February 16, 2018

“Selfless Audacity” Means Creating a Sustainable Not-a-Business Model | Peer to Peer Review

I’m one of a group of librarians thinking about an alternative future

This week Bryn Geffert, librarian of the College at Amherst, published an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) arguing that libraries need to step up and play a role in publishing, introducing his argument around the experience he had when asked to review a scholarly book. It was a shoddy piece of work, tossed together without the kind of editorial vision that sharpens an inchoate idea, lacking adequate copyediting, and published by a house that was unwilling to reject a manuscript that is mediocre, an essential aspect of scholarly publishing. Yet that shambles of a book carried a substantial price tag. As university presses lose ground, commercial presses take care of academic authors who need publications on their CVs, but without investing the care a scholarly work requires. Geffert argues:

We all understand the woes confronting the good university presses bucking this trend. Those still kicking survive by canceling series, releasing fewer titles, slashing runs, and declining to consider manuscripts that lack broad appeal. The result: Scholars increasingly throw their lot in with the disreputables; libraries purchase garbage; promising manuscripts go unpublished; and good manuscripts go to press half-baked. University presses committed to publishing worthy books—the presses we admire and on which we rely—can no longer give us what we need. And those that try find that libraries—each year spending ever-greater portions of their budgets on commercially produced serials—can’t afford to buy what we beg the presses to produce.

He has a solution that will sound familiar to readers of this column: institutions should follow the lead of the University of Michigan, which in a fit of what he calls “selfless audacity” decided to merge its press and its library, releasing its books to the world as open access texts. Instead of treating academic publishing as a source of revenue, or waiting for other libraries to enter into similar arrangements, Michigan took a bold step consistent with the library’s mission.

A small group of us in the Oberlin Group of 80 liberal arts colleges is exploring what it would take for us to follow suit and establish a liberal arts press. Though we’re still in the very early stages, and it may not go anywhere, it’s exciting to think about.

Wielding our clout

As I write this, the comments at the Chronicle are predictably unsupportive. Librarians think they can publish books? And give them away? How ridiculous! It’s extremely difficult for scholars to imagine a world where publishing isn’t a business, but a public good. At the same time, they are entirely accustomed to their libraries providing the material they need for free. Why, then, is it so difficult to imagine libraries paying up front to make the books available to all from the start?

Nobody’s claiming that librarians can actually do the work of skilled editors. We don’t have the training or experience. But libraries have staff lines and acquisitions dollars, both of which could be strategically reallocated from buying and storing published stuff. Collectively, we have clout. In this age of transition, we should use it.

Though I don’t speak for the Oberlin Group—we’re barely in the beginning stages of an exploratory conversation—a librarian can dream. And this what my dream looks like.

Books are for use

My vision for a liberal arts press is to serve the goals of what the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) calls the “practical liberal arts,” a press that could further our understanding of the world by publishing high-quality books that can be read and appreciated by those without advanced degrees. I would like to see this hypothetical press seek out significant books that could nevertheless be understood by “advanced undergraduates” (to borrow the language of Choice). Publishing books that only a handful of people are equipped to understand is a waste of resources. Put your investment into works that are likely to have a wider impact.

Every book its reader

It may be because I work with undergraduates who are often stymied by the obscurity and picayune specificity of journal articles, or it may be that I’m just a sucker for books, but what really pains me about the so-called “serials crisis” is that it’s making it difficult to sustain an academic culture that values the long view. We’re reallocating our monographs budget to pay for temporary access to huge bundles of articles that will mostly go unread, privileging ideas minced into short and highly technical articles, while claiming we can no longer afford sustained and contextualized arguments. That’s one of the reasons I would like to see this hypothetical liberal arts press focus on monographs.

This, however, is not just a personal preference for books. The open access movement has made significant progress with outlets for scholarly articles, with any number of fine open access journals being published and open source tools available for those who want to start. Books are another matter. Though Michigan, Penn State, and others are making bold strides, there are limited opportunities for a good book to find a publisher and—more importantly—its audience, and very few that are open access.

Every reader, his or her book

Scholars have been complaining for years that they can’t find outlets for their book-length work. It’s more troubling to me that when they do, quite often only a few dozen libraries can afford to acquire the book. How wasteful to spend years of scholarly effort and have at best a few hundred readers. We’re imposing a kind of economic censorship on scholarly work—censorship by neglect. If the end of a scholarly project is a printed book that hardly anyone reads and its main payoff a line on a CV … that’s quite frankly selfish.

I would love to be part of a scholarly project that serves readers, not writers. I see no reason to invest time and labor in projects that have little impact other than as tokens of productivity. I would like to see libraries involved in publishing books that matter for readers, not just for their authors.

The library is a growing organism

Academic libraries have done a bang-up job of adapting to new digital realities. We’ve created new access mechanisms and reallocated resources. We’ve created new positions and developed new skills. But we are largely reactive—brilliantly reactive, perhaps, but still letting faculty dictate what the library will contain and letting publishers retain control over scholarly content and its distribution. We’ve given up building collections for the future because we are no longer convinced that information has much value in the long run. Besides, we have to meet the needs of our users—right now, not next year, or 20 years from now. It’s a McDonaldization of research. Fast food, served up conveniently.

This is short-sighted. We need to create a sustainable future, not for libraries but for scholarship itself. We can’t wait for the current system to break down completely and hope someone else comes along to figures out an alternative that’s more affordable. Why not make the common ground of the library a site where scholarship is sown and nurtured and brought into fruition? Why don’t we retool our organizations, built around purchasing stuff, and hire the expertise needed to develop books, complementing their expertise with our established track record of making information accessible and shareable?

Libraries are good at working together to share resources, and libraries serving small and highly focused academic communities such as those in the Oberlin Group have the collective prestige and financial resources in the aggregate to do something interesting. My dream would be to develop a sustainable model for publishing books any university press would be proud to publish by any academic author whose work passes editorial scrutiny, and to do so nimbly, inexpensively, and with style. I would like to demonstrate that this can be done without sacrificing the benefits of peer review and editorial curation that a press lives and dies by—but as a mission adopted and undertaken by libraries as part of their identity.

What exactly this project might look like and what it might mean to “publish” “books” in a digital environment … that’s still up in the air. But I’d love to see us try and figure it out.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller