Let’s talk about libraries and digital humanities and publishing

Last month Shannon Mattern tweeted about academics and the politics of publishing venues:

It got a lot of attention, partly because it revived the debate over who is to blame for the mess that is scholarly publishing these days.

That tweet is on my mind now because of a new publication that’s making the rounds: Digital Humanities, Libraries, and Partnerships: A Critical Examination of Labor, Networks, and Community. Sounds great, right? An edited volume on DH and libraries and labor! But then I click through and see the big for-profit publisher that gets scholarly communications librarians all riled up (you know who I’m talking about).

It troubles me to see what I consider to be good work distributed in this way. I am well aware of the problems with blaming individuals for participating in a scholarly publishing system when they are faced with the pressures of promotion and tenure committees that may return greater rewards for certain types of publications. But I also think there needs to be some personal accountability for our actions. I don’t want to make this a purity test, I understand that circumstances are out of our control and that sometimes we’re good on one front and terrible on another. I am a socially conscious person, but I go to Starbucks because it is convenient and kid-friendly. I wish I didn’t. But I am aware of the hypocrisy in that behavior.

So rather than scolding individual contributors, I want to think about why this happens, what the implications are, and how we move away from this sort of publishing activity in the future.

First, let me describe this particular situation. It’s an edited volume, and there are green OA chapters for the contributions. Shouldn’t this satisfy my need for open access? Well, no. If anything, the fact that these chapters are readily available makes me question even more the value of the published version for this particular field. Who is going to buy these expensive, hardcover, very-academic-looking books? Libraries. Not individual librarians looking to improve their practice.

As a comparison, Library Juice Press just released an edited volume, for which OA versions of chapters are also available. I have begun reading the OA versions and I ordered the full book, as I know that this is something I will want to keep on my shelf (and, it’s less than $40). It is also an independent publisher that I am glad to support.

So while I’m pleased that we can all read these contributions, and that I don’t personally come up against a paywall when looking for work on DH librarianship and labor, it troubles me that all of these wonderful authors and editors are supporting a system that is not only detrimental to our library budgets but also contradicts what I consider to be a core assumption of the digital humanities. How can you emphasize the importance of building projects on open source software, but then write up the experience and publish it with one of the most-maligned corporate publishers out there? What value is added (to the work, to the discipline) by doing this?

I’ve been involved with a project that centers the idea of digital humanities librarians as a community of practice, and we have tried to carve out a space for scholarly conversations outside of the traditional scholarly publishing system. Many of the individuals in that edited volume overlap with this community, and I am not trying to point fingers. But I do think we need to talk about this, because I am disheartened to see the legitimation of DH in libraries take shape in this way. Once upon a time, I thought a key piece of digital humanities work was experimentation with new forms of scholarly communication, to break out of the trappings of P&T and to realign scholarly prestige with the open exchange of knowledge. I would have expected librarians to lead the way in this, and instead I’m seeing more and more DH and libraries publications just building up the exploitative system that we should be trying to dismantle.

Perhaps the experimental publication idea is not enough. Perhaps it’s time for a peer-reviewed, open access journal dedicated to digital humanities and libraries. Any takers?

« In defense of the MLS; or, confess your unpopular opinion
A modest plea for digital project critique »