This is a guest post by Dan Tracy, the 2018 recipient of the Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Library Publishing. LPC’s Research Committee asked Dan to write a post for the blog to highlight his research and inspire others in the community to investigate topics of interest to our growing field.
“Experimentation in online publishing that would not translate well to pdf is still a good thing…but my suspicion is that the really interesting innovation in digital scholarly publishing is not going to come in modifying legacy formats that people still find useful.”
When the LPC Research Committee notified me that they had chosen my article on user studies in the context of library publishing programs for its annual award, I was delighted and honored. When I began my master’s degree in LIS, one thing that stuck early on was the disciplinary emphasis on understanding the information needs, preferences, and behaviors of different populations as a key element of service design. This concept was (and continues to be, from my ongoing experience with the program as a librarian) probably the foundational concept of one of the required courses at University of Illinois MS-LIS program (which I took with Professor Kathryn LaBarre), and it is a touchstone I come back to in all the work that I do now.
The research that led to this article stems back to a couple of experiences during my first years as a librarian, but the most important was attending the inaugural Library Publishing Forum in 2014. It was an exciting, groundbreaking event, but one that left me with one nagging question: where were the users, by which I mean the readers, of our publications in our design of these services? They were oddly absent from the program and discussion. (I’ll note that I heard more people raising these issues in the second and third forums.) Don’t get me wrong: libraries had and have a lot to do as they build up publishing services, so there is justification in spending a lot of time talking about relationships with authors, models for sustainability, and other key issues that were very much on the agenda. However, in talking about why libraries might have something to offer in publishing, a key theme for the inaugural conference, why not emphasize our tradition of investigation into how and why people use our resources as a strength in delivering publications to users?
This question led to a conversation with Dr. Maria Bonn, who encouraged me to write something about the topic for submission to the Journal of Electronic Publishing. In the resulting article, I analyzed major library organizational statements on library publishing services, and the mission statements of library publishing services from the inaugural LPC Directory, to see if this lack of attention to the tradition of information behavior research in libraries was common in the discourse about the rise of library publishing. And indeed it mostly was: even open access, a presumably user-centered paradigm, was often discussed in the documents I read as a visibility service for authors. It was not so much that user studies was absent, but the focus had shifted to authors and editors as the users, with readers dropping out. The strongest note related to librarians’ strengths in understanding information behavior was buried in a report appendix.
This was, of course, a collection of strategic public statements, and a natural follow-up question was what all these new (and some not-so-new) library publishing services were actually doing in relation to investigating information behavior in relation to their publications. This question is what I focused on in my article for C&RL. It involved a survey that went to all publishing services that were represented in either of the two editions of the Library Publishing Directory to that date. In some ways the findings were reassuring: respondents reported more work in this area than was evident in public conversations. On the other hand, the results also suggested much of the existing work in this area might be due to happenstance (for example, because the publisher just happened to get informal feedback about a usability problem) rather than systematic efforts to assess the user experience of their platforms. Libraries faced challenges in doing more due to (perceived or real) lack of expertise, lack of prioritization, and lack of control over out-of-the-box publishing platforms (for example, not really having the IT support to make significant changes to open source solutions).
Since wrapping up that project, I have been conducting research about academic ebook use, with an initial article about how people troubleshoot ebook problems and make decisions about formats forthcoming in Reference & User Services Quarterly this fall. As I have done this work, it has clarified to me the importance of downloadable formats to the workflows of our users. Notably, in the library publishing survey article, one of the two most common changes a library publisher reported making in response to user studies work was (tied with improving discovery) providing additional digital formats. Web-only publication of ebooks, while they provide the opportunity to experiment with new digital affordances, hamstring our users who, for more than quick consultative uses, want to get to the book, download the parts they need, and get out into their own preferred offline reading apps and devices. Ebooks that do not provide a downloadable format usable offline in a reader’s chosen digital reading environment increasingly appear to me to be enforcing a quasi-DRM in terms of their effects on users, even if they are otherwise open access, Creative Commons-licensed and all.
Experimentation in online publishing that would not translate well to pdf is still a good thing—there may even be further changes that would improve our best ebook formats—but my suspicion is that the really interesting innovation in digital scholarly publishing is not going to come in modifying legacy formats that people still find useful. As I move on to next projects, I am especially interested in emerging, though still as far as I can discern unusual, work on how people make use of newer types of digital humanities publications that seek to provide different kinds of reading (especially multimodal) experiences. What do they make of them? Do they actually interact with the interactive bits, or otherwise engage in ways that might be analogous to “immersive reading” of books? Or do they see a very nicely designed bauble on the internet that impresses them briefly before they move on? Probably it is some mix of both, but if we are going to imagine a future of scholarly publishing (including scholarly publishing for public audiences) in novel digital formats we need to start thinking together about some measures of success that are not just about citation metrics per se, but about whether new forms foster productive audience engagement. I look forward to digging into this problem, and collaborating with others interested in the same problems.
Bio: Dan Tracy is the Information Sciences and Digital Humanities Librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In September he will transition into the role of Head, Scholarly Communication and Publishing at Illinois.