v31#2 ATG Interviews Maria Bonn, Associate Professor, the School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

by | May 23, 2019 | 0 comments

by Tom Gilson  (Associate Editor, Against the Grain

and Katina Strauch  (Editor, Against the Grain)  

ATG:  Professor Bonn, prior to your teaching appointment at the School on Information Sciences, you served as associate university librarian for publishing at the University of Michigan Library where you managed the University of Michigan Press and Scholarly Publishing Office.  

Can you tell us more about that?  What were your specific duties? How did you meld the interests of the library and the interests of the university press?

MB:  I began the Scholarly Publishing Office around 2000, with a small staff of two brand new librarians and myself tucked away in some unused carrel space in the stacks.  Over the next several years, I led that organization as it grew to a substantial unit within the library, responsible for a busy open access publishing operation supporting a couple of dozen journals and a large portfolio of born digital monographs and digital scholarly publishing projects.  Eventually, I became the inaugural lead of the organization now known as Michigan Publishing.  In that role, I oversaw the traditional activities of a well-established University Press as well as its forays into digital innovation, the development of an array of library-based publishing services and the creation and management of strategic publishing partnerships with other academic institutions and with private companies.  It was always my goal for the various publishing sectors to be mutually reinforcing and for them to teach one another as well as to embrace and celebrate their shared passion for the advancement of scholarship. The library was able to offer the press some economies of scale in areas ranging from IT support to HR, and brought to the press deep experience with digital innovation in delivering scholarship and an equally deep commitment to understanding users and uses of scholarship.  The press, with its attention to external validation and market worth, expanded the library’s perceptions of measures of value and methods for connecting to audiences.

ATG:  During your time at the University of Michigan, what key projects did you participate in?  Which publishing and scholarly communications initiatives were you most proud of?

MB:  Michigan Publishing itself, bringing together library and press publishing as well as the institutional repository, is my proudest accomplishment.  It represents a significant institution of higher education thinking deliberately and purposefully about its publishing strategy and coordinating its resources to effect that strategy.  Embedded within that effort I have many points of pride. I guided the press in opening a significant portion of its backlist in HathiTrust.  I worked with medical historians to publish an expansive encyclopedia of the great American influenza epidemic of the early nineteenth century, an encyclopedia that documents the common characteristics of communities that escaped the epidemic, offering us guidance on how to contain future outbreaks.  I put hundreds of thousands of out of copyright works from UM’s holdings back into print and back on the market through Amazon POD.  I created a sustainable publishing environment for dozens of open access journals, and I helped shape online publishing systems for scholarly books that exploit the affordances of the Web and its ability to present scholarly evidence.  Those are just a few examples. I did a lot, worked with an extraordinarily talented staff, and I had a lot of fun.

ATG:  We’re curious, how did you locate the University of Michigan out of copyright works and what was the process for getting them sold through Amazon?

MB:  We began with works that had been digitized through the Making of America project, works identified as published in the United States in the 19th century and thus by definition out of copyright.  We worked with Book Surge, a print on demand vendor to set these up for reprint.  As our relationship with Book Surge developed, that company was acquired by Amazon where it supported Amazon’s early forays into print on demand.  When the University of Michigan library agreed to provide books for the Google Books project, we quickly obtained digital files of more than 400,000 books that were suitable for reprint and could be identified as public domain through automated analysis of the bibliographic metadata or through the HathiTrust Copyright Review project.  A fortuitous meeting at a conference led to an agreement with Hewlett Packard to apply their newly developed automated processes for de-skewing and cleaning digital files of scanned books and making those files print ready.  HP then passed the files on to our partners at Amazon’s Create Space.  Some fairly extended negotiation ensued with all the interested parties about file ownership, transfer and security, but since agreement was reached those POD ready files have lived at Amazon and appear in the Amazon store.  They have been joined by others, and the books that they make possible continue to sell, in ones and twos, but steadily.

ATG:  Publishing, and more broadly scholarly communication, are two of your main research interests.  From what you’ve learned about publishing, what role should libraries and librarians be playing in the academic publishing environment?  How can they have an impact and provide relevant value? Regarding the broader world of scholarly communication, where do you see libraries and librarians fitting in?  What role are they currently playing? What role should they play?

