Are Books Next? About Time!

Jennifer Howard of The Chronicle reports on two heartening developments for academic publishing. One is that a company is providing easy-to-use software for managing digital content for university presses. It has been hard for UPs, which are in most cases very small enterprises with extremely tight budgets, to have the time and resources to develop electronic platforms. Tizra just signed a deal with the Association of American University Presses to host content for participating presses. (And while I’m talking about the AAUP – have you signed up for Books for Understanding? What a great collection development tool!)

Even more exciting, Bloomsbury has launched an academic imprint that will make all of its books available online immediately through a CC license, with print supplied through POD, more expensive per unit than traditional printing, but better suited to titles with small print runs and a small but persistent backlist. They hope to have as many as 50 titles in the humanities and social sciences by the end of 2009. This is a terrific experiment.

“What I believe—and this is what we’re putting to the test—is that as you’re putting something online free of charge, you may lose a few sales, but you’ll gain other sales because more people will know about it,” said Frances Pinter, Bloomsbury Academic’s publisher.

Ms. Pinter, the former publishing director of the Soros Foundation, approached Bloomsbury with the idea. Some research organizations have tried out similar hybrid models, she said, and found them sustainable, even profitable. She cited the example of HSRC Press, the publishing arm of the Human Sciences Research Council, in South Africa. “They have been doing this for a couple of years, and they have seen their sales increase by 240 percent,” Ms. Pinter told The Chronicle. . . .

“I’m tired of the divide between open-access people who have nothing but disdain for publishers, and publishers who don’t really know how to take a few risks and try some new models,” she said. She would like Bloomsbury Academic to demonstrate that publishers can add editorial value to scholarship without having to choose between locking it down or giving it all away.

The National Academies Press has long since proven that online full-text access to books can help sales. OA evangelists in the trade market like Cory Doctorow are convinced it works, even when downloads are free, and it certainly has for him. It’s great to see a publisher bring out books in the humanities and social sciences that are truly OA – because if it works, it could ease some of the anxiety that academic publishers justifiably feel. Too many of them are having to publish large lists of popular titles to subsidize academic books, and it’s stretching them dangerously thin. My feeling is that UPs have a higher purpose not being filled by trade publishers, and asking UPs to be trade publishers as well is a huge mistake when there are plenty of small regional publishers and larger trade houses for that popular material. How ironic that a trade publisher is now picking up the academic role that UPs are struggling to fill.

An advantage that book publishers have over journal publishers is that there still is value added in the printed book. Long form texts are still pleasanter to read on paper, and printing out a 300-page book is a different proposition than a 12-page article. Those truly interested in reading an entire book may well pay the price for the pleasures of print. Bloomsbury is making a wise move, and I’m hoping this development, as well as Tizra’s platform that will nudge AAUP members into the digital age, will bring academic books to a wider audience and strengthen an essential piece of the book trade.

Now: a question for you – are you involved in a library / university press collaboration? How do you feel about the Tizra development? Any thoughts on what Bloomsbury is doing? We’d love to hear news from the trenches.

“Snowball (verb)” UF “Snowball’s Chance in Hell”

Another faculty steps up for open access. This time it’s Stanford’s School of Education that has voted to deposit their scholarship in open access format.

The resolution has an opt-out provision, which it seems to me quite necessary for buy-in and for realism. But the school commits to making their faculty member’s research available through a university repository.

This kind of resolution, it seems to me, would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Now the effort’s paying off; it’s really snowballing.

photo courtesy of hyperboreal

The education vs. indoctrination debate

I’m the RSS reader type who subscribes to a little bit of everything and then doesn’t really pay attention to which is which when skimming through the feeds (let’s just say “detail oriented” doesn’t go on my resume). Yet somehow in the melee of my reader, the Digital Reference blog keeps getting my attention. It’s not that Stephen’s posts are particularly controversial, but he just keeps hitting topics in a way that sparks my mind into motion. Most recently the one that got the wheels turning was “Referring patrons to open access resources.” Here’s what he had to say:

As I’ve been reading up on open access journals and open access archives (AKA open access repositories), I’ve been wondering to what extent I have been intentionally and unintentionally guiding patrons to these resources. I have to admit that I can’t remember a time when I explicitly referred a student to search for content in an open access archive or suggested they use a tool to locate articles in OA journals.

What got me in this paragraph was the “I have to admit” part, the feeling that this post is somehow an apology for not directing students to OA databases first. If that’s something to be sorry for then I’d better get in line, because I’ve never deliberately led a student to an OA resource. In my opinion, that would be something like suggesting a book on their topic because it was a nice color. Sure, I enjoy looking at a book with a pretty cover, but I’m sure as heck not going to select (er, judge) it on that point.

