Tea Leaves for Reading

In one story today we learn that the University of Michigan Press has been reorganized and become a unit of the library (see here, if you can).  In another, we learn that the University of Michigan Press will begin publishing almost all of their books as digital editions (see here, assuming you don’t have to be a subscriber).

Sometimes you wish that you could overcome your feeling of pending doom long enough to do your “I told you so” dance.

3 thoughts on “Tea Leaves for Reading

  1. Well, this post, or, that is, the fact this post conveyed, that Michigan has decided to go web only with its press, was the subject of a main office discussion at your old Alma Mater today. JP was of the opinion that it would backfire on the press; BB thought it was a travesty; a visiting prof thought libraries and presses have conflicting missions (the old prejudice scholars have that librarians would rather protect their material than allow anyone to mess it up by handling it). Me, I worry more that it means you’ll lose your job! Still, I thought you’d like to know you’re still stirring things up.

  2. Ha, I’m sure the sound you just heard was a bunch of librarians getting ready to type “That’s not what we do!”

    I do agree that the mission of an academic press and the mission of a library are often in conflict in ways that make them uneasy partners, but not a head-on conflict where the press wants to disseminate information and the library wants to horde it. Because, obviously, if that were the case, neither of us would be in the jam we’re in. We’d continue to make books; they’d continue to horde them and we’d both just be sitting around waiting to see how long our parent institutions were willing to fund it.

    But I think the problem is that a press wants to act as a gatekeeper on information. We don’t want to let it out until it’s peer reviewed and copy edited and looks nice AND IS PAID FOR. The university library, speaking broadly, wants to make information as freely and widely available to as many people as possible, often without regard to cost for the end user (or the cost to the end user is hidden. When you read a library book, you’ve paid for it–through taxes or tuition or something–but it doesn’t immediately appear as if you’re paying for it when you go to check it out).

    Those two philosophies–“we need the end user to pay as much as he or she can for this information” and “we need the end user to pay as little as possible for this information”–are in conflict. There’s no way around that that I see.

    So, it is curious to try to imagine what it might mean for a Press to be a unit of the Library. If the Press’s role is imagined as “gatekeeping” without regards to (attempting to) pay for itself, then it might work. I don’t know. It’ll be curious to see.

    But the thing I find most curious about the Michigan thing specifically is that, if you asked me what I thought was an example of a good, sturdy university press, I might have come up with Michigan.

    And if you’d asked me for an example of a university library that I thought had utterly misplayed it’s hand over the past five years, I would have said Michigan. Michigan was one of the libraries to go to Google and say “If you’ll give us an electronic copy of each of our books in our collection, we’ll let you digitize our whole collection.”

    There was no way, none at all, that Michigan didn’t know this was an enormous violation of copyright. They didn’t have the right to tell Google it could copy books from their collection that weren’t in the public domain.

    So, that sucked.

    But here’s the bitterly funny part. The libraries that participated in this little shenanigan with Google? Some of the finest, most thorough collections in the world. So, Google now has a digital copy of every important scholarly book ever published (that might not be completely true, but one must operate under the assumption that it’s practically true). And the libraries that gave them that information got, in return, a digital copy of the books in their library.

    But imagine how large the libraries at Michigan, California, etc. are. How many books in IWU’s stacks aren’t in Michigan’s stacks do you think?

    I had the opportunity to be present when the terms of the Google settlement were explained to librarians. I was there to watch it dawn on them–as it was explained to them that Google intends to make its content available, one way or another, to patrons of any library (which, in effect means, all of us), some–like the folks at public libraries–only through one specific terminals–but others–like the patrons of university libraries–wherever they are on campus, which means that the big research libraries, by cooperating with Google in this endeavor, have risked the existence of all libraries.

    Why would you walk across campus to see what’s in your library when you can get online and see practically every scholarly book ever published?

    And don’t get me wrong, as a potential user, I could not be more excited.

    But I’ve got to wonder–how could libraries NOT see that coming? Once Google has your books, what will people need you for?

    And why, in the face of that, are we running around pretending that university libraries are better poised to meet the future than university presses?

    We all may be equally screwed in the future, but one of us did not hand over the whole farm and then stand around wondering why we had no roof over our heads.

    (And let me be clear. I am speaking here as a knowledgeable civilian and not, I repeat, not speaking for my employer. And, in the spirit of transparency, I have not read the complete Google settlement and base my thoughts here just on what was reported at Charleston. It may play out different on the ground in the coming years. I’m just giving a brief outline of what I see as the big issues we now have to face because of this.)

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