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Should a library be a publisher?


Okerson & Holzman 2015


A report by Ann Okerson and Alex Holzman (July 2015) published by CLIR was awarded the 2016 Library Publishing Coalition award for outstanding scholarship. The report looks at libraries as publishers – not just of catalogues, but of original scholarly works. One 2015 estimate suggests the cost of creating a scholarly monograph to be $12,000, and suggests this cost should be borne by institutions where the author works.

The survey proposes that “We either have to lower what it costs to publish a book or find new ways to cover at least some of those costs”.  Perhaps that question is starting from the wrong place. If it costs so much to publish a book, then why should academic research have to take place via books? The economics of publishing are all about spreading the cost over a reasonable print run. If you write something that only a handful of people will ever want to read, why publish it?

The authors themselves point out another problem: there is “no great a priori argument that demonstrates that innovation in publishing … must come from libraries”.  There are initiatives, such as the Library Publishing Coalition (LPC), founded 2013, but they have not to date published anything. It is not even clear what “publishing” entails: does it comprise, for example:

  1. Making documents available?
  2. Bringing back into print publishers’ backlists?

The initiatives they describe include some that would be described as publishing, such as Project MUSE (founded 1993, a collection of 600 peer-reviewed academic journals and 20,000 ebooks; and some that I was not define as publishing at all, such as providing a platform, such as HighWire Press, for online content. It is not clear if they are suggesting that libraries emulate HighWire Press (“library staff have made appropriate contributions to HighWire’s activities” – what does this mean? I would guess that HighWire runs independently of Stanford or of any other library).


The survey concludes with six lessons learned, although these are either too wide-ranging to be helpful (“libraries and presses have opportunities for collaboration”) or not lessons learned at all. Lesson learned no 5, for example, is that “presses increasingly report to libraries” – this may be true or not, but it is hardly a lesson learned.