Libraries as Publishers: Building a Global Community[1]

As publishing reconfigures itself, as indeed the very nature of what it means to publish is challenged, libraries are increasingly finding roles for themselves in this expanding space. Where it sometimes seems that anybody can publish anything anywhere and anytime, the value of libraries' entrance to the publishing arena is in their brand, their integrity, and their commitment to mission rather than commercial advantage. Libraries' alignment with particular communities of responsible producers of what it's now fashionable to call "content" gives them a particular advantage in access to providers – at the same time as libraries' alignment with the audience of their users gives a complementary and important advantage.

The diversity of practices and plans that we see in the many domains of library publishing[2] can offer grounds for disagreement and contestation, but are better taken as evidence of energy, imagination, and possibility. If the larger world of publishing displays familiar scenes of commercial consolidation, oligopoly, and overbearing voices of dominance, it also displays the fractiousness of counter-voices, many of them unconstrained by normal canons of honesty and truthfulness.

In such a landscape, libraries as publishers have a distinctive advantage. Not just nationally but globally, libraries provide a network of institutions dedicated to cooperation rather than competition, to a mission of service rather than a business plan for profit, and to innovation in the name of the common good. At a point when traditional academic publishing voices – the university presses – are in something like steady state mode and struggling to accommodate old business models to new realities, libraries are proving to be sources of unusual imagination and energy.

To be sure, JEP itself represents a maverick collaboration of university, university press, and library, and as such it is an ideal venue in which to advance this discussion. To sketch very briefly some of the issues and possibilities of library publishing today, we want to invoke the collegiality of a two day IFLA satellite pre-conference that took place in Ann Arbor under the egis of Michigan Publishing in the summer of 2016 in advance of IFLA's World Library and Information Congress held in Columbus, Ohio, a few days later. That event, the subject of this special JEP issue, brings together the insights of the remarkable group of librarians, publishers, scholars, and other interested parties who came together for the event we called "Libraries as Publishers: Building a Global Community."

As befits the global reach of IFLA, the meetings began with surveys of current initiatives in library publishing from Brazil, Canada, Croatia, South Africa, Sweden, and the United States. For example, the Croatian presentation focused on the work of a small public library in Koprivnica, Croatia, and reported by Dijana Sabolović-Krajina, offered a particularly vivid example of leveraging a very modest scale of community and library resources to create community consciousness and ambition in a nation still finding its feet in the post-Yugoslavian reshuffle of southeastern Europe. The library publishing activity gave voice to identity and connectedness without infection from the overpoliticized ideologies that have been so painful in that part of the world.

The next set of presentations concentrated on means more than ends, describing further initiatives with particular emphasis on the platforms, technologies, and business models that facilitated the work of publication. Contributions ranged from focused attention to particular software systems to a more general discussion of the power of open access as a business principle in animating positive contributions.

The diversity of experiences present – clearly an IFLA advantage – emerged again in a series of short presentations from very different institutions. Reggie Raju, of the University of Cape Town, made the most stirring contribution, suggesting ways in which collaboration across distance among libraries can produce an alternative infrastructure for community of interests and support of local communities. Equally powerful was the discussion by Heather Todd of the University of Queensland of the possibilities for Open Educational Resources (essentially, Open Access and Open Source textbooks).

On the second day of the meetings, the focus shifted and narrowed to the business models and financial issues that must be addressed if library publishing is to achieve true sustainability in a challenging environment. Next, after the session focusing on the financial dimensions of sustainability, an equally challenging and in many ways fresh and innovative session spoke to the "soft power" that needs to be brought to bear on building communities of active support for initiatives, the better to keep those initiatives alive and innovative over time.

What emerged from these discussions was a refreshing sense of the range and potential of library publishing activities. The necessarily sobering explorations of sustainability, especially financial sustainability, were nevertheless grounded in a pragmatism that made the inevitable problems seem to be within reach of solution and resolution. What we learned most from these discussions and on reflection since would include these points:

  1. Think locally, act locally and globally: Libraries are social institutions that essentially all maintain strong local roots in communities of users. That is a powerful strength countervailing the global ubiquity of giant corporations. It means we can work to activate and promote local voices, the better to enrich the global mix of discourses. We have an almost infinite number of centers and foci from which to draw on and whose best work we have an opportunity to promote.
  2. Library rootedness is also a strength for sustainability, because it means we depend on communities that already have a natural, local existence. Sustaining attention to what libraries do is supported by consistency, continuation, and the gradual building of a brand. Again, libraries have an advantage.
  3. But of course it's a jungle out there, and we have to recognize that our contributions will individually represent small voices struggling to be heard in a very noisy world. Building the common consciousness of libraries as publishers, without constraining ourselves all to act in identical ways, can have the effect of building a brand that will take its place alongside existing ones. Is there a future in which the "library press" is as recognizable a source of important and even authoritative publication as the "university press?" That future possibility is worth pursuing.

Ann Okerson
IFLA Program Committee
May 2017


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    2. Ann Okerson and Alex Holzman, The Once and Future Publishing Library. Washington, DC, CLIR, 2015.return to text