We had hoped to include this interview with Bryn Geffert in the February issue of Against the Grain but space limitations are forcing us to wait until the April issue. However, given the interest in Bryn’s innovative efforts in starting Amherst College Press, we thought we would post the interview on the ATG NewsChannel now.  Enjoy!

ATG Interviews Bryn Geffert, Librarian of the College at Amherst College

 

By Tom Gilson (Associate Editor, Against the Grain) <gilsont@cofc.edu>
And Katina Strauch (Editor, Against the Grain) <strauchk@cofc.edu>

 

ATG: You came to Amherst College after serving as Library Director and associate history professor at West Point.  That must have been quite a transition.  Can you tell us about it?

BG: It was a big transition, but not as big as one might think. Certainly there are major differences: no Division I sports at Amherst; no physicals; and no five-year commitments to serve in the United States Army after graduation. But West Point is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal arts institution, and it takes the humanities, social sciences, and the ethos of a liberal education every bit as seriously as does Amherst. Both institutions are committed to racial and economic diversity, and both devote incredible resources to assembling and supporting an usually smart and serious body of students from all segments of society.

ATG: What gave you the idea to start Amherst College Press?  With all of the academic presses out there why should libraries get into the act?  Is running an academic press really part of the library’s mission?

BG: We believe that academic publishing is broken. Only the wealthiest institutions can afford to pay commercial publishers the prices they demand for the literature our faculty give those publishers for free. The vast majority of academic literature is inaccessible to most the world’s populace. In other words, the public enjoys little access to research ostensibly produced for the public good. It would be hard to devise a system of scholarly communication that circumscribes access to scholarship more parsimoniously than the system we have now.

Libraries serve the entire public, and they succeed only to the extent they make information universally available. Thus libraries find themselves working within (and utterly dependent on) a system antithetical to their mission.

Our only option, we believe, is to help create a new system. We hope that the Amherst College Press, through its commitment to high-quality, open-access publishing, will be one step in pursuit of this larger goal: universal access to good scholarship.

ATG: Evidently you’re not the only one who envisions the library as a publisher.  Over 50 academic libraries, in collaboration with the Educopia Institute, have founded the Library Publishing Coalition.  Is Amherst College Press part of the coalition?  If so what do you all hope to accomplish? Are there other library sponsored presses that serve as a model?

BG: We’re waiting to learn more about the LPC and the work it will tackle. Smart and creative people are behind it, and Amherst remains an interested observer.

The University of Michigan serves as our chief inspiration. Michigan decided to rethink the traditional split between the academic press and the academic library by merging its press and library and then using resources from the library to help the press make its books available for free. In other words, Michigan is using resources from the library to produce work that libraries (and most other people) are increasingly unable to afford.

This is Amherst’s goal in a nutshell.

ATG: You’ve said the that starting the Amherst College Press is a real leap of faith.  What do you mean by that?

BG: It remains to be seen whether a new and untested press can attract good manuscripts. We believe it can: the Amherst name has some cachet; our editors will offer excellent editorial support; and our commitment to open-access will provide authors an audience heretofore unimaginable. But we’ll need to work very hard to attract the best work available.

ATG: You also talk about a crisis in academic publishing.  Per-student costs for books and journals have soared and you say the system by which academic materials are published is at fault.  How so? And how can library sponsored presses help address the problem?

BG: Yes, academic publishing is in a full-blown crisis. It’s time to rethink the fundamentals.

Our grand vision runs something like this. When some presses (Amherst, Michigan, Penn State, Utah State—the list expands each year) make literature freely available, everybody—including libraries’ acquisitions departments—enjoy free access to that literature. Free literature means less literature to purchase. Less literature to purchase means fewer expenditures from acquisitions budgets. And fewer expenditures from acquisitions budgets means more money for expenditures elsewhere

When enough institutions begin issuing free publications, the savings that other institutions achieve will more than cover investments they then devote to producing free publications themselves. In other words, when some critical mass of presses make their publications available to everybody with an Internet connection, the savings realized by libraries and their parent institutions will more than offset the expense of running a press themselves.

When enough libraries enter publishing, and when enough libraries partner with existing university presses to produce free information, we will, collectively, not only make literature universally available; we will also save ourselves a great deal of money.

Such a vision also assumes that libraries and academic institutions can summon the courage to cancel subscriptions to unreasonably priced journals, databases, and big packages. We must resolve not to be bullied by large, commercial conglomerates. Such resolve is difficult to summon, but it can be done. Amherst is quite proud, for example, of cancelling its subscription to Elsevier’s ScienceDirect. We must now demonstrate that academic institutions can launch publishing operations every bit as good—and more cost effective—than those now draining our budgets.

ATG: Amherst College Press will focus on the humanities, correct?  How do you plan to get buy-in from humanities scholars, some of whom still look at digital publishing as less prestigious?

