had changed, and graduates were asked to provide three typewritten copies instead.

After two or three weeks the maroon volumes 5 return from the bindery to the Reg-where the goal is to keep them in circulation and good health. To those ends, says Stephen Gabel, AB'70, AM'75, PhD'87, assistant provost and director of academic publications, every dissertation formatting requirement is based on principles of preservation and access, matters important enough to risk iterating and reiterating with a precision that can border on the absurd. 6 Since the rules are easy to do right the first time "and a pain to redo," says Gabel, the office has invested a lot of effort in making the information available to students (its Web site, for example, allows Chicago students around the globe to get advice whenever they need it). "We've tried very hard to give all students before they begin writing very clear ideas about what is expected, what the rules are. We don't mind saying, 'Manhattan is an island surrounded by water,' if redundancy will get the point across."

When Gabel's staff gives a manuscript its 30-minute archival review (draft reviews are also offered to give students a heads-up on potential problems), the focus is, he says, on "archival issues, access issues: Is it all there? Can it be bound? Will the paper last?" Associate Director Emily Godbey, AM'95, concurs: "If it's printed on the paper crooked, we'll tell you. If you misspell your name on the title page, or if you misspell the title of your dissertation, we'll point it out." At the same time she emphasizes, "We're rather flexible about anything that we can be flexible about. Anything that's not written down is up to you." And, yes, Godbey says, giving examples but not naming names, both spelling errors have been spotted-and could have resulted in a dissertation being misfiled and thus lost to future scholars.

Preservation librarian Sherry Byrne also emphasizes flexibility within the overall constraints of preservation and accessibility: "The purpose of the guidelines," she says, "is to make sure whatever is deposited in the library lasts as long as possible. I recommend changes to the printing requirements because I see what goes wrong." Stuffing too many pages into a single volume, for example, puts undue pressure on the binding's spine, so guideline item "IV.3. Volumes" instructs, "For binding purposes, no volume may have more than 300 sheets of paper. If your dissertation has 301 sheets of paper, it must be in two or more volumes. The point of division is entirely up to you." 7

Because, as Byrne notes, "a volume can always be rebound," an even greater danger is brittle paper. To help the one-of-a-kind publications survive as long as possible, the Library has made sure that the two approved paper stocks-in recent years, the University dissertation bond has been joined by the somewhat less expensive Permalife Bond ("with watermark")-are what Byrne describes as "acid-free, reliable archival papers."

BUT ISN'T PAPER YESTERDAY'S NEWS? Enter the other copy of a Chicago dissertation.

PHOTO:  Bound to changeEven as the maroon-bound manuscripts settle into the Chicago stacks, their unbound twins are journeying north to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to be stored, abstracted, and indexed at UMI Dissertation Publishing, a.k.a. ProQuest Inc.8
The largest repository of U.S. dissertations (it currently boasts 1.6 million titles, including about 27,800 from Chicago) got its start in 1938, when an Ann Arbor businessman named Eugene Power had a brainstorm: Why not collect and store all of the master's theses and doctoral dissertations scattered in campus libraries around the nation into one central archive, making them readily available to scholars for a fee? To do so, he opted for a then-new technology: microfilm. Power's University Microfilms International (UMI) and its Microfilm Abstracts (later Dissertation Abstracts) would provide the service in return for exclusive publishing rights, with the author retaining his or her copyright and receiving royalties.

Although Power's idea caught on, some major research universities kept dissertation microfilming and distribution in-house, Chicago included. By the late 1940s the library was microfilming all U of C dissertations and at least some master's theses. 9 Abstracts were forwarded to the UMI database, but scholars interested in a Chicago dissertation found through UMI had to order their copies from the library. Over time this system grew less effective in promoting Chicago scholarship. As more and more institutions signed up with UMI, explains Sherry Byrne, scholars followed the path of least resistance: "Dissertations were easier to get from UMI. That's where people looked first."

In 1994 Chicago was one of a handful of institutions still publishing their own dissertations (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology remains the lone holdout). That year the library closed its photoduplication lab, donating its vintage Copyflo microfilm-to-paper machine to the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the University signed a contract making UMI the official repository of its dissertations and transferred all of its microfilmed theses-four or five pallets loaded with cartons of neatly labeled metal canisters-to Ann Arbor.

ALREADY THE ASCENDANT TECHNOLOGY was digital. Electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) were being discussed as early as 1987 as a means of making a fledgling academic's work more readily available to other scholars, saving an institution money and library shelf space, and ensuring that an institution's graduates were proficient in the technology by which scholarship is conducted. While an ETD is most broadly defined as any thesis or dissertation that is submitted, archived, and accessed solely or primarily in an electronic format, it can range from what aficionados call "plain vanilla," a work that is essentially state-of-the-art typing, to "Rocky Road," a project that fully exploits hypertext links, video or audio, or interactive elements.

Almost 100 universities in the U.S. and abroad are active in the ETD cause, with one in particular, Virginia Polytechnic & State University, leading the charge. Virginia Tech started the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD), partly funded by a Department of Education grant, in 1996, and a year later became the first U.S. university to require its graduate students to submit their master's theses and Ph.D. dissertations in electronic format.

