Are libraries becoming publishers?

The world of digital publishing is full of unexpected convergences and transformations. Just at the moment we are seeing a lot of innovation across the scholarly ecosystem, with grass-roots initiatives springing up, some of which could point the way towards the future of scholarly publishing, while others just yield useful learnings. In all this ferment, one perhaps surprising thing is how much innovation can currently be seen in the libraries space.

A case in point is this video interview with Sari Feldman of the American Library Association (ALA), which appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education site recently.

Libraries in the US, we learn, are putting in production facilities for online courses and MOOCs and at the same time, ‘about 35 academic libraries today … are publishers themselves. So where campuses used to have the publishing house on campus, it’s now embedded in the library itself’.

‘I think today academic libraries are less about what they have for people [than about] what they do for and with people’.

All of which begs the question: are libraries becoming publishers?

Certainly, librarians are very close to their end-users (researchers and students), and are in a position not only to know what they want, but to try out and evaluate new offerings. Also the mission of libraries is very focused on these end-users, who are becoming more important in market terms with the growth of Open Access.

A recent report from Outsell on Open Access characterises the key driver of institutional content buyers (i.e. libraries) in the OA space as ‘serving researcher and author clients with high-quality, affordable (or free) content’, while that of publishers is chiefly margin preservation.

This looks as if it is telling us that libraries are better aligned with the content needs of authors/researcher than are publishers in OA. However – reality check – according to the same report, OA currently accounts for about 4.3% of the journals market and Outsell expects growth to flatten off now the the initial OA ‘gold rush’ (no pun intended, we hope) is over. It seem that, in Outsell’s view, OA is likely to remain something of a minority interest for a good long while.

‘Market awareness of open access is at a saturation point. Open access isn’t news anymore, and those inclined to publish under OA models are already doing so. Further uptake by researchers and funders will not be enough to move the growth needle significantly.’

So while we we are seeing, in Sari Feldman’s words, ‘a lot of revitalized space and energy in the library’, such changes seem unlikely to pose any particular threat to publishers.

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