2023 AUPresses Directors Residency Report: Geoffrey Little

Geoffrey Little, Concordia University Press, reports on visiting the University of Michigan Press

I begin this report by expressing my very sincere gratitude to the Association for approving and funding my residency, and to Charles Watkinson, Associate University Librarian for Publishing and Director of University of Michigan Press, for creating a full, generous, and carefully thought-out four days for me in Ann Arbor.

My residency was centred on questions related to press-library collaboration, including places of success, but also those of tension and unrealized opportunity. These questions were motivated by the history, structure, and organization of the press at Concordia, which was created in 2016 by and within the university library. The last short while has been a moment of change at the press. In April 2023 it published its tenth book, with three more planned for launch before the end of the calendar year, and it has engaged more staff. Operations and workflows are maturing and becoming more complex. The university librarian that helped establish the press left in summer 2022, which required me to orient a new acting university librarian to our financial, human resources, operational, and editorial structures. We are no longer in a start-up phase and my 2023-24 sabbatical is an opportunity to reflect on the press’s achievements to date, but also its future within the university and the library and how the press can be best aligned to the goals and priorities of both.

In proposing a residency at Michigan, I was looking at a press that is older, larger, and more established than my own; has been part of its library system for more than a decade; has an active campus publishing program, in addition to a university press imprint; and is headed by a director who also has responsibilities within the library system.  (Charles and I both think that we are the only two directors within AUPresses to also have the AUL title/role.) My assumption was not proved wrong, and it was clear from conversations with Michigan library colleagues, including two associate university librarians and the acting library dean, that publishing is seen as a central part of the library’s work and mission. This view was shared by several members of the Michigan Publishing team, who, overall, expressed feeling seen, valued, and appreciated by colleagues within the library. In addition, an in-progress move of the Michigan Publishing team into space within the Shapiro Library has the potential to greatly increase information-sharing and affinity-building amongst colleagues as well as a feeling of community and prospects for collaboration.

Charles and I spent some time talking about culture writ large, specifically differences between press and library cultures and fears that a press can be subsumed or overwhelmed by a dominant library culture. This was also something that I discussed with Donna Hayward, the acting library dean. What became clearer over the week and coming out of discussions with staff at all levels, is that there is no monolithic library culture, but rather a series of subcultures that are created by kinds of work or functions (e.g., technical services, public services, special collections, publishing, librarian, support staff, etc.) or geography (e.g., branch library culture, central library culture, etc.). The goal is to find areas of overlapping interest and mutual respect. At Concordia, I have found it useful and invigorating to undertake small projects that involve librarians, professional staff (i.e., IT experts), and press staff. For example, in 2022 we migrated our instance of Manifold from a Minnesota server to one at Concordia. A press colleague managed the project with a small working group composed of colleagues from Library IT as well as our Digital Preservation Librarian. Out of this relatively small initiative was born a new appreciation for work taking place in the press, but also in other sectors of the library. While it is a truism that library committees involve significant expenditures of time, they can also be useful vehicles for exchange, partnership, and knowledge transfer.

At several points during the week, my colleagues and I discussed sites of tension within the press-library dynamic. Some tensions may always be present or felt, but it seems to me that the advantages and opportunities afforded by library-press partnerships vastly outweigh them. 

As I had hoped, spending time at Michigan allowed me to reflect on my work at Concordia to this point. Creating Concordia University Press was a significant effort over several years and I realize now that so much time was spent looking in, that is focusing solely on establishing the press and its operations, that opportunities may have been lost to look out or to bring colleagues into our work. For example, a few years after the press was established, Concordia’s library launched an open educational resources (OER) program which became part of my portfolio in 2021, with a tenure-track Scholarly Publishing Librarian position designed to manage it, as well as an imagined suite of library publishing services and supports. Clearly there are now more opportunities and more space for collaboration.

It was useful to learn more about Michigan Publishing Services (MPS) and to meet members of that team. Concordia recently contemplated the idea of establishing a formal campus publishing service that would have a relationship with the press. This work was paused for several reasons, but it is something that I would like to re-evaluate on my return to the office. It was also interesting to learn about the partnerships that MPS has with Lever Press and Amherst College Press, as well as ACLS Humanities E-Book, and how staff see their roles in supporting scholarship at Michigan as well as projects that resonate far beyond Ann Arbor. Because of these conversations, I have begun to re-evaluate how we might better position our institutional repository, one of the oldest in Canada, as an active publishing platform rather than a more passive repository.

It was clear to me that Michigan Publishing is in a place of great strength, in large part due to Charles’s hard work and advocacy over the last many years. He has aligned Michigan Publishing’s values to those of the library, and he has worked to ensure that Michigan Publishing is supporting researchers across the spectrum, not just in humanities and social sciences. Michigan is also playing an important role in promoting digital scholarship through the development and management of Fulcrum, and it has long been a champion for promoting open scholarship and more equitable economic models within scholarly publishing.

It was also stimulating to attend meetings within Michigan Publishing, including the operating and administration groups, the all-staff meeting, an author marketing group meeting, and the Fulcrum steering and e-book collection operations groups.

Again, my sincere thanks to Charles and the Association for facilitating this trip. I left Ann Arbor with copious notes, many ideas, much to ponder, and a renewed sense of what can be possible when libraries and presses engage in the kinds of collaboration and partnership that I witnessed at Michigan.