There’s been much discussion recently over the role of libraries as publishers. It has focused mostly on two types of publishing programme: (a) making out-of-print texts available again (whether in print or digital format); and (b) enabling authors to publish new content, especially under Creative Commons licenses.
An example of the latter kind of programme is Amherst College’s open access humanities publishing (reported here). A report on the former kind is Ed Chamberlain’s Digitisation-on-Demand in Academic Research Libraries, published on the University of Cambridge’s repository.
These two types of programme have one thing in common: they exist to make someone else‘s content available. But what about publishing libraries as self-publishers?
A couple of years ago I attended a discussion at the London Book Fair about academic libraries. When the discussion turned to funding, I suggested that libraries could generate some revenue by publishing information about usage. The first librarian to respond dismissed the suggestion out of hand on the grounds that sales data were already available.
Perhaps. But sales data are only one kind of data. There are other forms of quantitative data that would also be valuable to third parties.
For example, on courses that I run on academic authorship, I’m often asked how many people read monographs. In response, it’s easy to say how many copies get sold, but much harder to provide estimates of reading. Readily available data on usage (for example, borrowing figures) would be useful.
And, as a publisher, I use sales data to help inform decisions over future publishing: supplementing this information with more fine-grained information on usage would lead to better decision-making.
In fact, though, I’ve allowed consideration of quantitative data to take this post off on a tangent – for when I made my suggestion I was in fact thinking primarily of qualitative data.
To explain: when I’m researching markets for publishing, I typically consult specialist librarians. For example, when we founded our Creative Writing Studies imprint, we interviewed collection librarians in a range of university libraries. The information they provided us was wonderfully rich. They showed us reading lists; talked about how creative writing lecturers provided reading lists; told us what students did with the reading lists – which items they liked, which they ignored, which resources that weren’t on the lists got used; how students thought about various kinds of media; when they seemed to buy their own books; what else they asked for; and how their behavior compared to that of students in other disciplines.
Whenever I’ve conducted such interviews I have found them – without exception – deeply informative and helpful. Specialist librarians often know a great deal about what’s available, what isn’t available, what works and what doesn’t, what readers do and don’t do, and how readers see things.
I’m not sure the librarians themselves fully realise how valuable the information they hold in their heads might be to third parties. If libraries were to publish that kind of information, it could, I suggest, lead both to better teaching and better publishing.