/ Book Review: Ann Okerson and Alex Holzman. The Once and Future Publishing Library

Ann Okerson and Alex Holzman, The Once and Future Publishing Library, Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), July 2015, 65 pp., Open Access Ebook

The Once and Future Publishing Library is a short monograph composed of three main sections: a position paper and overview with some concluding recommendations; a very useful ten page bibliography of the sources consulted; and, finally, the results of a survey conducted across librarians at 47 institutions: universities, some very large, colleges of various types and one seminary. The questionnaire focuses, with its 21 questions, on the ongoing publishing activities in these institutions and provides a kind of central theme for the report as a whole. The central theme of the report is that universities appear to be increasingly engaged in various publishing activities, and the impetus for much of this publishing activity appears to be located within, or at least the responsibility placed upon, the libraries in those institutions—their budgets, their expertise, and their staff.

Ann Okerson’s professional formation is as a librarian, for many years at Yale, but she is a librarian who has been remarkably active in scholarly and technologically-aware publishing, as an author, an editor, and as an instigator and organizer; her work on the Liblicense mailing list and its attendant activities (model contracts) is an excellent example of this. Alex Holzman has a career much more firmly established on the publishing side of the house, but his experience has been largely with scholarly publishers, university presses, and learned societies. Thus, these authors know libraries and understand publishers, and they have both seen how universities and libraries have—to an increasing extent—been taking initiatives and making investments in publishing activities. They also note that libraries, especially the large research libraries, have a long and successful tradition of publishing—at least for the direct needs of their collections and their users. The pace and the direction of their attention, however, have changed markedly in the last twenty years. So there are good reasons to survey the results and take stock of the achievements and failures so far.

The survey suggests that the energy being devoted to publishing is highly diverse: specialist monographs, digital distribution of theses, e-resources, repositories, open access, archives, and databases of digital objects. Much of this activity is very local and small in scale; most of it is funded by subventions from the central budgets or from outside grants. Predictably, few of the surveyed institutions were allocating significant funds to either marketing (promotion) or editing and technical formatting. But the very widespread innovation and energy that is coming from university and college libraries is notable and impressive. Okerson and Holzman also call attention to, and briefly survey, some of the bigger efforts: High Wire, Project Muse, Columbia International Affairs Online (CIAO), Project Euclid, and others. From the survey and the research that they have assembled they draw eight lessons:

  1. Leadership with a good idea is indispensable.
  2. Being part of institutional mission and discourse is critical.
  3. One size does not fit all.
  4. Libraries and presses have opportunities for collaboration.
  5. Presses increasingly report to libraries or library administrators.
  6. Organizational structure varies and should be tailored to local strengths.
  7. Marketing matters.
  8. Patience, patience.

Finally, they conclude with some recommendations and a note of confident optimism about the future:

There are some recommendations that we draw in conclusion. First, libraries should be strategic about their opportunism. Second, other stakeholders (presses, IT organizations, learned societies) should recognize the potential in libraries and challenge them to realize it. Third, university administrations should recognize that potential and make well-informed decisions, even while challenging libraries to make clear strategic connections among their priorities. Fourth, faculty and others who produce content should cast an appraising and encouraging eye on their own libraries as potential partners in imagination and innovation. At the end of the day, the combination of imagination and strategy is what could support library success at a scale we do not now see or imagine. (24)

The Once and Future Publishing Library is an informative, concise, and thoughtful report that should be read by anyone closely involved with the direction of scholarship, libraries, university presses, scholarly publishing, and digital communication as it affects the arts and sciences. Its bibliography should be consulted by any future report in the same field. It is by no means a conclusive or comprehensive account; however, there remains the possibility that the necessarily restricted focus of the survey, the questionnaire, and the analysis, has missed some crucial elements of the bigger picture that may yet emerge, a bigger picture or a more global solution that may already be with us in a small way. After all, this report would have been so very different ten years ago, when many in the field would have thought that Google Books might determine the future of the topics covered herein. In fact, no mention at all is made of Google Books (nor of the Hathi Trust). This observation is not made because I think that Google Books, or the Hathi Trust enterprise, should have been covered. Rather, the point that we should keep in mind, with which the authors would surely concur, is that there are very large-scale and unpredictable changes taking place in the way that we do things. These changes are affecting and defining the problems and the solutions that we seek, so we do well to expect the unexpected. Something like Google, or even a new entity from the Google Alphabet, may, and probably will, erupt upon the scene and radically transform the process of digital science and scholarship, within and without universities.

Adam Hodgkin began his career as a philosophy editor with Oxford University Press; since then he has co-founded and worked for three companies: Cherwell Scientific Publishing, xrefer, and Exact Editions. He is still active in publishing as the Chairman of Exact Editions and keeps a philosophical cast of mind. His monograph, Following Searle on Twitter: How Words Create Digital Institutions, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.