On “‘Free to All’: Library Publishing and the Challenge of Open Access,” by Michah Vandegrift and Josh Bolick

On “‘Free to All’: Library Publishing and the Challenge of Open Access,” by Michah Vandegrift and Josh Bolick

In the published conference paper “‘Free to All’: Library Publishing and the Challenge of Open Access,” Micah Vandegrift and Josh Bolick argue that libraries need to be unwavering forces in the promotion and implementation of open access (OA) publishing. They contend that libraries are increasingly becoming “library publishers” (107). Although I do think there’s an argument to be made to this end, it is not overwhemingly clear to me, from the paper itself, just how libraries are publishers. My immediate assumption was that libraries would be considered publishers due to the ever-growing amount of library-facilitated green access to research, that is, of institutional repositories. But Vandegrift and Bolick don’t make this case themselves, and rather suggest that the library publisher is a given role. They begin the paper as follows:

The distinguished legacy of libraries is connecting people with resources, at no charge: “Free to All.” As libraries increasingly assume the role of publisher, we must honor that legacy, acting as “library publishers” rather than “publishing libraries.” The core library value of access supports the great opportunity to share knowledge and push innovation, thus driving our entry into publishing. (107)

The OA ecosystem is a comprehensive one, and different institutions play different roles, all of which, I would argue, are in some sort of constant (or at least consistent) flux. University presses, corporate publishers, libraries, research advocates, authors, university admins, readers, and all other scholarly communication stakeholders appear to be renegotiating their positions and staking claims to shifting territories. In this sense, it shouldn’t be surprising that Vandegrift and Bolick state as given that libraries are de facto publishers, without providing substantive evidence for this claim.

Regardless, Vandegrift and Bolick’s call to arms to the library community is heartening and well taken. The authors advocate for a library position of “alliance rather than compliance” (114) in the realm of scholarly communication. Taking libraries as critical players in the OA movement, Vandegrift and Bolick make recommendations for action (although the authors frame these as potential, expected characteristics): shift allegiances from corporate publishers to not-for-profit academic organizations (like libraries); dissolve organizational categories (e.g., libraries might be considered as publishers); influence policy toward OA research dissemination; grow the publishing community into a connected network. These recommendations make good sense from a birds-eye view of scholarly communication, and I would be interested to see– or be one of many who pursue– the steps necessary to reach such outcomes.

Vandegrift and Bolick make a timely pledge to OA, and although I was not present at the event where their presentation was first heard, its hard to imagine that its delivery was anything less than empowering. But I do think that the resulting paper leaves some rather fascinating and fraught itches unscratched. On a basic level, what is the role of a publisher? In what ways does the library fulfill the duties of a publisher? Are there any requisite publisher tasks that might not be fitting for a library to undertake? Does hosting an institutional repository constitute publishing?  Does hosting journals? Does providing access to research? (See my review on selections from the UNESCO curriculum, Open Access for Researchers, for equally vague wonderings about this.)

I would argue that there is more to publishing than mere storage and retrieval. My colleague John Maxwell likes to say that publishing is the making of a public. I wonder if it isn’t something more– making a public, yes, but also serving that public in ways that are appropriate and creative, responsive and stimulating.

Work cited

Vandegrift, Micah, and Josh Bolick. 2014. “‘Free to All’: Library Publishing and the Challenge of Open Access.” Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication 2 (4): 107 –16.


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