MB:  At one level, a high one, I want to say that scholarly communication is the work of academic libraries.  Academic libraries are all about hosting, facilitating, amplifying, and preserving the scholarly conversation.  The work of libraries supports that conversation being carried on over time and in the moment, and across borders of all kinds.  It’s the role that libraries have played, and if we remain true to the mission of research and teaching so central to our institutions, it is the role we should play.  I would be hard pressed to name an area of research library work that does not touch scholarly communication.  Libraries have increasingly recognized their value in supporting the creation and dissemination of research and its products.  We need to continue to gain confidence about our effectiveness in this work. And we need to prize our special access to the aspirations, anxieties and potential of our communities and use that access to inform the development of effective and timely services and to direct strategic intervention in both the academy and the marketplace.

ATG:  What skills do librarians need to bring to the table if they expect to have influence in scholarly communication and publishing?  Does the MLS offer adequate opportunities for librarians to gain these skills and develop this influence? If not, what can iSchools do to provide the necessary knowledge base, training, and qualifications?

MB:  Librarians, and other information professionals, need to bring deep understanding to the table, understanding of scholars and their communication needs and understanding of the work of publishing in the commercial marketplace and in other venues.  They need to understand the multiple economies at work in scholarly communication and that there are many drivers. Intellectual passion, social commitment, and corporate greed are all in play across all sectors.

In more specific terms, librarians need more awareness of copyright fundamentals and author’s rights;  how open access is a vehicle for advancing author’s rights; the breadth and depth of academic publishing, how it functions, who the stakeholders are and what they want;  the practices that led us to this moment in scholarly communication; trends and different possible futures and their role as professionals and contributors in those futures.

My own research to date indicates that librarians engaged in scholarly communication work were not well prepared for that work through their coursework in iSchools.  They report learning through internships, student assistantships and on the job, as well as engagement in the community. As an educator myself, I automatically reach for “we should teach more courses,” but iSchools should also be engaging with publishers, in libraries and in the marketplace, to understand the skill sets and professional orientation that would best prepare our graduates to work in publishing.  We should communicate the importance of these topics to LIS students, be aware of and share information about the growth of these topics in the job market, and how they intersect with other areas due to the changing nature of library work. iSchools need to understand and embrace support for scholarly communication as an integral piece of the information professions. Regardless of where a librarian might work in an academic library, we all support and influence scholarly communication to varying degrees, so these issues aren’t isolated to folks working in scholarly communication and adjacent areas.

ATG:  We know from one of your presentations at the 2018 Charleston Conference that you and your colleagues are developing an open educational resource (OER) for teaching issues in scholarly communication.  We’d love to learn more. Can you give us a status report? What kind of response have you had so far?

MB:  Our project has two prongs.  Josh Bolick, Scholarly Communications Librarian at the University of Kansas, Will Cross, Director of Copyright and Digital scholarship at North Carolina State University, and I have been collaborating for two years to develop an Open Educational Resource to support education in scholarly communication.  We began with the notion of a textbook, probably an edited volume, bringing together a number of experienced voices in the field. We began with that, and we’ve stuck with it.  I’m delighted to say that we have an agreement with ACRL to publish an openly licensed textbook.  If we are as diligent as we plan to be, this should be released in 2020.  But we also realize that scholarly communication is dynamic and that some of the most valuable perspectives come from current practice, so we plan on launching a complementary repository of OERs solicited from the community, resources that might be slide sets, podcasts, videos or, you know, essays.  We’re currently calling this the Scholarly Communication Notebook (SCN), a nod to the Open Pedagogy Notebook by Robin DeRosa and Rajiv Jhangiani.  Our vision is that the SCN will support individual learners, both those new to the profession and those looking to “tool up” or gain new skills, and that it will complement the textbook in the classroom, providing faculty with resources to support their instruction.  We were fortunate to receive IMLS funding (LG-72-17-0132-17) to support the research and planning phases of this work.  With the planning phase concluded, for now, we are seeking both funding and contributors to make the SCN a reality.  The response from the library scholarly communication community has been enthusiastic, and it’s a compelling part of this work that it gives that community a voice and venue for sharing its experiences and its expertise.

