Peter Berkery visits U of California Press  and Stanford UP

Since the beginning of his tenure in March 2013, AAUP director Peter Berkery has been visiting member presses as part of a “listening tour” to introduce himself to the community, accelerate his learning curve, and create an opportunity for in-depth exploration of the ways in which the organization might help university presses embrace the challenges and opportunities presented by a rapidly changing landscape—in publishing and in the academy. While it appeared the tour would wind down in the summer, it has continued. Peter will be chronicling highlights from his visits on the Digital Digest.


by Peter Berkery, AAUP Executive Director

I enjoyed two unique perspectives on the potential impact of technology on our community during the Bay Area leg of Listening Tour II: first, a focus on innovation at the University of California Press that resonates with my own prior publishing experience and later, some provocative new ways to think about how AAUP can serve its members from the folks at Stanford University Press. Both experiences were gifts, and I’m grateful to the many Left Coast denizens who shared their time and talent in order to make them manifest.

First stop, Berkeley. Alison Mudditt and her team are literally reinventing UCP, in ways that are exciting and–from my perspective–essential. Let me begin with some background: my career in legal publishing spanned those heady years in the late 90s when we migrated our product line from print to electronic (first, over proprietary dial-in lines, but as soon as Al Gore invented it, then the via internet). There are two significant features from this experience that are relevant to UCP’s (r)evolution.

First, the same publisher still owned the content, customers, and its central role in the process when the migration was complete. It’s caused no shortage of sleepless nights for me contemplating the possibility that the same centrality of all our university presses may not be a given once the technology disruption and its consequences achieve critical mass in our neck of the publishing woods.

Second, the truly revolutionary thing about our migration was what followed it. Most customers found the initial journey painful. After it was over, however, and they had settled into a life of online research, they began pushing us to go further, to make our content do more. For example, in the print world, we would provide binders full of sample forms and clauses for estate planning attorneys. Not long after we digitized that content, cutting-edge practitioners and authors began asking us to also automate the underlying workflow by developing document assembly software.

Under Alison’s leadership, UCP is following a similar trajectory, and their plans strike me as having similar logic. The UCP team is rebuilding in ways that will support their goals, including the recent hiring of a Director of Digital Business Development. Like legal publishers back in the day, UCP has a vision for how technology will transform scholarly communications. They have a strategy and an execution plan; as my old boss at that legal publisher used to say, “I like their chances”.

But the patina of general inevitability I’ve attached to the evolution that occurred specifically in legal publishing gives me pause today. Most university presses lack the scale to successfully undertake such large-scale initiatives; even the few Group Four presses who’ve attempted apps have been humbled by the experience. I can’t shake the feeling that a common platform automating the scholarly workflow may be critical to maintaining our centrality in the digital age. I hope to flesh this out more on future Listening Tour stops, and I welcome your thoughts on the notion.

Back across the bay, my visit with Stanford University Press yielded a completely different, yet equally exciting and challenging revelation. After touring their impressive new digs, still awaiting its finishing touches, I met with the staff in a groovy open-plan meeting area. (And I mean groovy: I quite literally found myself sitting in a “Doctor Evil” chair!) We were having an interesting exchange about my role, what AAUP is, and what it could be, when Chris Cosner, their IT Manager, began to articulate some of the limitations of our current listservs: listservs are hard to search … communication is too linear and hierarchical … collaboration is virtually impossible … email triage is a challenge … and so on.

As he was speaking, I began drawing parallels between what Chris was saying and the periodic soul-searching the association undertakes with our committees. Despite seemingly biennial reviews, it appears to me that we labor under the recurring belief that whatever AAUP’s current committee structure happens to be at the time, it doesn’t serve us optimally: there are too many committees, a few have outlived their purpose, one or two never have a clear understanding of what they’re meant to be doing, communication is a challenge, and so on. Don’t get me wrong: the association is blessed with an abundance of talented and dedicated volunteers who devote countless hours to AAUP committee business, but still—at a macro level—we seem unable to shake the sense that we’re not always as well served by committee efforts as we might be.

Then it struck me: perhaps AAUP needs to reinvision how technology can automate its own workflow–evolving from listservs to true online collaboration tools, from committees to communities. Just as technology reinvented lawyers’ workflows, and just as it is reinventing scholarly communication, perhaps it’s time to think about how it can revolutionize the ways in which the association provides platforms for its members to collaborate. The notion of communities really resonates with me, and when I shared it from my groovy chair, I think it resonated with others as well. To the extent this realization qualifies as an epiphany, full credit goes to the folks at Stanford who brought me to it. In any case, the discussion was a gift, and I am thankful for it. It will take more input to validate, and even more of that time and talent to implement, but it was one of those special conversations that makes me grateful for the opportunity to visit so many presses in person.

Next up: a report from Group One …