Rory Litwin: Pressing Issues for Librarians

Lessons from a publisher who is committed to library values.

May 12, 2014
I am a big fan of Library Juice Press. To my mind, Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods edited by Maria Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier, is probably the best book available on the subject. Whenever a student shows interest in the field, I press Lauren Pressley's So You Want to Be a Librarian into their hands (and send them the URL of the open access version, freed through an unglue.it campaign). Lately I've been singing the praises of Informed Agitation: Library and Information Skills in Social Justice Movements and Beyond edited by Melissa Morrone, which is full of interesting essays on librarianship in the trenches. So it occurred to me that it would be interesting to learn more about Library Juice from the juice-presser himself, Rory Litwin, a librarian who cares so much about our field that he has become a publisher. I think you'll find he has some very interesting things to say. (Thanks, Rory!)  
I first encountered your work through Library Juice, the blog. What let you to venture into a more traditional form of publishing - book publishing? Why books, when so many libraries are buying so few of them?
Before Library Juice was a blog it was an online newsletter mainly distributed by email. It might have been a blog from the start, but back then the web was not so dynamic and there wasn't such a thing as a blog per se; the word hadn't been coined yet. One of my big concerns as a writer and compiler of material for Library Juice was the issue of continuity in librarianship at a time when the profession was beginning to change rapidly and a new generation, my generation, was trying to start over from scratch in many respects. I questioned the wisdom of starting over from scratch and somewhat lamented that librarians in my generation were often disinterested in the knowledge base that had constituted librarianship previously. I was curious about what that knowledge base was and felt confident in the importance of some of it. In particular, I felt that the focus on technological tools was standing in for knowledge of the intellectual form and content of the fields of knowledge that we were responsible for helping people to navigate. I felt and still feel that the tools are more or less useless without knowledge of the "content," as it is now called, that the tools connect with. It was becoming clear, I thought, that the technologists who were working on the tools we used at the reference desk had the end user in mind, and as the tools became easier and easier to use, librarians would not be making much of a professional contribution in knowing how to use them. (I should clarify that I am thinking primarily of reference librarianship, since that was my specialty as a librarian.) I felt that our knowledge of the ins-and-outs of the content itself were what would continue to make us useful, and that tech tools were largely a distraction.
At a certain point it became difficult to maintain Library Juice as an online zine, for a variety of reasons, and I switched to a blog format. Reflecting on what I was doing as a blogger given the nature of my concerns got me to begin thinking about the role of long-form publishing and the relative permanence of paper books. I wanted to sort of "put my money where my mouth was" and contribute to the profession in a way that demonstrated these beliefs.
I should add that I was also actively interested in the alternative press at that time. I was working to promote alternative press publications in libraries through a group in ALA, the Social Responsibilities Round Table. That group could be considered the left wing of the American Library Association. Through my activities there I was connected to a network of people who were capable of writing books that would offer needed perspectives on issues in the field. That network became the original foundation of Library Juice Press, though we have moved around more broadly since then.
Your publishing house is Litwin Books, which has an interdisciplinary list, and two imprints, Library Juice Press, which focuses on critical approaches to library theory and practice, and Auslander & Fox, focusing on general works of "originality, wit, and perspective." Can you tell us about two or three of your projects that you have found particularly interesting?
We have recently completed a project that we have been working on for a number of years, the Library Juice Press Handbook of Intellectual Freedom: Concepts, Cases, and Theories. The original impetus for starting the project was a sense that the intellectual freedom establishment in ALA had a scope that was too limited, both in terms of the issues that they addressed (primarily book challenges in libraries) and the philosophical orientation to the idea of intellectual freedom. A book that inspired me to think critically about intellectual freedom as a concept was a book published in 1997 by McFarland, written by Mark Alfino and Linda Pierce, titled Information Ethics for Librarians. Despite the rather hum-drum title that book was really exciting for the way it raised questions about the concept of intellectual freedom. Librarians tend to identify strongly with the idea of intellectual freedom but don't often think very deeply about it, if I may say so. I conceived of the idea for a new handbook as a way to address this. After working on the book for about a year with Laura Koltutsky, I got Mark Alfino to take over for me as co-editor of the book with Laura. In its final published form, the book has 21 chapters on aspects of intellectual freedom, including conceptual underpinnings from a variety of perspectives and contexts for its application, inside and outside of libraries. I think this book is a real achievement and the best thing we have done so far.
Another big project recently is the Litwin Books title, Feminist and Queer Information Studies Reader. Patrick Keilty, who proposed doing project originally, is a professor at the University of Western Ontario, whom I first met when he was a doctoral student at UCLA. The subject matter is really information studies, as opposed to librarianship, so it is not as directly applicable to library work, which is why it is a Litwin Books title. Feminist theory, queer theory, and gender studies have become important not only for special populations or interests that they represent but as sources of new theoretical understandings of many subjects. This book has 27 essays that shed new light on topics in information studies. It is a solid collection, with contributions by information studies scholars as well as people in gender studies, so it is an interdisciplinary work. I think the book establishes an important niche. It is part of Emily Drabinski's Series on Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies, which has titles from Litwin Books and Library Juice Press both.
