‘Libraries as Publishers’ and Encyclopaedias

In this lecture we learnt about the work of a research librarian and the potential for academic libraries to get involved in publishing. Diane Bell (@dianelouisebell), research librarian at City University, gave us a talk entitled ‘Developing digitally: researchers, social media and libraries as publishers’. We also explored the world of reference publishing, with a talk from Katharine Schopflin (@schopflin) on encyclopaedias.

Libraries as publishers

Diane Bell’s work encompasses three main things:

  • helping with resource discovery and publication
  • collection and service development
  • building partnerships between researchers and academic staff

Training researchers is a big part of this and I was interested to hear of the variety of topics she covers with them from library inductions to strategic literature searching to open access to using social media to create an online presence.

City University has an institutional repository, City Research Online, which provides open access to research by staff at the university. The library helps run this service. In other universities, libraries are also involved in helping to run university presses. For example, libraries at Stanford University and John Hopkins University help run the electronic publishing initiatives of these institutions – HighWire Press and Project MUSE respectively. And in 2015, UCL will launch UCL Press, which will make all publications available open access in digital form as well as commercially in print-on-demand and ebook formats. This will be a division of UCL’s Library Services although it’s not clear exactly what involvement librarians will have.

Libraries as publishers arguably makes a lot of sense in the academic context, whether it be managing an institutional repository or publishing electronic journals. For librarians’ skills in metadata and their understanding of the needs of both authors and end-users means they are well placed to support scholarly communications. Also, the serials crisis makes it imperative for librarians to have more influence in scholarly publishing and push open access. Whether or not the resources for these initiatives are available is another question. In the US, university presses have been helped by institutional/grant funds as well as by organisations like SPARC – the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (Harboe-Ree, 2007). However, the current financial climate doesn’t bode well for UK institutions.


In the second half of our lecture, Katharine Schopflin (@schopflin), librarian and information manager, gave a talk on encyclopaedias. Having written her PhD on the subject, she was able to cover everything from the ancient versions known as summa to Wikipedia and also to explain the complex ways in which these vast works are put together.

We started with some definitions. Katharine described the characteristics of an encyclopaedia as:

  • accurate
  • unbiased
  • up-to-date
  • authoritative
  • covers its subject in sufficient and appropriate depth
  • succinctly written

In practice, it seems that most encyclopaedias display some of these characteristics but not all. Britannica, a commercially published online encyclopaedia, is written by researchers and so is likely to be accurate and authoritative. However, even though it’s updated daily, this probably isn’t true for every article. On the other hand, Wikipedia is edited by so many volunteers that individual articles are more likely to be kept up to date. And yet, these volunteers may not have the same expertise as Britannica authors to cover topics in sufficient depth. And as most Wikipedia editors belong to a narrow demographic it is debatable whether its articles present an unbiased view. Research cited by Heather Ford (2014) has shown that ‘Wikipedia’s representation of place is skewed towards the developed North’, that its ‘coverage of history suffers from an over-reliance on foreign government sources’ and that there are ‘significant gender-associated imbalances in its topic coverage’.

The work that goes into creating an encyclopaedia is considerable. Katharine defined it as follows:

  • market research
  • long-term projects
  • permanent editorial teams
  • continuous revision
  • electronic production
  • metadata

Apparently Oxford University Press has been particularly successful at using metadata. All its products, from journals to reference works to the Very Short Introduction series, have to provide the same, rich metadata, which can then be used to search OUP’s content in various ways from its search and discovery gateway, Oxford Index. With the reference publishing industry struggling to compete against free alternatives, perhaps such value-added tools are the future for this market.

For me, part of the interest of the lecture was also learning more about the first encyclopaedias, including Diderot and d’Alembert’s. Their ‘tree of knowledge’, which prefaced the encyclopaedia, shows Memory, Reason and Imagination at the top, showing perhaps a desire to promote the Enlightenment ideal of scientific knowledge:


Source: Wikimedia Commons

I like this image as it shows how encyclopaedias aim to give structure to human knowledge but are also biased in their world view. However much we try to be objective, when we write about the world we do so through a ‘filter bubble’ (Ford, 2014). This doesn’t mean that encyclopaedias aren’t useful but it does encourage us to be sceptical about claims that they represent a neutral point of view.


Ford, Heather (2014). Wikipedia and breaking news: The promise of a global media platform and the threat of the filter bubble [online]. Available: http://cii.oii.ox.ac.uk/wikipedia-and-breaking-news-the-promise-of-a-global-media-platform-and-the-threat-of-the-filter-bubble/

Harboe-Ree, Cathrine (2007). Just Advanced Librarianship: The Role of Academic Libraries as Publishers. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 38:1, 15-25, DOI: http://www.tandfonline.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1080/00048623.2007.10721264


Digital innovation in trade publishing and libraries

Publishing is apparently the largest creative media sector in England and Scotland. Our guest lecturer for week 7 of LAPIS was Dan Franklin (@digitaldanhouse), Digital Publisher at Penguin Random House (PRH). Dan’s job, amongst other things, is to develop PRH’s digital products and services. Here is a list of some of the projects he is working on:

As Dan said, ‘it’s not just a book at the end of the process’. These days, authors could have their work turned into an app, an enhanced ebook (i.e. an ebook including multimedia and/or interactivity) or, in the case of Stephen Fry’s A Touch of Fry, a digital storytelling competition.

It’s clear that digital products and services are a growing interest for publishers. With ebook sales set to surpass physical book sales by 2017 (Statista/PWC), this is perhaps no surprise. However, the goal of Dan’s work doesn’t seem to be just to sell more books. For example, part of the interest of My Independent Bookshop is that it provides data about trending books and authors. And through Jellybooks, an e-reading platform, PRH can analyse things like length of reading sessions and approximately how far into a chapter readers abandon a book. It seems like a strange way to analyse a creative work but could perhaps help with editorial decisions.

So how are libraries meeting the increased demand for ebooks? With difficulty it seems as major publishers such as Macmillan, Penguin and Simon and Schuster will not make titles available to the UK library market (CILIP, 2014). As a result, in 2014, 80% of bestseller ebooks were unavailable to UK libraries (Leech, 2014). What’s more, elending is often restricted by conditions such as only lending to one reader at a time. And another difficulty for libraries is that they can’t lend books for use on the most popular ereader – Kindle.

I wish now that I had asked Dan Franklin about this as it seems to me that elending should be a better and more convenient option for library patrons. I know that the threat to publishers’ sales and the risk of piracy are real concerns for them but it’s not as if an ebook can’t be pirated anyway. And ultimately the library market for elending would only increase publishers’ income if they could find ways to ensure it didn’t impact too much on sales of ebooks. Libraries need to be be able to provide information to patrons in the format(s) they prefer and it’s clear that digital is increasingly the format of choice. Why deny library patrons access to ebooks? A question that I will have to come back to in my coursework for this module and also, perhaps, in later blog posts.


CILIP (2014). Ebooks in public libraries – short briefing [PDF}. Available: http://www.cilip.org.uk/cilip/advocacy-campaigns-awards/advocacy-campaigns/ebooks/briefings-and-resources/ebooks-and-publi-0

Leech, Helen (2014). Amazon, we want to talk to you about Kindle Unlimited [online]. Available: http://www.cilip.org.uk/cilip/blog/amazon-we-want-talk-you-about-kindle-unlimited