Born-Digital Publications: A Conversation between a Librarian and a Publisher

Catherine Cocks's picture

As more scholars start developing multimedia digital projects, librarians and acquisitions editors both play key roles in supporting them and making these projects available to readers. In the following post, a librarian and an acquisitions editor who have collaborated on digital projects talk about how they think about this work and what they’d like to see more of. In this week’s post, acquisitions editor Sara Jo Cohen poses questions to librarian Anne Cong-Huyen. Next week we’ll feature Anne’s questions for Sara.

The Librarian’s Perspective: Sara’s questions for Anne

SJC: What's the coolest digital publishing project you've seen?  What makes it cool?

ACH: We see so many digital projects, many with really lofty and worthy goals, and some doing really fascinating things with platforms and tools, but honestly, the projects that I enjoy the most are the ones where you can tell that a lot of care went into the design, implementation, and engagement of the projects. We’re currently in the early stages of working with an Asian American student organization on campus to create a digital collection of their historical documents (pamphlets, posters, photos, videos, etc.) and to provide a publicly accessible record of Asian American activism on campus. It’s not a fancy project, and it likely won’t get us grants, but it’s been such a delight working with these students who have also diligently engaged their faculty and related departments. They’re even working with faculty to develop curricula related to this project, which is so admirable. They are really demonstrating the importance of public history projects for student of color activism, which is so important and timely considering the shootings in Atlanta and the role of SE Michigan for Asian American Activism. We’re hoping that this project can also serve as a model for other student organizations that might be interested in pursuing similar projects.

SJC: What do you see as the difference between a library project and a press project?

ACH: Interesting question! The library tends to get involved with a really broad range of projects when faculty, students, staff, and community members approach us. At the moment we don’t have a lot of capacity to do too much beside providing guidance and recommending best practices, but we’ll provide that help to anyone. Some projects, like digital collections or online exhibits, have to go through a review process that I imagine is less rigorous than peer review for a press project. These proposals are reviewed by staff in the library who evaluate whether it fits with our collection policies, if we can provide adequate access, whether we can obtain rights to share, whether we can get appropriate metadata, etc. For the exhibits, there is more content review: Is there a cohesive narrative? Are the sample media appropriate? Is there sensitive or problematic content, and, if so, is it adequately contextualized? We don’t have to go through peer review, and if we have staff who can shepherd the work through, it fits within the scope of our work, and we can provide support to make it happen, we try to.

SJC: What do acquisitions editors/librarians add to digital publishing projects?

ACH: I think each role brings such a different perspective to projects. I think acquisitions editors, like you, tend to have much more intimate relationships with researchers and their work, while the digital scholarship librarians often are thinking about practical logistics. We’re less likely to be concerned about scholarly intervention and contribution to the discipline, since we don’t have to think about the market. Though scholarly contribution is not outside the realm of what we think about, we tend to think about other digital projects this project might be in conversation with. More commonly, we help researchers think through practical questions: Is this a feasible project? Are the data and the metadata schema appropriate? Are collaborators on the project getting credit, being paid? Is there a reasonable project management plan in place? Are there reasonable benchmarks and goals? Are the tools, platforms, and processes appropriate for the project? Is it sustainable?

Recently, we’ve also been spending more time thinking about the ethical questions related to data gathering and analyses, the potential harm of a project to the community it represents, ethical research practices, the viability of a project because of scale or scope, etc. We’re trying to help researchers think critically about their digital projects, the tools and methodologies they use, and how they approach these projects.

SJC: As a scholar, if you were looking for a home for a digital project, what would you want from your publisher?

ACH: Are they publishing cool stuff from people I respect and admire? Whose work would mine share a home with? Does the editor understand my vision and intent for this project? I work with a research collective creating experimental and non-traditional forms of creative and critical scholarship that we often publish collectively, and in those cases I want to work with a press and an editor who understand and can help push that work in generative ways without pressure to conform to conventional forms of scholarly publishing.

SJC: What kinds of digital projects would you like to see more of?

ACH: I actually would love to see smaller, simpler, more contained, more sustainable digital projects that are community centered and community accountable. I would like to imagine ways of bringing these projects together, in conversation with one another. I see lots of really ambitious and unwieldy projects that are really resource and labor intensive, and it’s very hard to sustain those projects, to keep them going, and to keep them up-to-date. I’m drawing from minimal computing principles here, and would love to see more researchers embrace those as well.

Sara Jo Cohen is senior acquiring editor at University of Michigan Press, where she works on titles in American studies, media studies, and music. Prior to starting work at University of Michigan Press, she was an acquisitions editor at Temple University Press and an editorial assistant at University of North Carolina Press. She holds in a PhD in English from University of Minnesota.

Anne Cong-Huyen is digital scholarship strategist at the University of Michigan. She was previously the Digital Scholar at Whittier College's Digital Liberal Arts program, and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities and Visiting Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her work appears in American Quarterly, The Global South, The Journal of e-Media Studies, Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, and Humanities and the Digital (MIT Press).

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