Library (Publishing) School: Training and Competencies for the New Publishing Professional
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Many universities today now have a library where staff are exploring the frontiers of open access publishing and digital services. Librarians and other staff employed at these libraries have a diverse range of skills that work in harmony to bring digital content to their users, skills that could be harnessed to focus on scholarly publishing. Accordingly, schools of library science and information, which offer education in both academic and public service, could be one potential place for those aspiring to publishing to receive an education. In this article, I attempt to identify some of the tensions between theory and practice that currently underscore the murkiness in choosing the best location for publishing education and training. Library or information school, and the breadth of both traditional and nontraditional skills it has to offer, is a substantial, long-term alternative to rushed weekend publishing intensives and pricey seminars.
Prior to the 1990s, many publishing professionals are purported to have entered the industry “accidentally,” by way of a business or bookstore career. To this day there are very few degree programs in the United States that offer a degree or even a certificate in publishing expertise, let alone a college-level course. “Publisher” is not a career choice discussed in high school in the same way that law, medicine, teaching, or even journalism are. Perhaps this is the reason why I had such a difficult time, initially, in finding a job at a press after graduation: I knew that I wanted to work in publishing, but I had no options for pre-professional training and development. I earned a Bachelor’s in Communication Studies and English in 2009 and promptly began applying to every trade publishing house in the country, without much luck (albeit, during the height of the recession). Four years later, I am happily working in a library publishing shop and also working toward a degree in library and information science.
A key tension emerges when pondering the best location for publishing training: practice (hands-on or on-the-job work) versus theory (education). As I began thinking about my own experiences, I first thought, “Well, it was all about the on-the-job training—I couldn’t have learned those skills anywhere else.” However, as I pondered further my newer, more sophisticated views of scholarly publishing, I detected influences from my graduate coursework in library and information science. Theory (my graduate education) informed and enriched my earlier practice (my on-the-job training). My coursework on the future and potential of academic libraries (as well as non-profit management, computer programming, and web design courses), while not directly related to publishing, has given me the foundations to better understand the publishing industry as a whole and to think critically about its future.
My experiences in scholarly publishing have already been quite varied. I worked as a peer tutor at the University of Michigan’s Sweetland Center for Writing while in college. This collaborative writing/teaching experience was what earned me a job as a work-study student at the University of Michigan Press, in the English Language Teaching (ELT) department; I transitioned into a full-time temporary position as an editorial assistant to the assistant director of the Press several months later. This position was originally slated to last three months and was created to digitize and make available for sale hundreds of the Press’s backlist titles. Additionally, these titles would be added to the HathiTrust digital library. However, because this was quite a large undertaking, the position lasted for several years instead of months, adapting to fit the new digital publishing needs of the Press. I began working on projects related to the Google Books project, researched the copyright statuses of works, and delved deeper into the Press vault in search of old titles to digitize. In this time of change, I also took a job at the University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly Publishing Office, which would later merge with the University of Michigan Press to become Michigan Publishing.
Reflecting on my first experiences in publishing, I realize that I received all the training I needed on the job. I learned how to use the Press’s content management system by actually using it for my work; I learned about permissions and subsidiary rights by writing and asking for those permissions. I learned about the entire scholarly monograph process, from acquisition to production to sales and marketing, from actually participating in a small part of it. In an attempt to get more serious about my publishing career aspirations, I attended an intensive weekend workshop hosted by the English department in my third year of college. This workshop, to my knowledge, was only offered two more times before it was discontinued (the implications of which I’ll discuss later). It was an excellent location for networking; however, the actual content of the sessions and activities seemed antiquated and did not quite address the then-current climate. There was no discussion of ebooks, conversion, and digital production. Part of the description (from a saved pamphlet) read that “students will learn about different segments of the industry: ... university press, reference, electronic...,” implying that “electronic” applications were only a small niche area, rather than a phenomenon that has been drastically changing the industry. This was in 2008. Granted, they did emphasize “trade publishing” in the description for the following two years (and because I was more interested in academic publishing, I cannot speak to how well the workshop addressed trade publishing). But for an intensive workshop meant to give us a concrete handle on the publishing world, the material seemed woefully out-of-date, especially in the midst of an economic recession and widespread print publishing crises. What would the profession look like in a decade? Or even five years? What skills would we have needed to learn to deal with the changes that were coming?
While the workshop was not exactly helpful in teaching me concrete skills, it did show me the different departments of a publishing house, gave me a taste of what publishing is really like, and helped me consider whether I truly wanted to pursue it as a career, and also connected me to my future boss at the University of Michigan Press. Why was this weekend workshop for undergraduates discontinued? I can only guess that it was from lack of interest. Perhaps it was also not the best location and forum for the target audience; it was quite a lot of content to pack into two days, and the program provided a large panel of professionals with very limited networking time. Indeed, because there is no central place or pedagogy for publishing training, there is no perfect program to train new people. The aforementioned weekend workshop was akin to a shorter version of summer-long programs like the University of Denver Publishing Institute or the NYU Summer Publishing Institute, which also give students an overview of the industry, the different publishing units and departments, writing exercises to emulate duties in “real world” situations, etc., except they are several weeks to several months long rather than two days. They are also much more costly.