So here we go, into the “education vs. indoctrination” debate. Do we push tools and resources because we want to teach students to believe what we believe, or because they deliver what the student wants? Seems like a no-brainer, but even so early in my career I’ve been in a few situations where I wrestled with that question — such as the young boy who came in when I was at the public library and asked for books that support his pro-life opinion (can you have politics at 10?). I can remember some passionate debates on the subject in library school, and the issue reaches into all of higher education. Do a search on “education and indoctrination” anywhere you like and you’ll immediately find yourself in the thick of it. For instance, consider this comment in a Chronicle article by Jonathan Malesic entitled, “The Smell of Indoctrination in the Morning”:

In graduate school, I once overheard one teaching assistant tell another that she wanted to try to make her students into liberals before it was too late. Now, I think that having a few more liberals around, especially if they were strategically placed in swing states, would be a great thing for the republic. So in one sense, I sympathize with that TA. But I also know that to make students into liberals is an essentially illiberal act.

The fuzzy part of the issue is the question of where that line between education and indoctrination actually lies. Is it like pornography: you know it when you see it? Maybe. Or it could be even more tenuous and grey; an ever-shifting line that challenges us on a daily basis to uphold our own democratic values. It’s our privilege as librarians to know what the best information sources are, and to know what sources make for a healthy future of information. It is our challenge to communicate that knowledge to others. But is a reference interview the place to do so?

What do you think? Do you recommend resources based on need and relevance to the reference question, or do other factors come into play? In what circumstances do you (however subtly) push your values out to unsuspecting students? It’s a question worth asking ourselves periodically, and trying to measure how close we stand to that shifting, grey line.

Free Culture Clash

Libraries think it makes sense to digitize theses and dissertations and have them web-searchable rather than have to rely on UMI publishing them. Having a few print copies on the shelf means hardly anyone will find that scholarship, and why would anyone go to the trouble to write all that if they don’t want it read?

Well, to get a credential, for one, and for another, to prepare for a life that involves publishing books – books that are a marketable commodity, not given away for free.

Several universities have fallen afoul of graduate students who fear their first book – the one that gets them tenure – will be unpublishable if the dissertation its based on is open access. The University of Iowa is now finding itself in the middle of an unanticipated firestorm when they decided deposited electronic theses would be open access and, eventually, print theses would be, too. According to the Chron:

At the center of the conflict is a routine form that students and their faculty advisers sign for depositing students’ theses with the Graduate College. Language added to the form this semester says that the University of Iowa Library will scan hard-copy theses and “make them open-access documents,” which it defines as freely available over the Internet and retrievable “via search engines such as Google.” It is not clear who authorized that clause.

Students can request to have Internet publishing delayed for two years, the form states, but it adds that the default assumption is that students want their theses disseminated online. All graduate students must sign the form, due in early April, in order to graduate.

To some this is a Trojan horse – a university taking control of students’ intellectual property without discussion; for others it’s outright theft. For many students in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop it’s an inexplicable lapse of common sense. After all, these are students who are in school to learn how to write publishable work. They see this action as a high-handed move to take away their creative work and make it unpublishable.

The language in the “first deposit checklist” states the library plans to make electronic deposits open access and to digitize print ones, rather than have them published via UMI. The library has tried to clarify its role in this issue, as reported in EarthGoat.

But clearly, there are some very sticky issues here that open access supporters (including many critics of this new policy) need to untangle.

Addendum: Peter Suber has, as usual, words of wisdom. The only disagreement I would have with him is that two years’ embargo is okay for literary works. It takes a year, at a minimum, to publish a book the traditional way, and trade publishers would not be happy with any open access that wasn’t under their control, ever. Backlist is gold to them, and a lot of books retain their market value even when they’re years old. (I do find myself wondering whether UMI publication has ever interfered with signing a contract for an MFA-originated project – but that’s a rabbit hole we don’t need to go down.)

UPDATE: The university (not surprisingly) said whoops and the language on the policy was changed (and that link will no longer work). Chances are, this could have been resolved in-house without any friction, but because there was a deadline involved, the issue didn’t seem resolvable quickly, and word spread across the internet much faster, it became a bit of a public relations disaster. If nothing else, it suggest rolling out any new open access initiative needs to be an opportunity to discuss what open access is all about.

Academic Librarianship’s Future Strengths?

In my first job after college, as a manager at a small nonprofit, I was taught to use the euphemism “future strengths.” For instance, when I conducted performance reviews, my colleagues would often mention punctuality as one of their future strengths. We also used dozens of other terms that ate at my newly minted English-major heart. And yet they seemed to work. People who went out of their way to rationalize tardiness when they thought it was being met with disappointment seemed eager—albeit in a jaded, we-both-know-what-this-means way—to claim punctuality as a future strength.

That’s one danger in talking about disappointment: people sometimes take it the wrong way, as attack rather than encouragement. A second danger is that people might think you’re down on them or the topic at hand—that when I talk about the areas of academic librarianship I wish were different, people will think I’m down on libraries or librarians, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I think we’re great, and I think we have the motivation and the resources to address every item on the following list, provided enough of us agree that they should be addressed.

