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U.S. Library Outreach Workshop

The Open Book Collective meets with US Librarians

Published onJun 22, 2022
U.S. Library Outreach Workshop

As a community-led organization, the Open Book Collective regularly solicits advice and counsel for its development from the communities it seeks to serve. As university librarians are critical to the financial and other forms of support for open access and open source initiatives (such as publishers and infrastructure providers), they have been involved from the beginning of the OBC, from initial brainstorming to the processes of forming the collective — its values and principles, membership, governance, business model, web platform, and so on. Now that we are nearing the launch of the OBC, we are conducting a new series of workshops with librarians in order to get some further assessments from them regarding what we have built. It should be noted, first, that not only will the OBC always be seeking guidance from libraries as it launches and moves forward, but that librarians will have a major role to play in the governance of the collective as well, meaning, librarians are not just our consultants; they are building the collective with us.

In our most recent workshops, we have been asking librarians for their thoughts and advice on the criteria for membership within the OBC, its governance model, its offerings and business model, its community standards, its technical aspects, its web platform, or any other aspect of the OBC they want to discuss that we haven’t thought of in advance.

On May 4, 2022, OBC representatives met with librarians from UK university libraries, and the outcomes are summarized in our blog post, UK Libraries Outreach Workshop. More recently, on June 3, 2022, OBC representatives met with librarians from research university libraries across the US. Some of these librarians participated in the early workshops led by members of the COPIM project (Community-led Open Publishing Infrastructures for Monographs) in 2020 and others were learning about the OBC for the first time. The variety of perspectives we gained in the US-focused workshop has helped us to reflect in meaningful and practical ways about the further development of the OBC, and we summarize below some of the highlights of this recent discussion.

  • Evaluating OA initiatives from the librarian’s perspective.

Our participants gave us useful insight into their internal criteria for evaluating OA initiatives for possible financial support. As expected, they want the OA initiatives they support to have protocols in place for “best practices,” technical and otherwise, that are seen as necessary for the assurance of a high level of quality of content and services as well as for good integration between the content and services of OA initiatives and the knowledge systems that librarians trust. Some examples that were offered had to do with metadata and preservation. Where, for example, would librarians go to extract and/or track metadata and catalogue records from the OBC’s publishers? Will the publishers within the OBC have preservation protocols in place? Where will titles published by OA presses in the OBC be indexed (etc.)?

There was a lot of discussion around systems libraries already use (such as Ex Libris’s ALMA or OCLC) and how the content, data, and services of OBC members might already be or would be integrated with these systems. The consensus of some of the librarians was that they need these systems (even if, admittedly, they are “big business” corporate companies) and don’t want to have to hunt all over for things such as catalogue records (which is why they depend on ALMA for those). As we know, libraries as well as those working in the larger landscape of academic publishing want to see less proprietary enclosure and consolidation of publishing and library services, but it will always be a challenge to reconcile the necessary dependence of libraries upon these commercial knowledge services alongside their wish for more open source systems, which would relieve many budget issues and also better serve the values of public research institutions.

In some ways, this is an overwhelming challenge (and may never be 100% solvable) but it is also something for the OBC to think about more, as well as for the larger COPIM team. Overall, COPIM aims at developing more community-led open infrastructures for publishing books while at the same time, within the OBC project team, we want to help smaller or less established OA initiatives get a leg up within the sphere of academic research institutions by helping those initiatives (in terms of their content, data, and services) to be more visible and legible to librarians and to earn their trust as well. This means that we need to think about how we can help OA initiatives recognize and understand how libraries acquire, organize, and share digital books, for example. Ultimately, we have to know about the knowledge systems libraries use and the “best practices” that they think should provide the benchmarks for funding OA projects, but we also need to work with librarians on developing and advocating for alternative open knowledge services, such as COPIM’s Thoth project, an open metadata management system. We talked a little bit about Thoth, which was received with some enthusiasm, especially for the ways in which it is integrated, as a catalogue, into the OBC’s web platform, where users can see a database of book titles from all of the OBC’s publisher members. One librarian noted that it is indeed helpful to have all of those titles available for browsing within the OBC website as opposed to having to go to each publisher’s website to see what sorts of content they publish, but its helpfulness would ultimately depend on how its titles can be arranged and aggregated (in order to avoid what we might call the “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem). She further advised that if the Thoth database could be searched by subject area, that would be immensely helpful in terms of assisting her in determining which OA publishers have released a bulk of titles in subject areas to which her library might be especially dedicated. Otherwise, she wasn’t sure how the Thoth database, integrated as a “catalogue” within the OBC website, would really be helpful and others concurred with that. There are, of course, other open databases librarians can consult to access catalogues and indexes of OA books, such as the Directory of Open Access Books, and many libraries are already using DOAB for a variety of purposes. One thing the OBC will reflect on in light of this feedback is how we can continue to engineer the catalogue integrated within the OBC web platform so that it has capabilities librarians need when assessing OA publishers for possible funding. This is another moment to reflect upon how those of us working within the COPIM project need to always understand, in a highly detailed fashion, the complex technologies and infrastructures libraries depend on, especially as library work becomes more and more automated.

