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Announcements, Reports from the Field

The MPublishing team recently returned from THATCamp Publishing in Baltimore, MD. For the uninitiated, THAT (for “The Humanities and Technology”) Camp is a new breed of “unconference” attempting to move beyond the stand-and-deliver (and sit-and-listen) variety of academic conferences many of us are used to. Instead, the mission is collective discussion and concerted sharing around particular themes and with specific goals in mind.

If you’d like to read participants’ notes from THATCamp Publishing, they are available in the public Google doc here. And if you’d like to find a THATCamp near you (both geographically and thematically), take a look at

So what were some of the goals of last week’s THATCamp Publishing? Well, one obvious goal was good ol’ fashioned networking…not in the smarmy-Madmen vein, but as a way of connecting with people and institutions who are exploring the same scholarly communication turf that MPublishing treads. It was exciting and inspiring to discover the experiment that is library-based publishing occurring at colleges and universities across North America. Equally exciting was the variety of projects that have taken shape under the rubric of academic publishing.

We heard from Aram Zucker-Scharff, Assistant Director for Marketing and Communications at George Mason University’s Student Media Office. Among the many publishing projects being developed at GMU, Zucker-Scharff is involved in helping to streamline student-generated websites by offering a “ready-to-wear” WordPress service at the University.

Another GMU participant, Joan Fragaszy Troyano, Managing Editor for Digital Humanities Now, told us all about the relaunch of this digital humanities aggregator through the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s PressForward imprint.  As its editors explain, DH Now “showcases the scholarship and news of interest to the digital humanities community, through a process of aggregation, discovery, curation, and review.” The site is a model for the kinds of low-impact gatekeeping publishers have begun to think about in the face of information abundance. As Clay Shirky reminds us, “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure”—and DH Now’s initiative promises to be one version of filter success for the digital-humanities-curious.

Of course, filtering information wasn’t the only driving concern. Many of the conversations grappled with what until lately has been a watchword of archivists, not press reps: preservation. How do we ensure that new media will maintain relevance (and permanence) when it becomes old media?

Douglas Eyman, Senior Editor at Kairos, Patrick Murray-John of CHNM, and Kevin Hawkins, head of Digital Publishing Production at MPublishing, weighed in on the issue. They focused on two key challenges associated with new (multi-) media preservation. The first is institutional: who is responsible for preserving this material and how are they equipped to do so?

One key difference between publishers of old and those in the field today hinges on the difference between outright ownership and long-term licensing. In the past, academic publishers simply sold individual works to consumers (and libraries were one, but not the only, consumer in this equation). Thus owners were, logically, the ones responsible for preserving what they’d purchased. Now, however, publishers are often in the game of licensing aggregated content to consumers (and more and more, libraries are the sole consumers in this equation…because they’re the only ones who can afford aggregated costs).

Murray-John saw the relationship between libraries and publishers through the analogy of renting versus owning a home.  In the not so distant past, when libraries owned most of their content, they were–like homeowners–responsible for “making sure the plumbing worked.” Now, with publishers renting material out to libraries, the burden of preservation falls to the publishers themselves (they’re the ones who have to “know who to call when the basement floods”). The problem is that preservation is often bad for the bottom-line…a fact publishers are compelled to care about (often at the expense of sound curation), and a fact libraries have been apt to neglect (sometimes to the benefit of long-term preservation, but at a significant cost when it comes to budgets).

The second challenge is infrastructural: let alone the issue of shifting ownership, we still need to consider how (and sometimes whether) we can make new media permanent.  One takeaway from this discussion was that just as user-generated content is becoming key to Information Age publishing, so will user-generated metadata become a cornerstone for preservation. If we want to create information that is portable and permanent, we need to ensure that authors are aware of the metadata conventions that make this possible. For a more detailed overview, see the notes from the multimedia discussion here.

The communication effort involved in educating authors (and readers) about issues like these was another major THATCamp theme. You can’t have innovative and sustainable publishing without letting people know why innovation and sustainability matter. How to create and maintain effective publishing consultation and outreach was the guiding question of a workshop group led by Patricia Hswe, Digital Collections Curator at Penn State University Libraries, and yours truly. While we focused mainly on helping campus groups establish online journals, the global goal of the discussion was to rethink the part that the library should play in guiding scholarship toward more sustainable publication venues. Another useful takeaway was the establishment of the libpub Google group—a place where folks from the library-based publishing world can go to exchange ideas and talk about what’s working (and why) and what needs improving (and how). Take a look at the notes from the discussion here. Also see Amy Buckland’s helpful “eJournal Questionnaire” for an insightful list of questions for journal startups.

All of this thoughtful, engaged talk about the changing face (and place) of “libpub” became, in the end, a densely-packed crash course in the abiding issues (and possible responses to these issues) that MPublishing confronts daily. From peer review to the need for increased professionalization opportunities, to the ever-present question of how to innovate in a publishing environment that demands avant-garde thinking, but, in equal measure, requires sound data curation and preservation.

While Michigan likes to claim “Leaders and Best” status, it’s actually comforting (and confirming) to see that scholarly publishing is less a competitive team sport and more a vital community…all pulling toward the ultimate goal of sustainable scholarly communication.

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