The current generation of college students faces many existential challenges. For good reason, the fight against climate change has recently received significant attention in the national media and in this publication, but it is not the sole crisis that we must contend with. Another fight that has intensified in recent years is the one over access to information, particularly as threats to net neutrality and sources of publicly available information have mounted.
For many colleges and universities around the country, October is Open Access Month. In recognition of this occasion, the Review chose to spotlight Lever Press, an important digital scholarship initiative led by a consortium of liberal arts colleges, including Oberlin. A feature story about Lever Press is on page 1 of this issue (“Lever Press Seeks to Promote Accessible Digital Scholarship”).
In many ways, Lever Press is taking a stand on important questions on digital access in the 21st century — particularly as those questions pertain to the work of liberal arts colleges like Oberlin. This stand is important for a number of reasons. First, as Azariah Smith Root Director of Libraries Alexia Hudson-Ward, who sits on Lever Press’ oversight committee, is right to argue, battles over the public accessibility of reasoned, well-researched digital scholarship have a strong social justice component. Over the last several decades, larger presses have moved towards publishing models that make important scholarship more commercialized and less accessible.
If this trend continues, it will compromise the mission of institutions of higher learning in a significant way. Already, so much important scholarly work is kept behind paywalls and protected by other means of social and economic exclusion — such practices only heighten the ivory tower and lessen the impact of scholars at Oberlin and elsewhere.
Perhaps more importantly, this commercialized approach to academic scholarship loses sight of how colleges and universities are capable of producing the kind of knowledge and innovative solutions that can push the world forward in concrete, progressive ways. Part of Lever Press’ work is to chart a path for colleges and universities to once again fulfill this core part of their missions.
The second, connected statement that Lever Press makes as an organization is around the essential value of a place like Oberlin. In a time when the landscape of higher education is rapidly shifting, small liberal arts colleges need to find a way to set themselves apart from the competition; Oberlin, for example, needs to make the case for why a high school student should pick them over, say, the much-cheaper honors college at their local state school.
Students, faculty, and staff at Oberlin and peer institutions already understand that there is something fundamental about the liberal arts approach that contributes to a deeper, more nuanced, and more critical worldview. Such institutions certainly aren’t the only place to develop these perspectives, but they’re an excellent option. Still, many of them — and Oberlin has certainly been guilty of this — have floundered in attempting to articulate why exactly this is the case, and the time for small liberal arts schools to passively rest on their laurels expired a long time ago.
Lever Press reminds us of the kind of language we can use to describe what makes a place like Oberlin special, because its very mission articulates the way in which it attempts to set itself apart from presses operated out of large, research-intensive universities. The press’ consortium approach is reminiscent of the style of leadership found in an Oberlin co-op, and all members appear to have fully bought in — a remarkable level of consensus.
Further, Lever Press’ editorial board’s stated goal is to publish work that carries with it a liberal arts ethos — not a pretentious snobbishness, but a commitment to producing scholarship with the potential to make a tangible impact, and to making sure that scholarship is shared with anybody who wants to read it. That spirit of sharing and communal support is certainly familiar to anyone who has engaged in scholarship at a liberal arts institution, and it’s exciting to see these values being woven into a digital publishing platform that will hopefully bring forth some of the most exciting, impactful scholarship of the next decade and beyond.
Finally, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the profoundly important role that librarians — including Hudson-Ward, but library directors at other partner institutions as well — have played in bringing Lever Press’ vision to life. They are, as a member of the press’ editorial board put it, the unsung heroes in rebuilding the connections between scholarship, teaching, and the power of libraries, and we are indebted to them for it.
Lever Press is charting an exciting course, and it will be incumbent on students, faculty, and staff — at Oberlin and elsewhere — to both support their work and consistently push it to be even better. The accessibility of scholarship has had dramatic impacts on the path of human history, and the same will be true of the future. It’s in all of our interests to ensure that the liberal arts values enshrined in Lever Press become those that we boldly embrace as we step forward into increasingly uncharted territory.