BG: Some humanities scholars do, indeed, still look askance at digital publishing. It is not for me to quibble with their objections. But Ithaka’s surveys demonstrate that such concerns are declining. As electronic publications become ubiquitous, and as we welcome a new generation of scholars into the professoriate, unease with electronic texts will decline further. In fact we expect that opportunities for experimentation now afforded by electronic publishing will attract a cohort of authors that cannot find these opportunities at more traditional presses.

ATG: What kinds of materials do you plan to publish? Books? Journals? Something else? And how many items will you publish generally over the next several years?

BG: We’ll focus on long-to-medium-sized narratives, e.g., on “books” and, perhaps, lengthy essays a la University of Chicago Press “Shorts.” We have no plans to publish journals, a format in which good, open-access work is already underway.

ATG:  Will Amherst College Press expand to subject areas beyond the humanities?

BG: Probably not. We’ll be a small operation, and it will be important not to overextend. I expect just a handful of tightly defined lists.

ATG: The quality of peer review and copy editing has been called into questioned in some open access – all digital efforts.  What specific plans do you have in place to provide the rigorous peer-review process and strong editing and copyediting that would allay such concerns?

BG: There is no question that thousands of open-access publications are edited atrociously, if edited at all. But the same is true for thousands of commercial publications that charge through the nose. (See an article I wrote for the Chronicle last year bemoaning editorial standards at commercial presses:http://chronicle.com/article/Libraries-Publishinga/126755/)

I submit that declining editorial standards have nothing to do with whether a publication is open-access or closed-access. The only relevant question is whether any given publisher is willing to devote the time, money, and personnel needed to perform the skilled, painstaking, and difficult work that constitutes good editing

In the job description we’re writing for the Press, we’ve inserted a line that reads, “Editors will edit, treating manuscripts not as nearly finished products, but as raw material from which better products can emerge. Editors will evaluate arguments, question structure, demand clarifications, call for trims, and massage prose. Quality will trump quantity.”

And, of course, all work under consideration will be sent to appropriate experts for peer review.

ATG: Can you talk a little more about your vision of the ACP peer review process? Will you ask for outside peer reviewers and will it be double blind? How do you see peer review evolving in this kind of situation?

BG: We’re absolutely committed to outside peer review. Some have questioned the double-blind process, but we believe in it.

For me, the interesting question is how a new press might supplement (not dispense with) traditional peer-review. I’m intrigued, for example, by Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s decision to solicit online feedback on her book, Planned Obsolescence, as she wrote it. She speaks eloquently about how such feedback improved the work. Whether we experiment with supplemental crowdsourcing is a question for the new director.

ATG: Given that Amherst College Press materials will be digital, open access, and free how will you fund the project?  Will authors or their academic departments have to pay fees to get published? And on the other side of the coin, will they receive royalties

BG: We will not charge authors or academic departments.

Our business model is pretty simple. Amherst is raising funds for an endowment, the interest from which will cover the director’s salary. The library will donate two additional salary lines—lines made free due to retirements—to fund two more editors. Amherst’s IT department will help us install and maintain a publishing platform. A staff member in public affairs has offered to handle design. We’ll cover all other expenses (e.g. freelance copy editing) with interest from existing library endowments.

Decisions about payments to authors await the arrival of a director.

ATG: We understand that you will be hiring a director and some additional staff.   What will be their responsibilities? Do you see a role for existing library staff in developing and/or supporting Amherst College Press?  And more broadly, how do you see the relationship between the library and Amherst College Press evolving?

BG: As a small operation with just three employees, all members of the Press will wear multiple hats. We envision something like the following: a director responsible for planning, management, building lists, and even editing; a senior editor with primary responsibility for soliciting manuscripts and editing; and a managing editor skilled in both editorial work and production, including oversight of freelancers.

As for cooperation with the library: the Press is central to the library’s mission of providing high-quality information to everybody, everywhere, regardless of means. As the Press takes shape, it must function as a co-participant with the library in realizing that vision, wherever that vision takes us.

We also want the Press to integrate itself into the campus at large. Too many academic presses live on the real and figurative outskirts of their institutions, prompting uncomfortable questions (usually unfair) about how and even whether they contribute to the institutional mission. We want the Amherst Press visible not only within the library but across the entire institution. What this means in practice we don’t entirely know. At the very least, however, it will mean talks and lectures by authors under contract with the Press; seminars and conferences in subject areas supported by the Press; programming with Amherst’s new humanities center; and internships for students.

ATG: Starting an academic press, not to mention your duties as library director must take a lot of energy.  How do you recharge your batteries?  What do you for fun and relaxation?  Do you have hobbies or other outside activities?

BG: Teaching recharges my batteries, and I have a great bunch of students this semester at Smith in a class on Russian religious thought. I like to run, and, when I’m not injured, I try to do the Boston Marathon each spring. I also officiate high school basketball; nothing takes one’s mind off everyday pressures like a crowd of partisans screaming at you.

 

 

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