SYP Scotland: Libraries as Publishers

Posted on February 27, 2021 in Scotland


On Thursday night, three panelists gathered to discuss Libraries as Publishers, accompanied by chat and lively engagement by a community of viewers both learning and already knowledgeable. Introduced by our events co-ordinator Yasmin Hackett, Barbara Burke, editor of the National Library of Scotland’s magazine Discover, and Aylson Stewart, artist and zinemaker from Edinburgh Zine Library and Kelvinhall Library, joined chair Rebecca Wojturska, a librarian specialising in academic publishing, to discuss all things library publishing.


The panelists began by discussing how library publishing differs from traditional publishing. Aylson explained that the zine library, which sits within Central Library in Edinburgh, is reference-only, covered by a creative commons licence. She explained that the library doesn’t have a huge publishing outlet itself, but more facilitates others’ creation and access to zines. When Rebecca commented on the similarities of their experiences despite a vastly different output, and that her own role also works with creative commons licenses, Aylson explained, ‘this is people’s intellectual property, we have to treat it with respect’. As she described zines as ‘the antidote to mainstream media’, an outlet for people who might not see their voices, stories or niche interests represented in traditional publishing, it was clear to see that libraries, as the holders of these stories, must respect and protect them.


The ability to tell niche or untold stories is something Barbara also has the opportunity to do in Discover, explaining that as a free magazine, they have ‘free rein’ and experts on-hand in the library to discuss their areas of interest with depth and passion, giving the reader an insight into the exhibitions and material available at the library. 


Rebecca touched on expertise as important in her role; like Aylson at the zine library, she is not the publisher but the facilitator of publishing, and in her role provides expert knowledge and guidance, wearing ‘many hats’, something which the panelists find they have in common. Discussing the difficulty of marketing a product from the library, Barbara explains that with a free magazine, there’s no ability to track or gather data on what aspects people have read or enjoyed. Aylson commented on the physical form of a zine, requiring people to come to it, and Rebecca found this similar to her experience, explaining that in publishing academic journals, most people had to seek out the topic being published. ‘You either start to get a bit creative with marketing, or you start to really love metadata’, she laughed. She explained, however, that publishers in libraries have a unique benefit over traditional publishers, with the ability to talk directly to librarians, the people who put the publications in readers’ hands. Aylson described the ‘camaraderie’ in the zine community in Scotland, that even though it requires physical reading, the informal networks, workshops and fairs are ‘almost like shooting a flare up into the sky’. Barbara described a similar, growing connection with readers; that in the magazine’s first issue of the pandemic last winter, she got the sense that people were reading it cover to cover, even taking to social media to comment on what they’d read. In a time where people can’t access the library and make their way around the exhibitions, the magazine was connecting them to that community.


The panel turned to the topic of inclusion; where their publications and libraries currently sat, and how they could do more. Rebecca explained the importance of Open Access, that providing access to academic publications without requiring a subscription removes barriers for the reader, and that Open Access publications don’t require a cost to submit or peer-reviewing, and so gate-keepers are removed on the other end too. However, she explained, the existence of those publications being online-only means that they aren’t accessible to people without access to the internet, explaining ‘internet poverty is very real’. There are also significant issues with unpaid labour in academic publishing, she said, and that compensating peer reviewers would be a ‘good place to start’. 


Aylson described zines as emerging from fanzine culture, but also being prominent in second wave feminism and Queer culture. By that nature, she explained, they encourage diversity and inclusion, and, while the physical form means that they can be hard to access, the library removes any payment barriers and gives the creators the opportunity to show their work more widely. Barbara explained that Discover is limited in only being able to tell stories related to their exhibitions, but that some of those curations are now trying to seek out the unrepresented people in those stories, describing recent representation of female adventurers and pioneers, one wife of a diplomat who, ‘if she was in a different position, her papers would have been published years ago.’ It’s ‘baby steps’, Barbara comments, but in recently calling for underrepresented writers, they received hundreds of applications and look forward to including more voices and stories in future publications. 


The panel finished by explaining what they believe to be important about libraries as publishers; providing access to publications without barriers and facilitating connection, whether that be within a community, or between the library and a person who might not have felt it was a place for them. The discussion finished off with a Q&A from the viewers, who had been talking throughout in the comments and on Twitter. You can follow those further questions and watch the full discussion on YouTube here . You can follow Aylson here, the National Library of Scotland here, and our event chair Rebecca here


Tickets and information about SYP Scotland’s next event, our 2021 conference Ctrl Alt Refresh, can be accessed here, and you can follow along on with this and all other things  SYP Scotland on our Twitter

Keira O’Sullivan