From Scratch: Creating a Career in Scholarly Publishing

Contributed by Shana Kimball Head of Publishing Services, Outreach, & Strategic Development at MPublishing, U-M Library
May 07, 2011
shanakimball's picture
Part of the Cluster:

Vocations, Identities

For the past five years I have been working in the scholarly publishing division of an academic research library. I have an MA in English literature. I am not a librarian. I have never held a job in a publishing house. This essay attempts to explain how all of these things came to pass.

Publishing in the Library; or, What do I do all day?

The publishing division of the University of Michigan Library is a unique player in the scholarly publishing scene – it remixes, in a sense, our library's resources and services to support scholarly publishing in its myriad and emerging forms. Publishing services were developed several years ago to provide sustainable, cost-effective publication venues responsive to the needs of authors and readers.

In brief, nearly a decade ago, the Library (and a supportive campus administration) saw a troubled scholarly communication environment and an opportunity to make a positive change. On the one hand, we see that commercial publishing economics are unsustainable and out of sync with the economics and the ethics of scholarly communication – and that libraries were having a hard time coping. On the other hand, we understand that while the open Web makes self-publishing easier and more effective than ever before, it can be risky – both in lacking clear quality indicators and in being difficult sustain over time. Technologies change, interest levels rise and fall, web-savvy editors disappear — and so can scholars' content. Given this troubled situation, it makes sense for academic libraries, as the core stewards of the scholarly record, to transition into the publishing arena.

Libraries are a natural fit for this role, since we are involved in every other part of the scholarly communication lifecycle. We purchase, organize, make available, preserve, and vet scholarly information, and we have considerable infrastructure that can be leveraged to serve the emerging needs of publishing.

This remixing of our services and resources in support of publishing is in the process of becoming even more hybrid as, at the time of this writing, we are in the midst of a major transition; MPublishing is bringing together the complementary strengths of various publishing units — our university press, the copyright office, our institutional repository, and my office — to provide a synthesized set of publishing services to disseminate information as freely and widely as possible, while preserving the integrity of traditionally published scholarship.

So what does this all mean in practice, and for me?

As someone who has worked closely with our press for the past few years, but is still firmly located in the library, I feel I can make a useful contribution to this collection simply by providing a glimpse into what I do all day. That is, as someone who is firmly situated within an institution actively “doing” digital publishing, my own experience and the collaborations I've had with others might help ground an "alt-ac" discussion in specific examples.

My typical day might include meetings with:

  • an emeritus professor who has an out of print, university-press published book, to which she owns the copyright. Can we put it online? Yes, we can, and we’ll put it back into print as well.
  • a UMP author who would like to put a portion of a manuscript draft into an online, publicly-commentable form. Will that work? I coordinate with our publishing technology team to make it happen.
  • a graduate student who would like to pursue an “open publishing” strategy as he begins his dissertation. We discuss the use of the open Web to extend and enliven his research and writing process, as well as the role of institutional and disciplinary repositories in his publishing decisions.
  • editors of an open access publishing project who need an effective way to build community with the kinds of scholars they’re hoping to reach, and to lay groundwork for future publicity efforts of specific book titles. I explain why and how to set up a Twitter account.
  • project managers and technologists from the library to map future directions for our digital publishing platform, to ensure that it will align with our publishing services and continue to meet the needs of our editors, authors, and readers.

These examples show that the work of scholarly publishing in this digital age is characterized by a high degree of collaboration and transition: exciting changes are underway in the academy, with broad implications for how we conduct our research and communicate its results. This work is primarily digital but not exclusively so; it requires input and expertise from various parts of the university. Each example shows that scholarly publishing is in the midst of great change, and that roles, expertise, and relationships are all in flux. I’ve been attracted to this work for those very reasons.

Leaving Grad School & Learning at SPO

Three years into my graduate program in English literature at the University of Michigan, I saw that really great people in the department weren't getting jobs. I listened to horror stories about job seekers not having much say in their work conditions or geographic location. I felt a bit stultified by what I perceived to be a need to fit into my advisor’s ideas about my scholarly trajectory. After receiving my Master’s degree, I considered my options and changed my course.

During this period, I read numerous articles in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about people with PhDs who pursued non-academic careers. This was a great support and comfort to me. I started thinking about career paths that would keep one foot in the world of research and scholarship. My full-time waitressing job in a local fine-dining restaurant was fine for a spell—I ate exceptionally well and learned a great deal about wine during those months—but I needed to build career skills. I wanted to explore career paths in publishing, with an eye to becoming an editor at a university press in literary and cultural studies. Having spent seven years as a student of English literature and theory, I felt like I was qualified to do this— and, to tell the truth, not much else.

