Each summer, Penn Press welcomes interns to introduce them to the world of academic publishing, asking them to participate in the ongoing work of two of our four departments: Acquisitions, Production, Marketing, and Business. Their valuable contributions help keep us up and running, but we hope that we are also able to give them something back: knowledge, skills, and a more complete understanding of the publishing world. At the end of their time, our interns have the opportunity to look back on their experience in blog posts that we call Intern Reflections. This year, we hear from Rachel Swym, who ponders an internship that took place entirely in remote, virtual form.
I read every reflection I could find from past Penn Press interns before I sat down to write mine. Each of them waxes poetic in their own way about the warm, cozy, almost-familial red-brick office of 3905 Spruce St., a building which I have never set foot in. They speak dreamily of the weight and texture of paper manuscripts I never touched, and of friendships forged with people I have only ever met on-screen. Their experiences were so rooted in their physical environment that the jobs they held seem inherently different from mine this summer, confined to my 11-inch laptop in my childhood bedroom in Ohio.
Bookworms like myself and many of my supervisors are people known for our physicality, if not in an athletic sense. We are people who tend to gesture with enthusiasm when we speak, to make vivid facial expressions when we read, and to love our literary analogs: the smell of a bookstore, the lighting in a library, the weight of a book in our hands. My personal relationship with books throughout my life has primarily been like this: always in-person, never digital. Now, we—the world of publishing and the world as a whole—are reckoning with the loss of the in-person as an option in our lives. As much as I—like other college students—felt the pain of this loss this summer, through my time with the Press, I also saw the beginnings of the growth that will come of it.
During my time with the Acquisitions and Marketing departments, I overheard many big questions about the technological adaptations academic publishing has had to make recently. Ebooks become ever more popular. Academic conferences are moving online and vying for the attention of participants in a packed virtual space. Libraries can offer a single digital copy of a book to every one of their users simultaneously, reducing copies needed. The pandemic seemed in many ways to be the nail in the coffin of the analog ways of the publishing world.
And yet, what has quarantine done more than grow our appreciation for the physical? Why have we all taken up our various forms of creation—cooking and crafting and constructing things—if not for a love of the physical objects we produce? At the same time, quarantine has also shown me that digital is not some lesser alternative to in-person. Ebooks lower environmental impact and increase accessibility for visually impaired readers. Online conferences can host attendees from across the world simultaneously, including those who could not otherwise have paid the travel costs to attend. Libraries can far more effectively fulfill their goal of making information and entertainment widely available. Collaborating remotely, appreciating my connection to the Press more for its distance, reminded me that there is an unsung romance to the a-physical. Nor are digital innovations the killer of physical things. Our appreciation of them will keep them alive.
The relationship between my a-physical Penn Press internship and the physical internships of summers past is much like the relationship between ebooks and physical books, between digital and in-person experiences: different. Just different, neither better nor worse than the other. Each has its advantages, certainly, and there are times when I might prefer one to the other. But in the end, I am grateful for my time with Penn Press exactly as it was. My internship gave me the opportunity to speak with passionate authors and academics from various fields and support their work. It gave me enlightening experience as a young professional in the publishing industry and a glimpse into its future, a future I may someday help build. It introduced me to brilliant and kind people who have maintained their childhood loves of reading and learning into adulthood, and who found a way to share these loves with others every day.
And it taught me to be more appreciative—of both the physical, and its absence.