Reimagining the University Press and the Post-Collections Library

A portentous-sounding title for a not-so-portentous post, full of half-baked thoughts and idle musings.

I was just thinking about the recent Jounal of Electronic Publishing issue on Reimagining the University Press and without actually reading very much of the issue in question (ignorance is so liberating sometimes...) the most pressing question in my mind was:

  • So what exactly do we need university presses for anyways?

And I got to thinking some more and figured that there are probably tons of people in university presses thinking to themselves,

  • So what exactly do we need academic libraries for anyways?

It seems to me that the core issues for all the players in the various parts of the academic content ecosystem are these:

For content producers, the core seems to be figuring out what kinds of documents are going to emerge and be the main vehicles for online scholarly communications.

It seems to me that it's unlikely that those documents will take the shape of what we currently think of as monographs. Even long-form text-based communication will probably evolve, even within the humanities, into more compact, concise forms. A series of shorter, blog-post-like, essays seems like an interesting model for even fairly complex communication online rather than huge "books."

Sometimes I think it's like we view the monograph as some sort of sacred, perfect format, handed down from god along with the ten commandments. Sort of like the album. Well, we've all seen what's happened to the album. Change the distribution/publishing method and what once seemed inevitable suddenly seems optional.

(Trade book publishing, of course, is a whole other kettle of fish.)

It's also interesting to consider what we currently think of as scholarly articles will evolve into. Certainly they will become more atomized and at the same time considerably richer. There are lots of possibilities to add more contextual richness and multimedia to articles at the same time breaking down what's there and redefining what we think of as the "least publishable unit" into the constituent parts of an article: text, graphs, raw and analyzed data on the one hand and materials, methods, results and discussion on the other.

And of course, whatever these varying forms of communication evolve into will be integrated within a social context of recommendation, discussion, citation and metrics.

Yet another point worth pondering is, "What's this going to cost and who's going to pick up the tab?"

Which brings me to the collection part of the academic content ecosystem. In other words, academic libraries.

For libraries, the core issue has always been very simple, "What's worth paying for?"

With the media singularity seemingly approaching (and wasn't it supposed to be here already anyways), it's hard to know who will be left standing at all in the next five, ten or fifteen years that's going to be trying to sell us anything at all?

Think about it: newspapers, magazines, music, film, university presses, trade book publishers, scholarly societies, commercial scholarly publishers. These are all industries whose business models and distribution systems are under intense disruptive pressure.

It seems to me that an emerging important question is, "What's there going to be left to collect in a radically different media landscape?"

It certainly makes me think of what a library looks like in the post-collections world.

Or is it a "post-collections" world? Or do we need to rethink what's worth collecting? Our collecting has always been scarcity driven. We collect media for our patrons because they're scarce and expensive and our patrons need us to pay for them. But if those media either no longer exist or are no longer scarce, then what's left?

Well, as I allude to above, somebody will still be producing content of some description and somebody will have to host it, edit it, review it, promote it, organize it and somebody will have to pick up the tab for all that, even if it's quite small. Oddly, these kind of sound like the services that disciplinary and institutional repositories, scholarly societies, university presses and libraries have always provided.

Or maybe not. Maybe, like for those singularitized media, the intermediaries will be disintermediated.

Any ideas?

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