Scholarly publishing is going through an identity change (I’ll avoid the word “crisis”) in this first quarter of the twenty-first century. Values are changing along with that; no longer are presses choosing the manuscripts and projects that will sell the best—they are concerned with new and original scholarship, and disseminating that scholarship more broadly. New technologies, such as ebooks, online repositories, and interactive online works, may still be anxiety-inducing, but they are quicker to be adopted and learned.
It has long been established that libraries are more than book warehouses; librarians perform essential services for users, ranging from reference, technology instruction, and acquiring and managing collections, to managing digitization and broader dissemination of information. Publishing can now be added to that list. Library publishing has been happening in various forms throughout many years, but it has just been in the last decade or so that it has become more formalized. In the inaugural issue of the Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, in 2012, the editors discuss the changing economics and formality of exchanges in scholarly communication, as well as the way libraries have seemed to co-opt the name “scholarly communication.” They note that scholars are engaging more in informal exchanges and how those exchanges lead to more responsive and flexible communication, as well as the increasing ease in publishing scholarly journals online. However, the editors also note that, “unfortunately, commercial publishers have little incentive to return [scholarly communication] to its not-for-profit roots. As a result, academic libraries—which have always been economically tied to scholarly publishing—have entered the publishing arena.” Values in scholarly publishing are shifting from a bottom line to service orientation—a value in line with those of libraries. Also, libraries have long held a privileged place on campus where their services and staff are highly regarded, and are ideally suited to scholarly publishing.
In a 2008 Council on Libraries and Information Resources report on the future of research libraries, Kate Wittenberg examined the role of academic libraries specifically in relation to scholarly publishing. She outlined six areas that librarians could prove useful: new publishing models and formats, a new focus on users, more complex information literacy in judging credibility, collaboration across fields, the need for experimentation, and sustainability. Will librarians become editors? Will editors become librarians? Or will a new type of job emerge that requires expertise in both of these fields? The new model for publishing requires someone who understands the intellectual environment in various disciplines, identifies the scholars working most productively in those fields, and works with those scholars to enable the successful completion and publication of a scholarly work. It also requires someone who understands the role of metadata, search and discovery, and preservation and access. A position that brings together these two kinds of experience would open exciting possibilities for creating new models of publishing appropriate for the current environment (Wittenberg).
The readiness of librarians to be publishers is due in part to the education librarians receive. Historically this has been in “library school,” or MLIS programs, but in the last decade or two this has been at information science schools, or iSchools. There are many reasons why iSchools and MLIS programs are prime places for aspiring publishing professionals. First, their missions are in keeping with the changing needs of publishers. The iSchool organization declares that iSchools address the “fundamental issue of harnessing the incredible flow of information for the betterment of humanity...The iField also empowers people in other fields to create, find, store, manipulate, and share information in useful forms... The iField’s most visible and viable outcome is the delivery of the right information at the right time to the right people in the right form.” Sounds like publishing! Second, iSchool and library school curricula generally value practical experience through practicums over theory-based seminars. Hiring managers tend to appreciate practical experience and the instillation of values that come from a liberal arts background. In three semesters of graduate school, I have already had multiple opportunities to work with clients from the community on semester-long projects that are mutually beneficial (as well as the opportunity for a mini internship at the Folger Shakespeare Library). Third, because they are in a state of experimentation, academic publishers need fresh, forward thinkers. How will the curricula of library science and iSchools help shape future publishing professionals? The Library Publishing Coalition (an organization that champions the library publishing movement) describes library publishing as “based on core library values and building on the traditional skills of librarians, it is distinguished from other publishing fields by a preference for Open Access dissemination and a willingness to embrace informal and experimental forms of scholarly communication and to challenge the status quo.” While not all future publishing hopefuls will go into library publishing, that critical engagement with and questioning of traditional forms of publishing will be valuable for any and all who aim to enter the industry.
Finally, coursework in graduate school is also important for learning theory in addition to practice, as well as for the development of long-term views on scholarship and scholarly communication. Time spent in higher education is useful for working alongside scholars, in order to better understand the research process side of the equation. Scholars and publishers work best when each has a good understanding of what the others’ workflow is like.
