Note: I believe the CLI is planning to post the presenters’ slides from the conference. I will add the links when they become available.


This post is a reflection on the recent CIC Center for Library Initiatives Annual Conference: Emerging Options for Scholarly Publishing held here at Ohio State. The program covered a broad range of publishing-related topics – from digital humanities to textbooks to changing models of peer review. I took part in a lively discussion panel on library publishing efforts, along with (among others) Charles Watkinson. That panel probably deserves a post of its own, which I will hopefully get to at some point. First, though, I want to share some thoughts on the program as a whole, which was excellent and thought-provoking.

After some time spent reviewing my notes from the conference, the theme that stands out to me is engagement. Not exactly ground-breaking stuff, I know. Libraries have been stressing the importance of engagement with their communities for longer than I’ve been around to remember. My own library recently created an Engaged Librarian Framework (PDF) meant to guide our liaison librarians in developing new types of expertise and deepening relationships with their faculty. The ‘engaged librarian’ concept itself is a variation of the ’embedded librarian’ idea, which has been making the rounds for nearly a decade. If the CLI conference had just rehashed the importance of engaging our university community in the context of publishing, it would have been pretty dull indeed. The interesting thing about the conference program was that, without overtly stressing engagement at all, it managed to present some novel and useful models for it.

Not the usual suspects

There were a number of examples given of engaging with partners outside of our traditional communities (faculty, students, etc.). Two of them came from the keynote speakers: Dr. Malcolm Press from the University of Birmingham, and Mitchell Davis of BiblioLabs.

Dr. Press described the challenges and opportunities he faced as president of the British Ecological Society. His talk was a fascinating inside look at the realities of scholarly society publishing, but he made one comment that really caught my attention. He suggested that one of the challenges facing societies in a changing publishing environment is simply figuring out who to trust. There is a lot of heated rhetoric in the publishing world right now, and a commercial publisher will likely have very different advice for a scholarly society than an open access advocate will. Dr. Press suggested that there is a role for libraries in partnering with scholarly societies and helping them chart a course for the future. There are certainly challenges for libraries in taking on such a role, but the payoff could be a whole new kind of engagement in the scholarly process.

Mitchell Davis presented an example of how libraries can engage with the private sector.  BiblioLabs’ partnership with the British Library (described in graphic form in this web comic) demonstrates what is possible when a library combines its content, expertise, and vision with the capabilities of a talented and thoughtful platform-builder. Libraries and the commercial sector have a complicated relationship. We rely on for-profit companies to build the systems we use, and to publish much of the content we buy. Underlying that relationship, however, is a mistrust of their motives and their willingness to respond to our needs. We lament the glacial pace of innovation in ILS development, and admire libraries that sever relationships with vendors to create their own systems. The BiblioLabs example shows that a different kind of relationship is possible. Instead of complaining about our vendors or sinking scarce resources into building our own platforms, we should seek out small companies that are willing to work with us in mutually beneficial ways.

Advancing publishing – one textbook at a time

I didn’t know what to expect from the session on textbooks. Our library doesn’t buy them, and they don’t carry the same weight in tenure and promotion discussions as peer-reviewed articles and scholarly monographs. Perhaps for these reasons, textbooks aren’t usually the focus of library publishing efforts. Glenda Morgan (Illinois) and Dave Ernst (Minnesota) convinced me that we are missing an opportunity to make a huge impact. eText at the University of Illinois is publishing fully accessible online textbooks, and the Open Textbook Catalog at the University of Minnesota has created a database of digital textbooks released under open licenses. Both projects involve deep engagement with faculty and can serve as models for library publishing programs. There are good reasons why most of the work we do is focused on journals and monographs, but we need to keep our eyes open to the opportunities afforded by other formats.

How not to engage

Alicia Wise, the Director of Universal Access at Elsevier, presented about her work during a session on open access. Her talk focused on the ways in which Elsevier works to increase access to the scholarship it publishes, which include programs aimed at providing access to recent graduates and others without a university affiliation. In a somewhat offhand comment, she mentioned that the programs have not been heavily used, and that this lack of uptake serves as proof that the need isn’t there. Apparently, because citizens and independent researchers either don’t know about Elsevier’s access programs, or don’t feel it’s worth their while to participate, everyone already has access to the research they need.

I’m being hard on Alicia, which is perhaps unfair, since she is doing good and important work. However, her statements encapsulated a phenomenon that I think is responsible for a lot of the frustration libraries experience in the world of engagement. Here’s how it works:

  1. A problem comes to light.
  2. Party A comes up with a solution.
  3. Party B doesn’t adopt it.
  4. Party A assumes that the problem doesn’t really exist, or that Party B is being unreasonable and obstructionist.

Libraries can be either party in this exchange. For every vendor who has tried to sell us a product we don’t need, we have rolled out a service that doesn’t match up with faculty priorities. (Institutional repositories, I’m looking at you.) We sometimes forget that engagement means more than just bringing our communities on board with our agenda, but actually listening to what they need and responding to it.

To wrap up…

Library publishing is dealing with a complex set of needs. If we can figure out how to partner with our faculty, students, and departments in mutually beneficial ways, I think we can accomplish amazing things. If we can find common ground with outside organizations – commercial and scholarly – we can make the most of the resources we have and create meaningful partnerships. If we can take the time to understand the pressures facing scholars, publishers, and our universities, maybe we can hasten the transformation of the scholarly communication landscape towards something more open, more sustainable, and more generous.