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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 11

Library literature and the gift economy

I tend to spend a little more time than I should reading about writing and publishing, one of those activities that makes you feel a bit too productive without having to do the actual work of writing! "How-to" writing about writing often emphasizes that authors should never give away their work for free. This is great general advice, helping greener freelance writers avoid being taken by unscrupulous publishers who benefit – sometimes greatly – from the fruit of their labours without offering appropriate compensation.

(Interested in more general writing? My favourite e-zine on the subject is WritersWeekly.com)

Professional writing, however, is a whole other ball of wax. In the library field, for example, few publications provide monetary compensation to authors – and, in the case of peer-reviewed journals, entire review boards (and often editors) also donate their time to reviewing and editing authors' manuscripts.

Giving back, moving forward

So, what makes writing for the library literature different? Our common bond as members of the profession in itself gives us reason to participate. We all give back to the profession in different ways – some of us get passionately involved in associations, others lobby for libraries and librarians, and some of us write for the library literature. Librarianship as a field is built on the contributions and conversations of its members.

Not enough for you? Well, let's try enlightened self interest!

More than one observer has remarked on the natural affinities between librarianship and the open source software movement, arguing for the increased use of open source in library applications. We can go further, and think about participation in the library profession as in some ways analogous to participation in the creation of open source software.

Individual contributors to open source software forego monetary profit, but find other less tangible benefits in participating in the open source community. As a February 3 2005 Economist article on the "Economics of sharing" puts it:

"In the context of open source, much has been written about why people would share technical talent, giving away something that they also sell by holding a job in the information-technology industry. The reason often seems to be that writing open-source software increases the authors' prestige among their peers or gains them experience that might help them in the job market, not to mention that they also find it fun".

Writing for publication in the library literature – a major way of participating in the library community – offers similar advantages in terms of prestige, experience, and even fun! Should you always write for free? Of course not, but don't let monetary compensation be an automatic deal-breaker. Writing for the literature offers the following benefits:

  • Name recognition. If you think about the "who's who" of librarianship, most of the big names in the field are big names at least partially because of their publication record. While we are a fairly small field, we are also fragmented and spread out, and many more people will get to know you through your writing than will necessarily meet you in person.
  • Résumé fodder. Academic librarians obviously realize the importance of listing publications on their CVs, as well as the part research and publication plays in the tenure and promotion process. Any librarian, though, benefits from the opportunity to include a "Publications" section on her résumé, showing her professional involvement and demonstrating that she has thoughts on the issues of the day.
  • Reputation building. Beyond simple name recognition, your writing on a given subject gives you the chance to become known as an expert on that subject. As your reputation grows, so, too, do related opportunities – you may be asked to write, present, or opine further on your topic of choice; you may have the chance to build connections with others who are expert in the field.
  • Advancing the literature. Writing for the library literature provides the opportunity to contribute to something bigger than any one person. While your article or blog entry or book or review is in itself a miniscule part of the whole, each contribution interacts as part of the ongoing conversation that builds our professional foundations and advances the field.

Overall, the more you write for the profession, the more opportunities will come your way and the more you will feel a part of the larger whole.

You will note also that most of these opportunities are maximized when access to your work is also maximized. I've talked before about the advantages of publishing online, especially in free, open-access venues. (See previous instalment 6 and instalment 7). The library literature of course contains a healthy mix of publication outlets, both free and fee–but take accessibility into account, along with other considerations, when choosing an outlet for your work.

Cases to study

  • Case #1: A regular, unpaid book reviewer for Library Journal is invited to apply to write a monthly topical review column, on the strength of her reviews and writing on similar topics. She now writes a paid column each month.
  • Case #2: An enthusiastic blogger is contacted by an editor at a library-related publishing company, and now is under contract to write a book that builds on some of the information and ideas he previously blogged.
  • Case #3: An author of a reference work is contacted by a magazine editor and asked to contribute a feature article on a similar topic.
  • Case #4: Another author's book is reviewed favourably in the literature. The review attracts the notice of a conference organizing committee, and she is invited to fly in and do a conference workshop on the topic.

Just as in your job hunt, your name recognition, skill-building exercises, and enthusiasm can lead to a successful writing career. Putting your words out there is another way of beginning to build a network; people get to know you by what you have to say. So join on in, showing that you are someone worth knowing!