I was thrilled to see the announcement that Lever Press is a thing, now. A real, live publisher of open access books funded by a group of liberal arts college libraries. (See IHE’s coverage.) I would be thrilled even if I weren’t involved with the early work of this endeavor, because creating a sustainable means of sharing open access scholarship that fits disciplines that value books is long overdue. The vision shown by liberal arts college libraries that have agreed to fund this new venture is also cheering, because I’d like to think liberal arts colleges have a contribution to make in deciding what the world of scholarship should look like in a more open environment. And I’d like to think their libraries can play a role in making knowledge more widely accessible to the world.
I asked four colleagues who have been involved in this effort from the very first email exchanges that got us started to reflect on the whole process: Bryn Geffert of Amherst, Neil McElroy of Lafayette, Mark Christel of Wooster, and Mike Roy of Middlebury. Others have been involved as well, but these four have been in on it from day one and were elected by contributing libraries to serve on the Oversight Committee of the new press. I emailed them to ask two questions:
- Looking back, what surprised you most about this project? How did your thinking about publishing change (if it did)?
- Given that a number of open access ventures have launched since we first kicked this idea around, what do you think makes Lever distinctive?
One surprise was that this challenge was accepted. As Bryn put it, “we convinced half the library directors in the Oberlin Group to commit real money in difficult financial times. To me, this speaks volumes about how hungry the library community is for change. People show their values by how they spend their money; values are changing.”
The other surprise – the inverse of the first – was that it took so long and still half of the directors weren’t convinced. As Mike Roy put it, ”what surprises and perhaps alarms me is how slow we have been in being able to act on a great idea. We've been working on this for really over four years, and so this seems both like a victory because we have persevered, but also as a sign of how incapable we are of being nimble and of taking risks.”
Neil shared Mike’s dismay, but also felt the sustained effort of the planning group showed real strength. “It could have faltered at any number of points,” he wrote. The sequence of steps taken to engage a consultant, to take stock of the rapidly-evolving publishing landscape, and to survey faculty while keeping in touch with the whole group kept the initiative on track with the original idea intact: that liberal arts college libraries could take a bold step toward open access and together make a difference. “In retrospect,” Neil wrote, “it's quite remarkable how well this all worked.”
Mike added “My hope is that having learned how to do this albeit slowly that we can use this model to promote other experimental interventions, but do so at a much faster rate, and perhaps at a grander scale.”
While the ultimate goal never wavered, the group's ideas underwent some change throughout the process. In the beginning, it seemed a partnership with an existing press might bring with it a whole set of practices and assumptions that might make it hard to think creatively, but it turned out that a partnership was better than starting from scratch. Mark wrote, "through our work, I became more aware of how rapidly the publishing community is changing and attempting to evolve. Lever is a direction that appears to appeal to many university presses and I hope it is a model that will be broadly imitated. We found our ideal partners, of course, in Michigan Publishing and the Amherst College Press, two of the presses that are most challenging conventions."
Mark also commented on the collective strength this project shows. “Lever has solidified for me that one of the key roles for libraries going forward will be as publishers. Many of our college libraries have quietly launched institutional repositories, hosted student and faculty scholarship and research data, and produced OA journals. Publishing scholarly monographs, in any significant number, had seemed out of reach for many of us, but Lever now offers us a consortial, scalable, and sustainable publishing outlet for monographs.”
All four of my informants were clear about what makes Lever distinctive.
- The funding model doesn’t rely on authors scrounging up funds to support the publication of their work. Instead, libraries will do what they’ve always done – manage resources to support shared access to information – but will do so in a way that benefits everyone, not just their local communities. (A surprise for me early on in this project was realizing how hard it is for librarians to think beyond our borders these days. As we make the rounds of our walled gardens, checking the locks, it’s hard to remember what a sensible idea interlibrary loan is and that we’re allowed to help people who aren’t currently enrolled or currently employed at our institutions. The fact that dozens of institutions are participating is a good sign.)
- The participating libraries and institutions aren’t simply writing checks to support work organized and directed by a third party. Librarians and faculty at the participating institutions will be involved in setting the agenda and defining the identity and the future of the press.
- Connected to that, the press will have a liberal arts focus. What exactly that will mean still has to be determined by participants, but from the start the idea is to publish work with readers in mind, not just specialists and tenure committees. Perhaps that’s why it’s so unusual and important to have scholars, librarians, and folks with publishing experience at the same table – to keep the various perspectives focused on a shared vision for what difference books can make in the world.
- There is also space reserved for innovation. A significant percentage of the list will be devoted to expanding our definition of “book” by giving digital scholars a sturdy and sustainable platform for new kinds of publications, filling a gap in what publishers currently offer and giving our digital scholars opportunities to publish differently.
Thanks to Bryn, Neil, Mark, and Mike for catching me up on recent developments and sharing their thoughts on the whole process. Though my own institution isn’t participating (and I'm sad that we aren't), I’m happy to see Lever Press finally launched and will be eagerly following news of what happens next. It has been an exciting journey.
Meanwhile, spread the word. If you have a book proposal or an idea for a series, Lever Press would like to hear about it.