May 23, 2017

Student Journals an Opportunity for Libraries as Publishers | ALA 2014

At ALA 2014, academic librarians working as publishers gathered to discuss the state of their partnerships and what needs to happen to move the budding library publishing industry forward at the panel “Libraries in the Publishing Game: New Roles from Content to Access.” Melinda Dermody, head of access and sharing at Syracuse University libraries, moderated the panel, which included Catherine Mitchell, director of the Access & Publishing group at the California Digital Library (CDL), Rebecca Kennison, director of the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship at Columbia University, and Cyril Oberlander, library director at the State University of New York (SUNY) Geneseo.

The panel stressed the need for a rethinking of how academic libraries view publishing, looking at it not as an experiment, but a new key value that needs an improved infrastructure and more support to thrive. “We’re not dabbling anymore,” said Mitchell. “We’re in the midst of a transition from amateur to professional library publishers.” As more and more libraries work to carve out niches in the world of publishing, Mitchell and her fellow panelists made the point that library publishers have a role to play in making the work of students as well as faculty accessible to wider audiences.

Publishing student work online gives libraries an opportunity to make unique content available to a wide audience, and readers are already taking advantage of it. At Columbia, where dissertations and graduate theses in the School of Arts and Sciences are openly available on the Columbia repository, each thesis has been downloaded an average of 2,600 times, said Kennison. She also called for a broader approach to publishing, encouraging librarians to look at other types of publications they’re already involved with, from databases and digital collections to staff blogs, as entry points into publishing proper.

Student-run journals are also a great way to enter publishing and provide unique content without making significant investments, a sort of test case scenario. While these kinds of journals may be simpler starting points, they do still require some infrastructure, Mitchell pointed out, emphasizing that in the University of California system, which is served by CDL, students are required to fill out proposals that explain why a new journal like the one they’re suggesting is needed, predict what the costs of producing it will be and make suggestions for covering them, and create a sustainability plan that will keep the publication relevant and healthy in the hands of new students after its founders graduate.

Presentation and backend concerns have to be taken into account as well, and a one-size-fits-all solution may not be the best that libraries can do. CDL uses Open Journal Solutions to produce most of its student-run journals, but has found the software doesn’t meet the needs of all fields equally. Journals for biology and economics, for example will have disparate needs, norms, and publishing traditions that demand different publishing platforms. And while many librarians default to open access standards, those may not be a universal solution either. At CDL, an initial push to license student journal content under Creative Commons met pushback from some students, as the license is more suited to STEM journals than it is to those presenting selections of arts and humanities work.

Cyril Oberlander suggested an even simpler pilot for getting libraries looking to dip a toe into publishing—digitizing and providing access to special collections they hold. SUNY Geneseo has also gotten involved in providing open textbooks penned by faculty, which Oberlander said is not only a great way to contribute to the publishing world, but also promotes the work of professors at the school. An initial grant provided $3,000 to each open textbook author, but the library received so many quality applications that the grant was expanded, resulting in the publication of 15 new electronic textbooks. The library helps out not only by hosting the titles and ensuring they are discoverable on services like WorldCat and OCLC, but also with things like proofreading and copyediting.

All these new tasks, Obelander pointed out, also require library staff with new skills. With a second round of open textbooks already in the works, he and his staff are working to create training sessions and professional development resources for librarians looking to sharpen their publishing skills, and encouraged libraries to look for publishing skills in their new hires. Kennison pointed out that other departments can help train a new generation in these skills. Columbia is doing so by reviving its Digital Bronte collection with help from grad students who get not only course credits for their work, but editorial titles that will stand out on their resumes.

And while the journals are still used primarily online, Oberlander said that the ability to print copies “is absolutely necessary,” citing the importance of dropping a journal of the desk of university provosts, presidents, and donors in getting attention and sustainable funding for the project. The sentiment was echoed by Mitchell, who said it was hard to overestimate the importance of what she termed “thud factor” in ensuring that university officials understand the impact of library publishing projects.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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