Finally, in terms of OA funding strategies, librarians advised us that both values-based and local impact-based criteria were important. Librarians would look to see how OA initiatives within OBC provide values alignment and also how they will be sharing data or other types of information that would show how their content and services would best serve the unique aspects of their learning and research communities. To this end, the librarians were happy to hear that the OBC’s website will feature a rich array of detailed and granular information for each initiative, thus enhancing librarians’ ability to compare different initiatives within the website and see how each of these might align with library community values and/or serve the needs of their local institutions.

  • Mutual aid and collective support.

Relative to the feedback we received above, we shared with the librarians that the OBC is not just a financial intermediary between libraries and OA initiatives seeking funding, but that we are dedicated to providing support to smaller- and medium-sized initiatives that have not yet reached all of the “best practices” protocols libraries expect from publishers and library services providers. We emphasized that a highly unique aspect of our business model is that, for every pledge received from a library, a certain portion (5%) of the money going to OA initiatives would be retained for a collective development fund, and that initiatives within the OBC could apply for financial support from this fund in order to undertake technical and other forms of development they need in order to be better integrated within global knowledge systems and to also improve their business operations (such as their production workflows). We told the librarians that we have designed the OBC as a community not in name only but as one which practices non-competitive mutual aid and therefore is not just a “portfolio” of initiatives to possibly fund.

We added that one of the jobs of the OBC will be to develop “toolkits” for OBC members (which will also be available to any group outside of the OBC), that will instruct initiatives on how to create and enact “best practices” protocols (such as showing them how to generate and manage metadata or how to ensure the preservation of digital books or what the best discovery systems are, and the like). One of the librarians stated that, in such a scenario, libraries might be more comfortable with supporting smaller, not as yet fully established, initiatives. There seemed to be a general consensus that this community-led business model was truly unique and valuable. One librarian asked if we would also be developing toolkits that would aid publishers with their editorial processes and would we maybe even develop open source software for making digital books. We shared that software development for making digital books was not something currently on the table (developing that sort of software is not in the direct purview of the OBC project team and is actually being worked on by other open source groups, such as Manifold Publishing and Editoria) but in our workshop we expressed that creating editorial and production workflows and best practices toolkits was an excellent suggestion and, if developed, would further strengthen the trust of libraries in the member initiatives and also bolster our claims to community support — a model that librarians believe aligns with their values.

  • Inclusivity.

One question librarians asked was how the OBC can serve libraries such as regional state universities, community colleges, and even public libraries that might not be able to financially support the OBC or its member initiatives. How can these libraries access and use the open services and content offered within the OBC (and within the COPIM project more largely) in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them in terms of labor? If we are a collective community, one librarian expressed, then we need to think of more ways of serving libraries that don’t have the funding to support OA but who need OA content and services to enrich the knowledge base of their own learning and research communities. This struck us as a very important intervention and one that should spur us to think more deeply and broadly about how we can better live up to our avowals of community-led values. Which is to say, how can we provide mutual aid (around OA books) not just to the members of our collective, but to libraries that don’t have the same capacities as larger, PhD-granting research institutions? This may not fit neatly within our purview (which is centered around supporting, financially and otherwise, OA book publishers and services providers in direct collaboration with librarians who both fund these initiatives and also play a major role in the governance of the OBC). Nevertheless, in light of this exchange, we have decided to conduct more workshops with librarians who are situated at non-PhD-granting universities (including community colleges) to discuss the OBC (and the larger COPIM project) with them and to find out more about their concerns and needs relative to OA book publishing.

Also relative to the topic of inclusivity, we shared with the librarians that we were still working on the membership criteria for the OBC (who can be a member, how, why) and that we have had a lot of discussion about whether or not we should include all presses working on OA books, regardless of size or type (independent, university-based, etc.), or regardless of whether they are 100% OA (e.g., native OA publishers whose entire list is open access and always has been) or are what we call a hybrid model, where there is a traditional non-OA catalogue but there is also an emphasis on producing OA books in addition to that. And what about presses who haven’t yet published OA books but they would like to move in that direction and perhaps also want to transition to a new business model where they will eventually be a 100% OA book publisher? Do we want an OBC that mainly serves smaller, native OA initiatives (who, in fact, are in great need of support and whose missions overlap to a very large extent) or do we want something more capacious that gives librarians more choices and helps create a collaborative community at a somewhat larger scale that enables stronger networks for aid and support? We told the librarians that the one thing we have agreed upon within the OBC is that any monies raised from libraries can only ever be used to support the production of OA content and services. One librarian cautioned that, whichever way we went, we need to keep our values and principles paramount, by which he meant, whatever initiatives come into the OBC, there should be a strong alignment in the values professed and practiced by each initiative, precisely because, in his opinion, what makes the OBC so attractive is that it presents a community-led venture with strong public service values that libraries share.

Speaking of which:

  • Gratitude.

We are grateful for the time and feedback of each library colleague who has participated in the OBC’s workshops and for helping us to better understand how to meet the needs of libraries as we prepare to launch the OBC platform. We look forward to future discussions and collaborations with the library community, both in the US and abroad.

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