Last week, Joe Esposito wrote a thought-provoking piece about what we mean when we talk about “partnerships” and “collaborations” between libraries and university presses—particularly when the university press is absorbed into the library itself—and about whether such arrangements really make sense. In his concluding paragraph, Joe offers this observation:
Every way you look at the relationship between a press and a library, you come away with little or nothing to support an organizational marriage.
Now, I agree with Joe that when it comes to library-university press relationships, the term “partnership” is often used casually and inaccurately. But to my mind, the important question is not whether that relationship can accurately be called a partnership. The question is whether the relationship (whatever it may be at a particular institution, and whatever we choose to call it) makes sense: is it truly mutually beneficial, and is it structured in such a way as to offer the greatest possible mutual benefit? Call it a partnership, call it a collaboration, call it a pastrami sandwich—the question is, does it work to everyone’s advantage? Joe is skeptical and offers some good reasons for his skepticism, but I’d like to offer a different perspective on that question.
First, to be clear about the context of my comments: what we have in my institution is a reporting relationship. The University of Utah Press (UUP) is an agency of the J. Willard Marriott Library. No one here refers to this relationship as a “partnership” or a collaboration (except colloquially, in casual conversation); everyone understands it to be a subsidiary relationship. The UUP’s director reports to the dean of the library, and sits on the library’s Executive Council alongside the associate deans and the directors of human resources and external relations.
From my vantage point as one of those associate deans and, for the past eighteen months, interim dean of the library, I’ve seen a number of significant benefits from this relationship. Four of these include:
Shared equipment and expertise. Ours is one of the relatively few research libraries that owns an Espresso Book Machine, and the opportunities for mutually-beneficial use of that machine by the library and the press are potentially huge—but they won’t be fully realized unless the press and library are working together very closely. Similarly, the library has digitization staffing and equipment that can be (and, in our case, have been) of great use to the press. Having the press and library working out of the same budget bucket makes such cooperation quite a bit more efficient and convenient than it would be if it required shifting money between discrete campus entities. For example: many research libraries (including ours) are experimenting with publishing projects. When we undertook digital and print-on-demand publication of some of our handwritten pioneer diaries a few years ago, we called on UUP experts to give us input on design and layout questions. When UUP wanted to make its long-out-of-print Anthropological Papers series available to the marketplace again, it called on the library to help with digitization and formatting and, with use of the Espresso Book Machine, to make printed copies available on demand. Could the library have gotten layout and design help from elsewhere? Could UUP have used some other service provider for POD? Sure. But in both cases it would have required establishing new relationships with new vendors, the creation of service agreements, the solicitation and payment of invoices, and the spending of money. Instead, the work was accomplished quickly and easily and the only costs involved were opportunity costs.
Overlapping and complementary strategic perspectives. Despite the intimate, mutually-dependent relationship that exists between them, librarians and publishers do not understand each other. In my experience, librarians tend to have only the most simplistic understanding of the work publishers do, and publishers very often utterly misunderstand the institutional context, motivations, and structural responsibilities of librarians. Given this reality, it has been wonderful to see what happens when a press director and library administrators are at the same table, week after week, discussing issues related to collection development, market practice, and scholarly communication. The mutual reality-checks that happen in these meetings are invaluable; they make the library leadership better librarians and the UUP a better press.
Leveraging the travel budget. The press director attends regional and national meetings to which we might wish to send a librarian, but probably would not because of competing priorities and a limited travel budget. The fact that the press is part of the library means that the library has someone at, for example, the AAUP meeting—someone who can report back and give us a different perspective on what’s happening in the university press community. The same is true in reverse for librarians’ meetings such as ALA. Here again, both the library and the press benefit from the close working relationship that is naturally fostered by the organizational integration of the two units.
Access to space and staff support. By being both physically and organizationally a part of the library, our university press benefits from relatively easy access to prime event and meeting space (and the staff support that comes with it) for access to which other entities on campus must a) pay and b) compete with each other. If this sounds like a minor consideration, then you probably don’t work on a university campus.
I can imagine a couple of objections to the examples I’ve provided above.
First, none of the benefits I’ve described necessarily requires the press to report to the library—all of them could, presumably, be realized just as effectively if the reporting line went the other way. I freely concede that point. If I had to hazard a guess as to why, when they are put together, presses are invariably made subordinate to libraries, I suppose I would say it’s because libraries are always so much bigger, and it probably never occurs to anyone to put the press in charge of the library. We generally expect the bigger fish to eat the smaller one, not vice versa. I’m not saying this is right or wrong.
Second, few of the benefits I’ve described above absolutely require the integration of the university press into the library or a direct reporting relationship from the press director to the library dean. As Joe says, many of these arrangements could be “handled with a simple memorandum.” But while the memorandum itself could be simple, a lot of less-simple things have to happen before it can be written, and it seems to me much more likely that those things will happen if the press and the library are structurally connected—their leadership meeting together frequently and regularly, issues of mutual concern being discussed constantly, and initiatives and projects being carried out in an environment of close mutual association.
I don’t know that such a relationship can accurately be called a partnership, nor do I think that matters much. What I’m interested in is whether having the University of Utah Press situated in the library makes the University of Utah a better place for students and scholars and makes the larger scholarly community a richer source of knowledge. It seems to me that, in our case at least, it does. For other institutions, I’m sure the mileage will vary—by no means am I arguing that every university press ought to report to a library. But it seems to work very well here, for reasons that are probably not readily apparent to those outside of our institution.