Libraries as Community Publishers: How to Turn the Tables

Peter Brantley -- March 16th, 2012

This week I gave a talk at the University Michigan for the Library and Press on the changes in publishing, with an analysis of the consequences for libraries and other organizations. And unexpectedly, it got me thinking about how public libraries could turn the tables on publishers who obviously feel that their digital books are too precious to share with libraries.

Between several discussions about scholarly publishing with the Library’s Head of Publishing Services, Shana Kimball (@shanakimball), and a lively conversation with Eli Neiburger (@ulotrichous) of the Ann Arbor District Library, I came away thinking about how sharply the barriers to publishing had fallen. Scholars, for example, are increasingly talking about using outlets such as Kindle Singles or The Byliner to publish essays and working papers that just a few years ago would have been short run paperbound manuscripts released by obscure research institutes; now they can reach a global audience.

And that, in turn, made me finally comprehend one big thing. A university is like a community; it draws upon itself to produce insights for a larger world. And as a university library or press is working to find new ways to express the ideas of its community to the broader world, so too can a public library for the community that it serves.

The New York Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, and every public library system in between now has the capability of starting their own publishing imprint. Imagine “NYPL Press” extended into a series of digital books, stemming out of the rich literary community of New York City. Libraries excel at selection and curation, and to have the stamp of approval of one’s local library as your press could be the most valued signet of the publishing market.

Public libraries are born of their communities. Increasingly with digital tools, libraries are places where people can come together and learn how to write their own stories. There is no reason why libraries can’t be the place where those stories are published. New York Public already has experience in publishing, with a history of putting out print publications, largely derived from its own collections. Extending that into the creation of a digital publishing arm would hardly be insurmountable.

Even for smaller library systems, it would be possible to dedicate staff to support the growth of a publishing series. Using tools like Pressbooks and other easy to use authoring environments, it’s possible for libraries to get community works into the hands of retailers quite easily. A library could offer both general purpose publishing tools and services, as well as establish a house imprint for those materials it felt were worthy of its imprimatur.

Of course, the best thing about libraries becoming presses is that it could bring in needed revenue to support and innovate across all of their services. Network based publishing technologies provide us many opportunities, and one of those is for the institution that is most in touch with the community, in addition to being one of the most loved, to barn raise publishing houses in every city and town across the nation. Libraries are establishing all sorts of citizen platforms; a press could be just one more.

This is just one option among many possibilities available to public libraries. I am not naive about the need for a library publishing imprint to have at least a basic supporting staff at a time when budgets are tight. But it is at least within arms reach, and it provides opportunities for librarians to grow and engage in new services that have a stronger future than those dealing with analog culture. Having one foot in the community and one in the network, libraries can help define a new cultural commons.

[N.B. Since writing, I've learned of "The librarian's guide to micropublishing," by Walt Crawford, which should be helpful. However, the work is focused on library supported patron publications in print, and less on the concept of a library digital imprint, which is the path I find more attractive.]

3 thoughts on “Libraries as Community Publishers: How to Turn the Tables

  1. Mike Orenduff

    If the goal is more revenue, libraries could rent space to fast-food franchises. If the goal is to have more books available to more people, libraries in most towns should shut their doors and use their annual budget and the proceeds from the sale of their buildings, collections and fixtures to buy e-readers for the indigent. The NYPL and other major libraries will survive. But the Carnegie idea of a library in every town is wasteful, inefficient and rapidly becoming obsolete because of technology.

  2. Walt Crawford

    Thanks for the mention–but “The Librarian’s Guide to Micropublishing” is not about “library supported patron publications,” it’s about making it feasible for citizens to produce good-looking, professional-quality small-quantity books, without library support (other than buying a copy of the book) or new financial outlay necessary. It’s also relevant to library imprints–although I’d argue that about 90% of libraries are in no position to found and publicize their own imprints. As to the seeming irrelevance of print books to your discussion, that’s another issue, one I won’t engage here.

  3. C.T. Blaise

    In spite of the fact that my library carries works by Lori Foster, Nalini Singh, Gena Showalter and others who write borderline erotic romance, they insisted to me that they won’t carry anything of mine because it is erotic romance. The fact that they rely upon Overdrive and many publishing companies (incuding Penguin) are ceasing their relationship with the e-book provider, they still insist that foot traffic will drive readership. Uh huh. Seems they are only attempting to flatten the round curves of the wheel.

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