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Critiques and Debates

This section addresses two influential debates within the library publishing community. The twin questions of “should libraries publish?” and “can we call what libraries do publishing?” get at the role of the 21st-­century library in the contexts of the university and the information economy.

Should Libraries Publish?

The typical library budget is flat or declining, new staff positions can be hard to come by, and libraries face no shortage of new demands on their time and capacity, from taking on campus data management support to developing information literacy programs that address the needs of 21st-­century learners. Is it wise, in this context, to take on another auxiliary function? Is it strategic to prioritize publishing when making difficult decisions about resource allocation? As Xia (2009) observes, “A library publishing program . . . requires a long-­term commitment and considerable investment of the library’s resources, which will inevitably divert its limited funds and personnel from other endeavours” (p. 22).

Whether or not libraries should publish depends in part on how we define publishing. Isaac Gilman argues that “if, at [the] most basic level, the idea is that libraries will remain involved in helping faculty and students create and disseminate content, that will continue to grow” (personal communication, January 30, 2017). Libraries have increasingly shifted their priorities from collection to creation through the development of new services that support digital scholarship, “making” (e.g., 3-­D print labs and other prototyping environments), reuse and remixing of content, and other forms of scholarly and creative production. Publishing fits neatly into this portfolio and can often be accomplished in partnership with these other services.

Libraries have demonstrated the capacity and interest to play a more active role in content creation. Does that interest inevitably lead to all libraries becoming publishers? In their seminal discussion of the academy’s role in 21st-­century publishing, Brown, Griffiths, and Rascoff (2007) argue that “every university that produces research should have a publishing strategy, but that does not mean that it should have a ‘press.’” Establishing a press (or a significant library publishing operation) is no simple endeavor. Library publishers need a strong rationale for publishing (stemming from a careful assessment of institutional needs) coupled with the right combination of staffing, expertise, partnerships, funding, institutional commitment, and campus interest.

Without an institutional commitment and appropriate resources, library publishing programs may wither or flounder. Even those that successfully complete projects risk producing amateurish results. Disseminating low-­quality publications may harm the image of the institution or the library and beg the question of whether publishing is a worthwhile use of library resources. Some also argue that this type of publishing may hurt scholarly communication more than it helps. Allegra Swift of the Claremont Colleges Library contends that libraries should only become publishers if they have the “bandwidth, focus, and support” to ensure they produce high-­quality publications (personal communication, February 20, 2017). She argues, “If libraries are just churning out lots of low-­quality content, we’re not helping anything.” Amateurish OA publications contribute to perceptions that OA scholarship has less value and that OA venues are the option of last resort for scholarship that fails to meet the standards of commercial publishing.

Libraries have a wealth of other opportunities to advance OA scholarship and support faculty needs without actually becoming publishers. Librarians can guide faculty to external sources of support and encourage OA publishing. They can also fund the initiatives at the forefront of innovative OA publishing models, such as Lever Press, Knowledge Unlatched, or the Open Library of the Humanities. They also have other means of supporting a more open, equitable, and innovative scholarly publishing system by educating and advising their faculty and students. Walters (2012) projects one future scenario for library publishing in which libraries are principally consultants and advisors, educating faculty and students on copyright and OA publication, helping them select appropriate publishing opportunities, and partnering with university presses and commercial publishers on issues of mutual importance such as digital preservation and discovery. For many libraries, this role may be the most productive use of resources.

If libraries do intend to stake a claim in the publishing ecosystem, they need to convince a broad range of constituents and observers—­including campus administrators, university presses, librarians, commercial publishers, and faculty—­that library publishing is an important, strategic, and purposeful service area. They must demonstrate a commitment to programmatic, sustainable, and ongoing efforts.

Is It Really Publishing?

Intimately tied to the question of whether libraries should publish is whether what libraries are doing can be called publishing. Some contend that libraries are hosts or service providers, but not publishers, given that they often eschew the intensive processes of acquisition, editing, typesetting, and other hallmarks of the work that publishers do. Anderson (2016) identifies at least 96 discrete activities, from “audience/field detection and cultivation” to “responding to legal actions,” that he argues are integral to being a publisher. In the title of a 2013 blog post for the Scholarly Kitchen, Joe Esposito provocatively asked, “What is publishing if even a library can do it?” Esposito’s skepticism about what libraries are doing and why they call it publishing is rooted in the argument that publishing involves more than making content public. “Hundreds of libraries now have publishing programs, though the definition of ‘publishing’ is not always clear and often seems to mean (in this context) ‘dissemination’” (Esposito, 2013). Esposito proposes that libraries are “service providers” rather than publishers, contending, like Anderson (2016), that the identity of publishing is inseparable from its processes. Royster (2014) compiled several quotes from a 2013 Association of American University Presses (AAUP) report on library–­university press collaboration. One press representative argues, “[In] our library’s digital publishing group there is simply no knowledge of publishing. It’s one thing to create content or even package it. That doesn’t mean you’re publishing” (p. 97).

Pushing the boundaries of what is considered publishing may in fact be one of library publishing’s greatest strengths.

Early on, Courant (2007) advanced a counterargument, contending that publishing is nothing more than the “business of making scholarly things public.” Shirky (2012) infamously contended that publishing is now a button. Does lowering the barriers to publication or expanding its definition necessarily mean we devalue it? Charlotte Roh, scholarly communication librarian at the University of San Francisco, argues, “Publishing has become less precious. We’re not monks hand-­copying manuscripts. That doesn’t mean it has become disposable. It’s just a more public, accessible process” (personal communication, January 31, 2017). Given their expertise with information literacy, technology, and education, librarians may be particularly well suited to supporting authors and editors in this new environment.

Pushing the boundaries of what is considered publishing may in fact be one of library publishing’s greatest strengths. As noted earlier, libraries explicitly embrace experimental publications, media-­rich content, and content that is otherwise neglected. Finally, some dismiss semantic arguments altogether. Whether or not what libraries do “counts” as publishing makes little difference if they are fulfilling their mission.