Shelf-talkers: Kickstarting a new library journal

Peter Brantley -- June 18th, 2013

PE - Printing Press MTAOne of the things that I am most excited about is the creation of new forms of publishing on the web, using lightweight platforms featuring clean and simple writing and editing tools that allow communities to express themselves without expensive, legacy production workflows that belie the print era. And yet one of the most collaborative and openly sharing communities in the world – librarians – have yet to take advantage of this opportunity. I think it is time for that to change.

In the last couple of years, something remarkable has happened – three publications have won Pulitzer Prizes for national reporting that exists only on the web: ProPublica, Huffington Post, and most recently, Inside Climate News. These organizations, and many of their brethren, have been founded by experienced journalists who have seized the opportunity of reaching people more quickly through leaner staffing and reduced operations costs. They often have been assisted through startup grants from philanthropic organizations, and are supported by a wide mix of web-centric advertising and subscription models.

New companies are helping catalyze these emerging models of journalism. Ev William’s highly regarded Medium, an elegant and lean publishing platform that encourages collaboration and community, has attracted wide attention. It has in turn recently acquired MATTER, a long form journalism project founded by two experienced professionals, Bobbie Johnson and Jim Giles. Startups like Editorially and Draft are working to produce production tools that enable communities of writers to collaboratively develop material as easily as authoring a blog. Publet is building a platform for simple, rich-media authoring to support periodical and journal publishing. The world of professional journalism is entering a web-native era, on the cusp of redefining how it does business.

Oddly, the library community has a dearth of competitive products to help inform them about the rapidly changing information landscape. Our primary vehicle, Library Journal, has many well-regarded contributors but is rooted in an older model of “push” journalism, and premised on print subscription revenue. Its cost structure is consequently higher than a digital-only publication, and requires significant underwriting through large corporate advertisers which inevitably have their own editorial interests. ALA runs a flagship publication called “American Libraries” but it is more topically focused; it doesn’t cover breaking news, critical reviews of the library marketplace in products and services, active discussion on information discovery and analysis, or discursive coverage of the spectrum of emerging technical standards and debates.

It’s time for librarians to develop our own journalism. The basis of the American Library Association – individual membership vs. institutional affiliation – evidences the affinity for an in-community approach. A new library publication – call it Shelf Talkers – could be supported through librarian subscriptions, rather than vendor dollars, to assure complete editorial independence, lowering the risks of special interests. The PeerJ membership model is one option, although given the finite number of librarians, annual renewal will be required to establish a self-sustaining product. Launch support could come via a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign, and I suspect the concept of a new generation online publication would find resonance at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which could potentially underwrite some of the recurring costs for the first couple of years. The DPLA is also intrinsically geared to provide assistance in-kind, and its interests are well-aligned.

Shelf Talkers – or whatever we wanted to call it – could run with an editor-in-chief, an operations manager, and a small cadre of staff reporters. Additional contributors from the library world – one of the most literate and expressive communities around – could fill out a publication which need not worry itself with “issues” or “volumes” or printed matter. Its reach would be global, as would its contribution base – an inherent advantage of a networked publication. Libraries span the world, and although funding and support models may differ, the critical problems and core opportunities show far less divergence. Our shared values make the power of librarians’ global voice greater than any corporation’s or state’s.

The world of librarianship has never been bigger, and our influence potentially never more profound. Let’s seize the tools at hands, and tell our story in our own way, leveraging our community’s independent spirit, and embracing the freedom to engage in a life of literacy and debate.

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