Another book that has excited me a lot is a Litwin Books title that hasn't gotten much attention, I think because its primary market is a bit outside our immediate field. It is a new translation of a play by Voltaire titled Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet. A French professor made me aware of the play and some controversy surrounding attempts to stage it in Europe a couple of times recently. I became attracted to it as an object of interest from an intellectual freedom perspective and as a conversation starter about issues of Islam and the West. I knew that it would be a mistake to publish a new translation without very solid introductory materials to contextualize it and to clarify aspects of the play that may not be obvious to readers today, so I enlisted Malise Ruthven, who frequently writes on related topics for the New York Review of Books, to write about Voltaire's relationship to Islam. I also got the translator (who worked under a pseudonym) to write her own introduction about the history of the play's reception. The introductory materials are very good and make up approximately the first half of the book. The end result is something very interesting and a little edgy.
What do you wish authors and librarians knew about book publishing?
I noticed something reading some publishers' memoirs that rang true with my experience as a publisher that I think is missing from discussions about how electronic formats make publishing companies less relevant. In these discussions, publishers are often talked about as uncreative middle-men who don't do anything but siphon off money by taking advantage of outdated copyright laws. There is quite a bit that publishers contribute, and I think most librarians and authors can think of what many of those contributions are, but the thing that I think is least obvious and maybe most important is the role that publishers have in initiating projects and working collaboratively with authors to bring about new works. A lot of our books came to us as book proposals from people who we didn't know, but a lot of them, maybe even the best ones, have had their genesis in conversations we had with authors about mutual interests. That is part of why publishers often have a distinct identity.
You have also been an artist (a "slacker artist" in your words). What kinds of aesthetic considerations play a role in publishing?
I've always appreciated books as aesthetic objects. They say, "Don't judge a book by its cover," but I think the way a book looks - its cover and the design of the interior - have some effect on the experience of reading it. So I think it is important to put some thought into that. Book design is also an aspect of publishing that I think is a lot of fun to have a hand in.
More recently you launched Library Juice Academy. What is it, and why are you doing it?
Library Juice Academy offers online classes for librarians for their professional development, to enhance their job skills. One of my concerns from the early days of Library Juice has been the status of librarianship as a profession, and how that status has to rest on a body of knowledge and a skill-set that is unique to the field. With the field changing so much it has been interesting to think about what those skills consist in. When I was a working academic librarian I became familiar with the areas that many librarians feel a need to learn more about. Again, starting up the project has been an opportunity to "put my money where my mouth is" regarding the knowledge base underpinning librarianship as a profession, although my understanding of that changed over the years. There is also some synergy with the publishing side, in the sense that the network of authors overlaps the network of the instructors we hire, so that makes it valuable to be doing both.
Looking back, are there threads that connect your work as a librarian with what you are doing now?
Well, a lot of what we publish, and of course the classes that we offer, come out of what is happening in the field. Also, as a librarian I interacted with publishers and with providers of professional development opportunities, and that gave me insights about the marketplace that come in handy now. I also think that it has been a way to satisfy my original motivations for becoming a librarian, which were eventually frustrated by the realities of working in institutional settings. Many of the books go directly to the ideals behind librarianship as field, at least for many people in the field, and the conflicts that those ideals lead to. Librarianship has a political dimension that gives life to the work for a lot of librarians, and I want to support that. If it doesn't mean something in a political sense we might as well be selling office supplies. I think the same goes for any kind of work in academia.
There's an awful lot of "future of libraries" talk going on right now. What do you think are some of the issues the profession should be thinking about?
The number one thing that frustrates me about futurists is that they always seem to assume that the resource base for continued development will always be there. I mean fossil fuels, water, mineral resources, usable agricultural land. And they don't account for the challenges that climate change, and pollution as well, pose for the basic infrastructures that this development relies on. Increasing social inequality may also turn out to be a challenge for our basic infrastructures and systems (governance, logistics, etc.). What I think all of this means is that we should be placing more emphasis on the preservation role of libraries. Changes to modes of information organization and access are getting most of the attention now, but I think if you want to look at the future of libraries you need to look at the future of everything else, and I think we have to admit that the demise of much of what we take for granted is a possibility in this century. Preservation should be the new priority.

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