Lever Press Seeks to Promote Accessible Digital Scholarship

A group of 57 colleges and universities spread throughout the country have collaborated to create Lever Press, an open-access publishing platform that aims to make high-quality, liberal arts-focused digital scholarship more accessible. Oberlin College is among the press’ partner institutions and Azariah Smith Root Director of Libraries Alexia Hudson-Ward sits on the oversight committee.

To date, Lever Press has released four books, with several more on the horizon — the press recently released a catalog revealing a number of titles slated for publication in 2020.

According to Hudson-Ward, Lever Press was originally envisioned a few years ago by a group of 80 library directors from selective liberal arts colleges.

“The group came together and said, ‘We have to figure out a way to have high-quality open-access material available for our students, and also to provide another publishing pipeline for talented faculty,” Hudson-Ward said. This need was identified in response to larger presses that seek to profit from scholarly research.

Currently, Lever Press comprises several committees that draw from faculty and staff at partner institutions. Significant among them are the press’ editorial board, which sets a vision for its content, the oversight committee, which provides strategic guidance, and the operations group, which handles production logistics.

Associate Professor of History at Haverford College Darin Hayton is the current chair of Lever Press’ editorial board. He described the press’ work as having the potential to fundamentally change the way that scholars and students alike interact with research produced by liberal arts institutions.

“This press is a radical intervention in scholarly publishing,” Hayton said. “Here’s an open-access press that doesn’t charge author’s fees, doesn’t charge any reader fees. … That’s astounding. And we do it with the full rigor of standard academic publishing.”

Lisa Trivedi is professor of history at Hamilton College and former chair of the editorial board, which she continues to sit on. She shared that, while Lever Press doesn’t focus on a particular genre of content, it does seek work that fits the press’ overall vision.

“We are not interested in hyper-specializing in a particular field,” Trivedi said. “It’s typical for academic presses to have particular strengths, and what we see as really important is that liberal arts focus. … So we’re looking for manuscripts that are communicated in a way that is broadly accessible.”

According to Beth Bouloukos, director of the Amherst College Press and Lever Press’ senior acquisitions editor, finding content for a press depends heavily on networking.

“The acquiring editor is like a baseball scout in the sense that we go out and talk to the rising stars and the established people (the scholars, in our case) to populate our teams (the book lists),” Bouloukos wrote in an email to the Review. “Acquisitions editors at university presses shepherd manuscripts through peer review and board approval.”

Bouloukos added that Lever Press shares the same model as the Amherst College Press, which she directs — the key difference is Lever Press’ consortium approach to funding.

For Hudson-Ward, the consortium model represents one of Lever Press’ greatest strengths.

“Small liberal arts colleges oftentimes cannot afford to have presses producing at [the same level as large universities],” Hudson-Ward said. “We wanted to figure out a way to expedite a high-quality, open-access publishing engine that we all collectively could contribute to financially, so not one institution would be solely burdened with all of the startup and maintenance and management costs.”

Due to these potential financial limitations, Lever Press needed to find a sustainable location for its work to be hosted — and it did in Fulcrum, a digital publishing platform that was created at the University of Michigan in 2015. Charles Watkinson, Michigan’s associate university librarian for publishing and director of the University of Michigan Press, described how Fulcrum supports Lever Press’ work.

“[The] publishing is really about helping authors who are doing digital scholarship to create a preservable, discoverable, and accessible publication that has the form of a book, but actually has multimedia embedded, 3-D models embedded, interactive maps, and things like that,” Watkinson said. He added that Fulcrum’s funding has largely come from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Hudson-Ward argued that Michigan’s support is indicative of Lever Press’ broad-based appeal.

“It’s interesting, you wouldn’t think [Michigan] would have a dog in this race — they are big, gigantic Michigan — but the fact that they partnered with us on this shows how universal open access is in the context of libraries,” she said. “We don’t silo ourselves. We’re all supporting each other around this important work.”

Both Hudson-Ward and Hayton see Lever Press’ mission to publish broadly accessible digital scholarship as having a strong social justice element that should appeal to students.

“We’re now in this war with these major corporate entities that are seeking to continuously monetize the experience of information,” Hudson-Ward said. “We’re fighting that battle in a different way — [your] voices are going to matter now, because as the years go on and we have fewer and fewer corporations that are controlling information, we need you all to say [that] it is important that people have access to information.”

Trivedi also shared that October is Open Access Month, giving students, faculty, and staff further reason to appreciate the work that librarians have put into creating the Lever Press platform.

“The libraries are basically repositioning themselves as not only producers of scholarship, and not only curators of scholarship, but also as preservers of knowledge,” Trivedi said. “The University Press began at Oxford and Cambridge as a means of making sure that [every] important new discovery was available and preserved for generations to come. And the way that publishing was commercialized in the last 30 or 40 years really chipped away at that critical relationship between scholarship, teaching, and the library. I think the librarians are really doing an extraordinary service for all of us.”

While Lever Press is young and using an untested model, many — including Hudson-Ward — are optimistic about its future.

“We’re definitely stepping out on faith, but we’re excited about the fact that we are also asserting the importance of the liberal arts,” she said.