Academic Libraries Expand Their Publishing Services, but With Limited Resources

Publishing services offered by academic libraries are “expanding and professionalizing,” says a new report based on a survey of library directors at research and liberal-arts institutions. But those publishing operations are often still hampered by a lack of full-time staffing and by the small scale of much of what they do.

The survey went out to top librarians at the 223 member institutions of the Association of Research Libraries. It also went to library heads at the 80 or so liberal-arts colleges that belong to the Oberlin Group and at some 25 institutions in the University Libraries Group. The full report, “Library Publishing Services: Strategies for Success,” has been posted online for public comment here. (Comments close at the end of the year, and a final version will be released early in 2012.) A PDF can be downloaded here.

In good news for advocates of library-based publishing, the report says that more than half of all respondents reported that their institutions have developed or are developing library-based publishing services, and that faculty demand for those services is high. Charles Watkinson, director of Purdue University Press—a unit of Purdue Libraries—has been closely involved in the survey process.

“Libraries are finding a lot of faculty demand in the area of new types of publication, especially in the digital-humanities field,” Mr. Watkinson said. “And they’re also finding an opportunity to professionalize how what has traditionally been viewed as gray literature is being published.” (Gray literature refers to working papers, technical reports, conference proceedings, and other material that traditional publishing tends not to handle.)

Library-based publishing programs “were originally founded to shake up the scholarly communication system,” and the survey showed that most remain strongly committed to open access, Mr. Watkinson told The Chronicle. But open-access publishing has a pragmatic appeal. It tends to be easier and more economical for library publishing programs that are understaffed.

Many are. The report identifies a lack of adequate staffing as a standing barrier to the success of library-based publishing. Many libraries don’t have a full-time employee dedicated to publishing.

“Without a full-time champion, it’s hard to get these things off the ground,” Mr. Watkinson said. “One of the issues here is that library schools are not preparing people with publishing skills. They’re not preparing librarians to fill these roles. And libraries are behind the times in establishing dedicated library-publishing positions.” Several institutions, including the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Columbia University, are notable exceptions.

The report confirmed that most library-based publishing tends to be campus-focused, Mr. Watkinson said. Library publishing often draws on partnerships with academic departments or other campus units—but only sometimes with university presses. “The main collaboration with university presses is at a very minor level, and it tends to be around the digitization of backlist,” he said. “It’s not at a strategic level.”

Many institutions don’t have a university press at all. In any case, presses tend to have very different revenue models than libraries do. That can make it hard to work together, Mr. Watkinson said. “A major insight of the report is it’s just not possible to have those relations with one’s university press” much of the time, he said. “But this is a topic of major interest to the university presses.” For instance, the Association of American University Presses now has a committee dedicated to library-press relations, and in some cases, like Purdue’s, the press reports to the library.

The report was prepared by a team of library administrators and consultants on behalf of the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition, or Sparc, with support from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, Berkeley Electronic Press, and Microsoft Research. The deans of the libraries at Purdue University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Utah were the principal investigators on the project.

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