I spent two and a half days this week at the annual conference of the American Association of University Presses. In some ways it was an odd place for me to be, since I don’t work for a university press, or even at an institution with a member press. (OSU Press does not currently belong to the AAUP.) I attended primarily because I had helped to organize a pre-conference workshop on library/press collaborations, and was invited to speak on a panel about library publishing, but I was also curious to see how libraries (and their publishing efforts, in particular) are viewed by this community. The preliminary program looked interesting and relevant to what I do, but I had no idea what to expect from the experience.
First off, I should say that it was just an all-around great conference. The program was well put-together, the sessions I attended were all interesting and well-run, and the community was engaged. I also enjoyed it from the perspective of being a librarian in foreign territory. I was a little surprised at how kind and welcoming people were, and the genuine curiosity displayed by the press community towards library publishing as an endeavor. There were a few uncomfortable moments, most of which involved clashing worldviews and misconceptions of how libraries work. As an example, the copyright update – while informative – was delivered from a perspective I don’t share (to put it mildly). On the whole, though, it was one of the more enjoyable conferences I’ve been to in recent years.
The workshop on collaborations was interesting, and the panel on library publishing had a large and engaged audience, but the best part of the conference for me was the opportunity to gain a better understanding of the values and concerns of university presses. One conversation, in particular, crystallized for me one of the major differences between libraries and presses – that of independence. A press that sustains itself through sales of its publications is independent from the whims of its host institution in a way that the university library can never be. Some of the changes that are happening in the UP world – in particular the move to merge presses with libraries, and the push in some places for the press to publish more local content – can be seen as threatening that independence, and subsequently one of the major values of university press publishing as a whole. The anxiety around library publishing made much more sense to me once I was able to wrap my head around that particular issue.
I was also fascinated by the wide range of perspectives, practices, and ways of engaging with their campus community displayed by the attendees. One panel in particular (“A Seat at the Table: Navigating University Structures for Fun and Profit,” facilitated by Mark Saunders of the University of Virginia Press) was illuminating on this score, and gave me a much greater appreciation of the creative work being done by presses around the country.
My biggest takeaway, though, was a sense that university presses are grappling with many of the same issues that libraries are: changing missions (or, if you prefer, changing strategies for supporting the same mission), supporting emerging fields such as digital humanities, allocating limited resources, managing expectations (both of partners/clients, and of the university), collaborating with other organizations, juggling the needs of the campus community with those of the scholarly community as a whole, remaining viable and relevant in a rapidly changing environment, and the tension between focusing on what you do best and exploring new territory. We also both struggle to help other people understand the importance – and the complexity – of the work that we do. There are some clear obstacles to libraries and presses working together, but I came away from the AAUP conference feeling confident that, if we can find ways to overcome those obstacles, we can find plenty of common ground to occupy. At the end of the day, libraries and presses both exist to facilitate scholarship and its communication. Let’s find a way to pull in the same direction.