The Library as Publisher?

| July 8, 2013

James LaRue, director of the Douglas County Libraries, recently wrote an essay for the American Libraries Magazine suggesting that libraries should expand their services to book publishing. His argument is that, in our shifting digital landscape, libraries are in the perfect position to serve as content creators in addition to being content collectors. The library could save money by keeping book publishing in house, and perhaps even make money on sales. His other reasons are more altruistic: the library could publish its own archival materials, or create space for alternative voices.  To make this system work, the library would need to recruit authors (easily done, LaRue argues, because nearly everyone wants to write a book), editors, and an acquisitions team. Because libraries are strapped for funding for librarians, he suggests enlisting a team of well-read patrons to take on these roles volunteer.  These editors would be responsible for reading, editing, and selecting content. They would also help writers craft their novel or nonfiction work to completion. But this isn’t just the era of self-publishing, it’s also an era when publishing houses are struggling to make profits. Do libraries truly want to take this effort on?

This article captured my attention because, generally speaking, I’m excited about DIY publishing models (I’m a serious fan of blogs and zines) and publishing models that encourage diversity and/or modes of expression for otherwise marginalized voices. However, speaking as someone who left the publishing industry when I started my degree in library science, the notion that we could train patrons to work as volunteer editors sounds a little bit dubious to me. A good editor needs a series of highly developed skills: a sense of the field, a sharply critical editorial eye, and a nuanced sense of voice, structure, plot development, and character development, to start with. If a team of librarians, agents, and editors have the time (and skill set) to train the well-read patrons to become talented editors, why should these patrons then take on this work for free? The concept devalues both the work of professional editors and professional writers. Not to mention, librarians who assess collection development would suddenly find themselves in an awkward bind: would we add this book to the collection if one of our patrons hadn’t written it?

That said, there are numerous ways in which libraries can and do actively get involved in content creation. Many libraries publish academic journals (for instance, our library, which publishes the renowned Teachers College Record.) I get excited about publication models that use digital technology to differently engage the public, as is the case with the EdLab’s New Learning Times (an online magazine blog hybrid that publishes cutting edge trends in education, which you can access by app or by website) or the ACLS Humanities E-Book Project (a collection of 3,700 scholarly works produced through the University of Michigan Library in collaboration with over 100 publishers). These three publishing efforts, produced through libraries, provide high-quality content and critical evaluation.  Alternatively, there is the Directory of Open Access Journals, a portal to a collection of professional open access journals that are, for the most part, peer-reviewed. There are dozens more examples. If you are reading this and know of more exciting projects, feel free to let me know!

This is an exciting time for libraries, and an exciting, if a little scary, time for publishing as well. I take issue not with the concept that libraries get involved in publishing, but with a model where we train unpaid volunteer patrons to do the editing.