Not a Crisis, a Transition

Chronicle staffer Jennifer Howard reported from the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, where the incoming president, Richard Brown of Georgetown University Press, challenged the idea that scholarly publishing is in crisis. A crisis, when it isn’t resolved for decades, becomes a way of life, and his preferred description for that way of life is “perpetual transition.”

That should resonate with librarians. Welcome to the club!

Even better, he plans to make improving communication with librarians, who he calls a “kindred community,” a priority this coming year. He recognizes how we are dependent on one another, and points out that open access isn’t free; it takes money to select, organize, make editorial improvements, and make scholarly work discoverable. (Doesn’t most of that sound eerily familiar?) Though some discussion at the conference focused on joining forces to make e-books available to libraries, it seems as if we’re still seen as a revenue source, as customers, not as partners in publishing. I’d much rather invest my money in books that my students and faculty can use without the hassle of DRM, that won’t disappear if I have a bad budget year and have to cancel a subscription, and that are available to everyone in the world. Chances are I’d still buy some of the books in print – for those that will be read closely, not just harvested for quotes, the cost of printing a copy is worth it. I just don’t want to invest in collections of e-books nobody uses. (I know some libraries have had success with e-books; most of our students don’t like reading anything longer than a paragraph unless it’s on paper or can be printed. No, I don’t want to pay for a database and pay a second time for printing. Google, I’m looking at you.) And until e-readers are affordable, platform-agnostic, and embraced by our students and faculty, I don’t see them as significant change agents; in any case, they’re design is based on the consumer market, not on the kinds of sharing and sampling that scholars need to be able to do.

The reason we need university presses is because they put their books through a far more rigorous peer review process than trade publishers and so have earned enormous prestige among scholars. They also publish research that may seem entirely without value to commercial publishers, to whom the only value is market value. For university presses, their work is a mission, not just a business, but it’s work that needs funding. We need to be more than customers; we need to be working together, making the best use of our pooled resources.

Jennifer Howard (she has been busy lately) also recently wrote a long piece about institutional repositories. It’s fascinating reading, and suggests that various models are meeting with some success, if libraries are willing to put a lot of time and energy into it. But while IRs are great for local materials, niche information (test reports on tractors – who knew how many people were eager to get their hands on that!) and gray literature, they are not the fix for the scholarly communication crisis, no matter how many institutions adopt open access mandates.

Rather than have university presses look for lessons from trade publishing while we try to coax faculty into using open access platforms, I’d like to see librarians sit down with university presses and talk about where our missions and our skills align, figure out how to fund publishing of quality scholarship, and embrace open access.

Is that so hard? Don’t answer that question.

type at the press at Colorado College

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

4 thoughts on “Not a Crisis, a Transition”

  1. Ah but don’t forget that purchasing individual ebooks is always an option, as are patron-selected ebooks (and patron-selected print books), which guarantees at least one usage. There are great discussions between publishers and librarians about such issues and opportunities at the annual Charleston Conference.

  2. I find this difficult to agree with. When the Google Books-Publishers agreement is eventually approved (and it will be someday if not very soon), I am sure that our patrons will want it. (I for one, will want it very much!) And it will be impossible to hold out against these people because if librarians say anything like, “Subscribing to Google Books is not a good deal. I am doing this to protect YOUR best interests,” nobody will believe it. The result would be merely to confirm the idea that librarians are dinosaurs from an earlier time and risk exposing ourselves to general ridicule.

    After all, I think people would be correct to ridicule any librarian who wanted to deny patrons access to the riches of Google books–that is, if the patrons want it. And I can’t imagine any patron saying no,

    Scholarly communication is changing in almost every way at a frighteningly fast pace, and it is only logical to assume that it will continue in this way for a long, long time. I have welcomed many of the changes, but many others I find quite negative. I’m sure this love-hate will continue as new changes occur. But if librarians are to survive, I think we will have to represent openness and inclusion much more than closed stacks and some anachronicstic idea that we are there to ensure some level of “quality”.

  3. Steve, yes – buying what users want on the spot was discussed, and I think some publishers were a little stunned that we’d let undergraduates (and other users) decide what to buy. I think it’s an interesting idea, but I also recall a psychology professor trying to steer students away from The Journal of Trendy Topics that Students Like to Write Papers on and toward core psych journals. I know our sociology collection would be full of books on serial killers because students seem to love writing papers on that topic. More need to collaborate with faculty, obviously, and it would be a good thing, too.

    @ James – I’m not sure which part you disagree with – that libraries should become involved in scholarly publishing? That scholarly publishing shouldn’t try to plan their future taking cues from trade publishers? I don’t see where I said libraries shouldn’t subscribe to whatever the GBS settlement kicks out or that I’m against e-books. I’m pro-open access, and think it would make a great deal of sense to fund it up front, not after the fact through library-by-library purchases, that’s all. I’m certainly not pro closed stacks (???)

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