Not all Virginia Tech grad students were delighted with the decision to embrace electronic technology. According to a February 13, 1998, report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a few complained about the time spent learning to format their materials for the Web. Other students' anxieties echoed caveats heard whenever ETDs are discussed. For one thing, authors worry-and sometimes rightly-that "publishing" on the Web counts as prior publishing, diminishing their chances of publishing with an academic press. These fears, says Chicago's Gabel, are more valid in some fields than others: "In the sciences, where the dissertation is often a series of articles, it's less of an issue."

In response, Virginia Tech has given its students the option of selecting one of three levels of access for their works: open to anyone on the Web, open only to people with Virginia Tech accounts, or kept off the Web entirely. UMI-which began digitizing all of its newly received dissertations in 1997 and started offering them online in 2000-provides dissertation authors with a similar set of options, including the right to restrict sale of their dissertations for up to two years from the date of convocation. Authors who worry that electronic publishing makes it easier for their work to be sold without their permission had a fresh scare this past fall when a new media clearinghouse called appeared to be offering dissertations for sale. In fact, Contentville offers only citations and portions of UMI abstracts, with orders fulfilled by UMI and tracked for royalty payments in the usual manner.10

The most trenchant critique of ETDs has to do with the archival stability and long-term durability of the formats. "It's easy to say the words 'electronic book,'" notes Gabel, "but nobody knows what it is-the information stored, the screen, what you print out? What the original is? Or how to retrieve it in 50 years?" Proponents argue that these are challenges that will be met, in no small part because of the medium's growing importance, an influence going far beyond dissertation publishing.

That influence can clearly be seen on the quads. While anyone with Internet access and a credit card can search for and order an electronic (or paper or microfilm) dissertation from ProQuest, the U of C Library's site license functions as an online version of the familiar interlibrary loan system. From any campus machine or proxy server, University researchers have access to all of the more than 100,000 dissertations that UMI has put online since 1997, not just the 2,400 or so originating at Chicago. When users decide to download a dissertation, within minutes it's sent to their e-mail address, waiting to be read or printed. In 5,864 ProQuest sessions last year, Chicago users conducted 27,316 searches and downloaded 4,532 dissertations.11

ProQuest now accepts dissertations in PDF format, which could be described as just one step away from a word-processing file. But Chicago-while allowing a dissertation to include media that can't be expressed adequately on paper or microfilm (video, film, musical performance, very large data sets)-remains firm in its refusal to allow people to eliminate the paper copy. "There's still this useful technology called paper," says Gabel, "and a reason why it has lasted for centuries." And so paper-acid-free, reliable archival paper-will continue to link the U of C's latest entrants into the company of scholars with the first recipient of a Chicago Ph.D. 12

1. Don't even think about glue sticks. Rubber cement is verboten too. (back)

2. Sed tempus fugit. By the time this article reached print, the deadlines had advanced as well. For the current countdown, go to: (back)

3. Since 1994 the library has used Heckman Bindery, located in North Manchester, Indiana, and billed as "The Nation's Largest Library Binder." (back)

4. In another era Chicago students had to select their typists from a list supplied by Katherine Turabian, from 1932 until 1958 the University's "dissertation secretary" and author of A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (published by the U of C Press and now in its sixth edition), a book known to grad students everywhere simply as "Turabian." (back)

5. Although the buckram (stiffened cloth) binding remains maroon, in about 1974 the lettering on the spine changed from gold to easier-to- read white. (back)

6. "Must" is an oft-used verb, as in "If the tables or figures are placed at the end, they must be gathered in an appendix, e.g., Appendix A, Tables, or Appendix B, Figures. They must not simply appear at the end of a chapter of bibliography." (back)

7. Enquiring minds want to know: what's the longest U of C dissertation? A current contender is Charles Randall Paul, PhD'00, whose June 2000 dissertation in the Committee on Social Thought, "Converting the Saints: An Investigation of Religious Conflict Using a Study of Protestant Missionary Methods in an Early 20th Century Engagement with Mormonism," is bound in four volumes (1,118 pages). (back)

8. True story: A carton filled with boxes of unbound dissertations once fell off the back of the truck on the way to Ann Arbor and-Lassie-like-found its way home to the Reg. Most of the contents were undamaged and were sent back to UMI; the damaged dissertations were filmed from the library's bound copies. (back)

9. Herman Howe Fussler, AM'41, PhD'48, the University Library's director from 1948 until 1971, came to Chicago in 1936 to start a department of photographic reproduction. A pioneer in microphotography, he converted the Swift Hall basement into a microfilm lab, then shipped the lab to Paris for a demonstration at the 1937 International Exposition, filming 200,000 pages from French revolutionary journals unavailable in the U.S. (back)

10. If you're the author of a thesis or dissertation and wondering why you haven't received a royalty check lately, ask yourself if you've sent UMI your updated address (e-mail: (back)

11. Reflecting back-to-school enthusiasm, Chicago's busiest month was September 2000 with 3,858 online searches. (back)

12. Eiji Asada earned his Ph.D. in 1893 for a thesis titled "The Hebrew Text of Zechariah, 1-8 Compared with the Different Ancient Versions." The existing print version, a reprint from the American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures (1896) numbers 28 pages. (back)

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