Reimagining Publishing: Anvil Academic and the Service-Oriented Press

By No First Name No Last Name posted 09-20-2012 14:43


Coming to the academic library as a CLIR postdoctoral fellow from the strange wilds of the English department, I’d never had a chance to fully absorb the importance of the service ethic within “libraryland.” Despite the challenges of constrained budgets and diverse strategic plans, today’s research library has one ultimate goal: the freer and more timely transfer of information from suppliers to end users. And talented, service-oriented personnel are the sine qua non of such information exchanges. The selflessness of both this mission and the people behind it is something librarians rightly take pride in.

It's a style of social generosity that many patches of the higher-ed crazy quilt could learn from. To be fair, the issue is not so much that academic sectors outside the library need to learn how to serve users and constituents; it's that they've often missed the chance to showcase their own embedded service missions.

This is especially true within the world of academic publishing. It’s easy to forget—particularly in a budgetary climate ruled by P&L statements, ROI assessments, and cutbacks linked directly to projected (un)profitability—that what academic presses do is much more than make and sell books. Their primary function, in the end, is to provide expertise for transforming content into usable knowledge, and for ensuring that this content is both legitimately useful and easily discoverable.

The publishing house and the academic press have long been the natural points of convergence for folks with specialized expertise in acquisitions, layout and design, review, marketing, and distribution of content. And this corral of talent is precisely what allowed publishers to create a business model that, until recently, looked like it was about selling products. The fact is, however, that while these products might harbor value, the real worth of a press is its people—those who perform the service of shaping information into curated content.

In some ways, the ground-shaking effects of a world gone digital have actually ushered in a healthy re-orientation toward the underlying service mission of academic presses. Though some might balk at it, or interpret “healthy” as “necessary evil,” the shift toward new digital formats has meant a shift away from a fixation on content as the sole commodity at the press. Really, it’s a matter of where we place emphasis along the content lifecycle. Rather than fetishize the end product, presses have the opportunity to exhibit their talents—their services—for marshaling information into a usable package.

And it is precisely this shift toward service that Anvil Academic hopes to facilitate and accelerate within humanities publishing. Co-sponsored by CLIR and NITLE, Anvil is looking to become a foundation for the creation of born digital media. But more than this, Anvil seeks to be a conduit for uniting the services of publishers with the needs of the digital humanities community—a mode of intermediation that bridges the gap between the traditional academic press and the contemporary humanities scholar. It’s worth noting, though, that this gap isn’t perhaps as large as many fear. The talents and expertise integral to press operations are equally critical to humanists, whether digital or analog. Developing accessible formats, ascertaining value and validity, and fostering opportunities for discovery—these are all core publishing activities that endure regardless of format.

What we need now is to realign these activities as services in need of support from other like-minded institutions, including research libraries and other cultural heritage and digital humanities centers. With such rethinking in place, we can begin to see a scholarly communication economy that is less about the supply and demand of particular products and more about fulfilling a mission of service to scholars and their audiences.