The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker blog featured an interview with Monica McCormick, a woman who works at NYU Press and for the NYU libraries almost as a liason, in the Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing. McCormick’s statements echo a lot of the concepts and sentiments originating in libraries that we read this week. For example:
Library publishing is just part of a whole continuum of services that libraries offer to support scholarly collaboration and research, which might include data management, curating scholars’ born-digital research collections, providing guidance on copyright and intellectual property, and making the research results available.
However, she is quick to emphasize that university presses and library publishing are very different, the former expected mostly to sell books by developing and refining an editorial vision, and thereby not just adding value to scholarly writing but actually giving back to the academic community. “As a result, university libraries have more leeway to publish as a service rather than a business, by, for example, providing a repository for their institution’s research, or hosting space for online journals for their faculty.” At NYU the press develops a vision of its own, and the library nourishes but also reflects the scholarly community it serves.
I mention this not so much as a real direction or suggestion for a solution to any problem of how all libraries and university presses should trend or how they might be re-conceptualized or grow–the situation is far from resolvable at this point, I think–but because of the pragmatism of her take on the issue. Theory about what is, may, and should happen are all really important, but the reality of the situation is subjective and erratic and transitional–and no one is quite sure about what’s going to happen although we have to talk as though we know we do. So another way to look at the question of what will happen in libraries and academic publishing is to look more closely at individuals and their work.
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On Friday I participated in a panel at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning along with MIT Press editor Marguerite Avery, Harvard Library Innovation Laboratory’s Jeff Goldenson (a designer/architect/programmer), and two designer/architects from Over, Under and Pink Comma–Michael Kubo and Chris Grimley. I know, what was I doing there? It was an eclectic group which seemed to me indicative if the breadth of the perceived publication problem. SA+P Press (the school’s own imprint) needs to find a way to organize its editorial vision and present material created in a number of ways (and, as it’s an architecture school) in a diverse array of media: when presentation and design are integral to the content, how to incorporate published print materials as well as new and even forthcoming publications into a web presence and publication platform?
Each answer to a discreet question seemed only to make the situation more complicated, less graspable. Everything is expensive, and there is no consistency over time. Lack of foresight and organizational consistency from the beginning means we’ll never be able to control everything that is out there, even when we’re talking about a highly limited situation. Part of this is manpower, and part of it is the evolving, unstable nature of “information”–as Robert Darnton put it rather articulately.
The first thought I had afterward was that it was a failure–at least in as much as there was no consensus at the end of the day. The conversation brought together the real problems posed both by print and digital storage, and no one really had a good answer to the question of why and how and where. Resources that archivists are aware of haven’t always gained traction beyond the preservation field. I sort of felt I should give up on any aspirations for participating in some useful way to the future of publishing.
But by now I have begun to feel better. First, this was a problem to be answered by MIT architects with a clear understanding of the published material, how it is beneficial to scholarship and also for recruitment and PR purposes. A solution is to be determined by students and alumni as well as faculty, as it should be. Second, there is room for all of this material.
Imposing order in the form of an interface (links to content, to purchase hard copies, etc.) will not change the nature of the work that has been done, but it will change way the school delivers a message about the interesting projects and theories developed under its purview and also pose an awesome suggestion for publishing beyond the school. And in this extremely cool and innovative group, the recognition that this needn’t all be limited to print or digital, but rather that media should extend beyond the screen, to be published in physical books, newspapers, and journals that exploit the variety of benefits afforded by print, was extremely exciting. The pink comma guys had some really interesting suggestions and examples of the ways publication and exhibition have coincided in their work, for example.
And as Avery pointed out, it’s not just about content, it’s about linking content to its targeted and potential readership in the most useful and efficient form/format possible. We have long acknowledged that actually the cover really does make a difference but an editor of the future must attend to meaning wrapped up thoroughly in form and presentation. Sometimes, the book should be 8″ by 13″ to respect the dimensions and qualities of maps included, even if it’s more expensive that way. Just as digital content design is a really interesting area of innovation, printing methods are changing rapidly and associated costs influence what we can do.
And as Goldenson made it clear, the librarian must observe and reconceptualize the ways its design impacts library use and readership. He spoke about a course he’s teaching at Harvard’s GSD (which you can read about at http://librarytestkitchen.org/) in which students experiment with what libraries can do for scholarly and broader student communities. Part of the implication is that libraries won’t be rarified and run by “librarians,” I think. The librarian role will evolve to diversify along the lines of perceived institutional needs in the form, primarily, of design and legal specialization. (He is also responsible for the Library License concept which is worth a look.)
I know it’s been said before, but the most important take away is that we have to engage with a lot of people, to move in tandem by communicating with one another (also meaning, we need to learn how to talk to people of many different disciplines), and to push one another very hard towards developing standards and protocols for presenting and expanding the notion of what information is and can do. Willingness to disagree is as important as an excellent ability to listen, to perceive priorities, to think critically about relationships of content, form, design, dissemination, and preservation. I dare say awareness, coordination, and compassion for the work of others are as important as editorial focus and diligence.