To my dismay, I realized after talking to the Associate Director of the University of Michigan Press (who was blessedly candid with me about job prospects) that presses were struggling under the pressure of a crisis in scholarly communication: the economics of publishing scholarly monographs were becoming unsustainable. This was bad for scholarship, of course, but also bad, I felt, for my new career choice. (This news also forced me to ask myself why I kept choosing career paths with terrible job prospects, but that’s the subject of another essay.)

My change in direction had required a re-assessment of my skills. I had little digital experience to speak of, but I did have experience in research methods, scholarly writing and editing. And I had read my fair share of scholarly monographs and articles (in fact, I had done nothing but read articles and monographs for three years) and had used key scholarly research products such as EEBO and journal article databases to conduct research. I knew my way around the humanities grad student scholarly landscape.

I'd done some jobs on the side before and during graduate school that, in hindsight, now seem applicable to the publishing industry. During the dot-com boom I lived in Brooklyn, NY, and worked part-time at America Online's Digital City, where I surfed the web all day, entered event information into databases, and wrote "Editor's Picks" blurbs about concerts in Midwestern cities. I worked with a scholar on finalizing her university-press published manuscript — proofreading, fact-checking, conducting citation verification, and the like. I edited dissertations of non-native English speakers. One summer, I helped an author shape up a manuscript and proposal for submission to a literary agency.

The summer after my first year in graduate school, I had found my way to the University Library's nascent Scholarly Publishing Office. The Library needed help with metadata creation for digitized back issues of Michigan Quarterly Review, the University’s flagship literary journal. I spent the summer listening to archives of This American Life on my headphones and entering metadata into a database. It was tedious, but everyone at SPO was whip-smart and had advanced degrees in humanities fields and information science. I remember feeling like I had come home.

Years later, when I left my program without a real plan about what I should do next, I thought to call up the good, liberal-artsy, publishing-savvy librarians SPO to see if they needed more part-time help. They did.

Back at SPO, I learned about XML markup for scholarly literature and became increasingly interested in the mission that this office was pursuing—building on library resources and infrastructure to provide alternative, cost-effective, and sustainable publishing services. I thought of SPO as an indie scholarly publisher, and that aligned well with my values and interests.

After working on a part-time, hourly basis for a few months, SPO took me on full time in January 2005, first on a temporary basis while I filled in for a colleague who was on a Fulbright scholarship, and then in a regular two-year position they created for me. In my first year or so in the office, I did a good deal of publication management — converting documents into TEI-based XML, establishing workflows with publishing partners, performing quality assurance, and the like. I taught myself HTML and CSS and became the office’s ad hoc web designer and marketer.

I’ve found a fulfilling professional home in the Library's Scholarly Publishing Office for the past five years. Its staff is an eclectic mix of librarians and non-librarians who fill a variety of roles along the spectrum of programmers, digital content specialists, and project managers. At SPO, I have worn many hats: text encoder, self-taught web designer, project manager, publishing & technology trend-follower, social media maven, public speaker, communicator, liaison with our Press, and co-director. And now that we have re-organized SPO into MPublishing, our expanded publishing division in the library, I’m the head of a new department devoted to developing publishing services, recruiting publishing partners and projects, nurturing divisional synergies, and promoting the role of MPublishing to our local campus and the broader scholarly community.

 Directions

I’ve been fortunate in my career — I’ve learned on the job and gotten paid for it, by a terrific boss, Maria Bonn, who has always nurtured the talent in her group, and saw potential in me even when I didn’t. My position allows me to continue to track trends in the fields of digital publishing, scholarship, and the humanities. I’ve been able to advance professionally and pursue my intellectual interests. These are experiences that compel me to tell other graduate students in the humanities that there is another way. There are other options. You have skills, and you can develop ones you don’t have. Your ability to read and write and think and analyze and to exercise judgment, aesthetic and otherwise, will serve you well in charting alternative career paths.

My own path is either a fluke or an insight into what’s to come for others like me. I offer it here as an example of positive outcomes for humanities graduate students, even when first plans don't quite pan out. Alternative academic careers can be challenging and fulfilling in ways you might not even imagine — and scholarly publishing needs more of us.

As publishing continues to transition away from its traditional model into new ones, new institutional configurations arise. New skill sets are needed to facilitate collaboration across campus — skills that do not rest in scholars, technologists, university presses, libraries, research centers and institutes alone. The work of translation among these groups is key, as is an ability to manage projects, prioritize, and provide leadership. The involvement of alternative academics — people who understand the scholarly communication process, the requirements and attitudes of researchers, and who have a familiarity with or interest in digital technologies, contemporary web communication, digital literacy, social media, metadata, intellectual property, e-books, digital preservation, or sustainable business models — are vital partners in our great and forward-moving conversation.