We hope by making this work open and doing this work as collaboratively as possible, that a community of practice continues to build around it and we move forward together in ways that support evolution in scholarly communication and publishing.  There’s a lot of related activity, too — The Open Textbook Network’s OER Boot Camp, SPARC’s OER Leads, the LPC Library Publishing Curriculum, and Creative Commons Certificates, to name a few — so we see ourselves as part of a broader shift that advances awareness of scholarly communication topics at scopes/levels suitable for the interest of the learner, either as introduction or deeper dive.  I hope your readers will keep their eyes on this space. (https://lisoer.wordpress.ncsu.edu/)

ATG:  Maria, do you think we should have a scholarly communications track in the Charleston Conference program?  Would you and your colleagues be interested in working with the Conference to develop one?

MB:  I’d have to explore that with my collaborators, of course.  We’re always excited about opportunities to broaden the conversation about scholarly communication.  The Charleston Conference is so deeply embroiled with the work of scholarly communication and those who support it, from both the commercial and the academic world, that I immediately have questions about how an independent track could be peeled apart from the overall conference.  It would be great to talk with you about how that might be done and infused with the values of openness and inclusion that are so central to the work we’re doing and so important for scholarly communication.

ATG:  We also notice that the economics of information is a key interest of yours.  How does this concept relate to libraries? Why should practicing librarians be concerned about it?

MB:  It is probably more accurate to say that I’m interested in the economies of information.  How the scholarly communication market works in largely capitalist societies is important to understand and to address through library purchasing and licensing negotiations.  But dollars aren’t the only currency of the academy. Value in the academy is also reckoned in terms of prestige, reputation, research impact, and student success. It’s measured by public awareness and engagement, by the good will of constituent citizenries.  Awareness of all of these economies and their intersections and tensions can help practicing librarians to make better decisions about how to invest their resources of time, money, and attention and in doing so make clearer their own value proposition to their home institutions.

ATG:  Are there other research topics that you are planning to explore in the future?  Speaking of the future, do you have any predictions about the future of libraries and scholarly communications?

MB:  My other current area of research is scholarly collaboration in the humanities and the way in which it connects scholars and their audiences.  The twinkle in my research eye is looking into the lessons that academic libraries might learn from public libraries and independent bookstores, lessons about connecting with their communities.  My prediction for academic libraries and scholarly communication is that scholarly communication will continue to be the work of academic libraries. And it will be different work every year.

ATG:  Can you elaborate on what fascinates you about scholarly collaboration in the humanities?  What role do you foresee for libraries in fostering this collaboration?

MB:  The stereotype of lone humanities scholars toiling away in libraries and archives or at their desks is not entirely without foundation.  The humanities have largely been about individual projects resulting in single authored books and articles. But the rise of the digital network gives rise to new human networks.  Humanities scholars are discovering others who share their interests and theories in new and accelerated ways, creating a foundation for collaboration. I’m fascinated by the kinds of projects humanities scholars undertake as they come to appreciate the possibilities of collaborative work.  And I’m also intrigued by the struggles that ensue. Because such collaboration is relatively new to the culture of the humanities, we see those scholars recognizing the need for skills like project and budget management, how to store and manage data, and how to use the internet and its platforms to represent and share their results.  These are skills already well situated in academic libraries and those libraries can offer both training and support. And many librarians have well developed critical faculties, great research skills and strong project management experience, qualities that prime them for becoming fully invested collaborators themselves, key partners in successful humanities scholarship.

ATG:  You stay incredibly busy teaching at the School of Information Sciences and presenting papers at professional gatherings like the Charleston Conference.  But we all need to take time to re-energize and get ready for the next challenge. What are your favorite ways to relax and recharge? Are there any activities that you particularly enjoy when not teaching or presenting at conferences?

MB:  I take a lot of long walks with my underworked border collie (she, like me, likes to keep an eye on everything and keep things moving along) and, when I can, get my hands in the soil of my garden overlooking the Strait of San Juan de Fuca at my second home in Washington.  I enjoy making a big mess in the kitchen and feeding my family well enough that they don’t complain too much about cleaning up, and I get my running shoes on the road enough so that I don’t embarrass my fleet footed 13-year old son who passed up his old mother’s 5k time years ago.  Running shoes are more practical to bring to conferences than garden spades and kitchen knives.

ATG:  Prof. Bonn thanks so much for talking to us today.  It was a pleasure learning more about you and the important work that you are doing.  


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