My greatest concern in listing future strengths is that it’s often seen as presumptuous. Please understand that I don’t want academic librarianship to conform to my grand vision (I don’t have one) and I don’t believe the people responsible for the status quo made mistakes (I’m sure they made rational decisions based on what they knew at the time). I’m publishing my list of future strengths not because I have evidence that sharing them will be useful, but because I haven’t yet found any evidence that it won’t be. Sometimes you put something out there not because you know you’re right, but because it’s a good way to find out that you’re not.

I suspect that many of you will react to my disappointments and my ideas for turning them into future strength with some variant of, “Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.” Maybe it is. Then again, perhaps for one or two of them, it doesn’t have to be.

We don’t own our serial collections

Not owning our serials, all on its own, would be enough to qualify as my number one disappointment. Even though I’m developing a better grasp of the financial considerations involved, it’s still pretty hard for me to believe that we don’t own such important components of our collection. What’s even harder to believe is that we don’t control our own indexes. But the most troubling aspect of all is that we appear to be dead set on repeating this process with our books. While Peter Brantley has said it better than I can (see “Google and the Books” and “Google Books: A Reprise with Clarity”), he seems to be more circumspect than I am regarding the secrecy that every “Google Library” has agreed to maintain. If your library is legally enjoined from divulging which books it has digitized, or the financial details of its Google contract, or anything else at all about its involvement with this project, then your library is “corrupt” in the sense that Lawrence Lessig has begun using the term.

Fortunately, we appear to be making progress. Harvard’s recent announcement was encouraging, Peter Suber’s Open Access News seems to document a dozen small victories daily, Brewster Kahle is fighting the power, and it’s not as if our profession is indifferent to the situation in scholarly communications. And yet, well, let me put it this way: how many of us still read and publish in journals that lock away our ideas like so many Rapunzels?

We don’t know our own history

I’ve already devoted one ACRLog post to this topic and it will likely be the topic of a future post as well, so instead of belaboring the point, I’ll give you an anecdote and a pretty picture. From Edward A. Goedeken:

Like the farmer in the movie Field of Dreams, Louis Shores always believed that if he could build it, they would come—and they did. In 1961, little more than a decade after Shores, Wayne Shirley, and Carl Milam founded the American Library History Round Table (ALHRT) in 1947, the indefatigable Shores was ready to host the first Library History Seminar at Florida State University. From that humble beginning (only sixteen library historians attended the 1961 meeting), the seminars have flourished. Over the years the number of attendees has steadily increased, with recent seminars attracting scholars from all corners of the globe to share their affection for library history.

We are now up to eleven seminars and 199 presentations. Five of these presentations have been about academic librarianship.

Presentations at Library History Seminars grouped by subject

Sources: Library History Seminars I-IX compiled by Goedeken and presented in tabular form. I categorized presentations from the following two seminars on my own and offer no assurance that my decisions match Goedeken’s scheme. Here are the lists of presentations at Library History Seminar X and Library History Seminary XI (see also: Library Trends, Volume 55, Number 3, Winter 2007).

The OPAC…

While it’s still enough of a future strength to make the list, I’m optimistic about the OPAC. NC State, Koha, Evergreen, VuFind, Fac-Back-OPAC, WorldCat, LibraryThing, Aquabrowser, the Open Library, and the last proprietary ILS vendors standing, are making inroads. That said, your OPAC is broken if it:

  • Doesn’t offer faceted browsing;
  • Doesn’t include federated search that retrieves relevant results from your entire collection (e.g. monographs, serials, other media, special collections);
  • Doesn’t have a permanent, clean URL for every item in your collection;
  • Doesn’t produce that URL in a way that shows up in Google/Yahoo/MSN/Ask, etc.;
  • Doesn’t offer useful feeds (e.g. new material, sorted by subject);
  • Requires that your constituents get trained in order to use it effectively.

Citations are at the slide rule stage

I’m still surprised by how many software programs there are for organizing references. Some are open source and some are proprietary, some work directly with the ILS and some live within the browser. All of them do their best to work with the major citation styles, and a few try to work with others.

I suppose it’s nice to have a lot of options, but I’d feel better about the situation if I thought I was making a choice among citation systems that work really well. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case, though I don’t blame the software. I think the fault lies in the specifications, which still seem to reflect pre-digital thinking not just in their formatting, but in their licensing and distribution: at the libraries where I work, I share citation specifications with one student at a time in book form. How nice would it be if we had a single, open specification that was developed specifically to help us automate the citation process?

I have more to say about the potential uses for a human and machine-readable, open citation format, but I’ll save these thoughts for another post. For now, I’ll end with my suggestion for what an open citation format might be called: Op. cit.