Another benefit of an iSchool or library school education for publishing is the range of technological skills one learns. iSchools offer other specializations (e.g., human-computer interaction) in addition to library and information science—and thus the chance for coursework in markup languages like XML, scripting languages, PHP and SQL for database applications, etc. Skills such as these are becoming increasingly more important for digital scholarly publishing and the online representation of works. Digital preservation is another field becoming more and more vital as original works are being “born” digitally and require more complex preservation needs. iSchools tend to have comprehensive course offerings on digital preservation. While preservation may not represent a typical part of the digital publishing process, metadata does—and metadata is integral to digital preservation. Metadata creation and management is also a traditional skill held by librarians. Generally, preservation knowledge is important to publishers as they undergo enormous scanning projects, such as scanning their backlist titles, to make older titles available in digital libraries, as ebooks, or for print-on-demand. These activities require extensive work with materials that may have been housed in libraries or vaults for an extended period of time, and may require special consideration for digitization.
Current (2013) job postings for “scholarly communications librarians” and the like increasingly emphasize publishing backgrounds. There are new emphases on copyright and open access: issues that have long been talked about in libraries and in library school, but not as frequently in publishing, at least until recent years. For example: the University of Michigan posted a job description for an Associate University Librarian for Publishing in the Fall of 2013. Here are some of the required skills: “Demonstrated capacity to articulate a vision and strategy for publishing in an academic library... Knowledge of current issues and trends in academic publishing, scholarly communication, open access, data sharing, and intellectual property and copyright, including fair use... Knowledge of publishing industry practices.” The University of Colorado Boulder also posted a job for a Scholarly Communications Librarian around the same time; that posting combined skills from publishing (“Demonstrated knowledge of the scholarly publishing landscape, including legal issues, Open Access, and author rights”) as well as a required MLS degree and “experience at an academic library or research institution.” These job postings are just two of many recent library publishing positions. They put Wittenberg’s points, above, into practice. Newly created positions in scholarly publishing combine expertise from both library and publishing fields.
The library publishing movement is gaining momentum. The Library Publishing Coalition (LPC), which was kicked off in early 2013, consists of over 50 academic libraries that, together, promote innovative and sustainable scholarship. The first part of the LPC vision statement is “targeted training and education”: “We believe that, to flourish, library publishing as a community of practice needs organized leadership to address articulated needs such as targeted training and education, better and increased communication and collaboration, new research, and shared documentation. We recognize that library and other non-profit publishers have common interests and concerns.” This is exciting for those who aim to enter the academic publishing industry, and is especially encouraging for those wanting to enter scholarly publishing. However, simply identifying the need for education and training is just the proverbial first step.
Publishing should be brought into the curriculum of iSchools, if only as special topic courses that interested students can take as electives. There should be courses on the history of publishing in the United States, as there are traditionally courses on the histories of libraries in library school. Though the publishing weekend workshop I attended was not especially helpful to me in a practical sense, it was a valiant attempt to fill a hole in the liberal arts curriculum. There are rarely any credit-bearing course offerings on issues related to publishing at the University of Michigan. Offering mini courses or electives on publishing would give students more time to learn about the publishing industry and the history and current climate of the industry. Another option, in the spirit of graduate school hands-on work, would be to offer practicum courses as part of the curriculum. These courses could be a hybrid of credit-bearing graduate courses that focus on a semester-long project and the type of hands-on work that is done in publishing summer seminars. Students would have something concrete to show employers and would also gain practical experience along with learning the theory behind what they are doing.
I realize that attending graduate school and obtaining an advanced degree is not and should not be required of anyone who wishes to work in publishing. While I believe (and albeit may also be biased) that library schools are an excellent spot for both training and gaining fundamental knowledge to apply to publishing practice, I also believe that hands-on, on-the-job practice is really the best training for up-and-coming publishing professionals. And, as a student and a professional interested in digital humanities practice, I find that there are some similarities between educating oneself in both the digital humanities and publishing: right now the best way to gain experience on the cutting edges of those fields is to do it yourself. Seek out workshops, connect with others on social media platforms, and attend conferences and other professional development opportunities to not only learn new skills, but also be aware of what’s coming in the future. Test the tension between theory and praxis and choose a spot along the spectrum to dive in.
Alix Keener (@alix_rae) is a digital production assistant at Michigan Publishing. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies and English from the University of Michigan (2009) and a Master of Science in Information (2014) from the University of Michigan School of Information, with a specialization in Library and Information Science. Her ideal job would be one that combines scholarly communication, digital culture, and working with college students.
Gilman, I., and M. Ramirez. (2012). “What is in a Name? Introducing the Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication.” Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication 1(1):eP1044. http://dx.doi.org/10.7710/2162-3309.1044
Wittenberg, Kate. 2008. “The Role of the Library in 21st-Century Scholarly Publishing,” No Brief Candle: Reconceiving Research Libraries for the 21st Century. Council on Library and Information Resources Publication no. 142: 35–41. http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub142/reports/pub142/pub142.pdf
“Job Search: Associate University Librarian for Publishing and Director, University of Michigan Press,” accessed November 1, 2013, https://web.archive.org/web/20131003214653/http://umjobs.org/job_detail/87644/associate_university_librarian_for_publishing_and_director_university_of_michigan_press.