Editor’s Note: This is a guest cross-post by Karla Strieb, who many of you know as Karla Hahn, the author of the influential 2008 ARL report on library publishing (linked below). I have the enormous privilege of working with Karla here at OSU, and she was kind enough to write this for Digital Scholarship @ The Libraries, our local digital scholarship blog – apologies to those of you who have already seen it. The question of why libraries get into publishing comes up a lot, most recently at yesterday’s publishing unconference at ER&L. I think Karla’s point is an important one, and she agreed to my reposting it to share it more widely. The original post is here. The presentation she refers to is the Prezi I embedded in a post last month.
I recently heard a marvelous presentation by Melanie Schlosser, OSU’s Digital Publishing Librarian, where she raised the question of why libraries, particularly research libraries, are offering publishing services. I had forgotten that this was a key question I discussed with leaders of library publishing programs in 2007 as part of a study I was conducting for the Association of Research Libraries. At the time, I was surprised by the trend of the answers I got. Over and over again, librarians told me something like, “faculty came to us and said, ‘I need a publisher and the library is the obvious place on campus to provide this service.’” As an outsider to library publishing at the time, I was expecting to hear founder stories of advocacy, of librarians chanting, “if we build it, they will come.” Instead, it seems we were advocating for moderation in journal prices, building repositories, and talking about open access, and along the way our colleagues said, “Yes, yes, but what I really need is a library publishing program.”
I think this is an important element of why library publishing programs like OSU’s are attracting more and more partners. Publishing isn’t something we do just because we think we should; it reflects some very real and important gaps in the landscape of publishing options for scholars and researchers. These gapsmatch our mission and capabilities. Yet, what our partners want from us is not what they can get from traditional publishers. University presses, scholarly societies, and even commercial publishers are meeting many publishing needs, but there are more and more gaps in that arguably mature ecosystem. Cheap, light-weight, and broadly accessible is one niche that has opened wide in the digital age. The demand for profits or at least “repurposable revenue” threatens valuable, but not commercially viable, scholarship with extinction. Libraries and their universities are grasping the opportunities this situation presents. The value of research and scholarly publications is largely created by their authors. Where libraries can provide a small set of necessary services (manuscript handling tools, layout tools, digital publishing platforms, etc.), they find partners eager to apply them to the fundamental work of scholarship – disseminating new knowledge.