Open access journal profile: Theological Librarianship

The program schedule for the American Theological Library Association’s 2007 Annual Conference in Philadelphia, PA listed a roundtable discussion: “Theological Librarianship: A New Online Journal.” It looked interesting, so I decided to attend.

The roundtable was convened by Andrew Keck, then chair of the ATLA Publications Committee (Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC), and Ronald W. Crown (Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO) and David R. Stewart (Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN), who would serve as co-editors of the new journal.

Specifics of the conversation now somewhat elude me, though I do remember the roundtable was well attended, and the atmosphere was lively and engaged. The prospect that ATLA would have its own peer reviewed publication for professional and scholarly communication was exciting. Thankfully, re-reading the report on the roundtable in the Summary of Proceedings (Volume 61, 2007, pp. 231-232) brings back to mind many of the discussion topics, such as the journal’s planned composition, the peer review process, the prospect of organizing issues around themes, the importance and function of the advisory board, and opportunities for members to write and otherwise contribute. The report concludes:

Judging from how many of the attendees expressed an interest in contributing to the journal in some way, and from the caliber and variety of good ideas brought forward, it is evident that there is a great deal of enthusiasm surrounding this new project. The editors look forward to following up over the coming months. (p. 232)

The inaugural issue of Theological Librarianship: An Online Journal of the American Theological Library Association (ISSN: 1937-8904) was launched in June 2008. The focus and scope of the journal is outlined in the front matter of the first issue:

Theological Librarianship publishes essays, columns, critical reviews, bibliographic essays, and peer-reviewed articles on all aspects of professional librarianship in the setting of a religious/theological library collection (whether or not that collection comprises the entire library collection). The primary intended audience includes professional librarians in colleges, universities, and theological seminaries and others with an interest in theological librarianship in those settings.

The purpose of the journal is to support the professional development of theological librarians; contribute to and enrich the profession of theological librarianship; contribute to and enrich theological and religious studies; and to serve as the official publication of record for the American Theological Library Association.

Policies and Submissions

Theological Librarianship is published twice a year (July and December) by the American Theological Library Association utilizing the Open Journal Systems platform. The journal has a well-established Editorial Team, which works in consultation with ATLA’s Publications Committee, and is served by an Advisory Board. The journal site provides clear Submission Guidelines to assist authors in preparing and submitting manuscripts. Journal contents are published utilizing a Creative Commons “Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivative Works” license. Articles and bibliographic essays are reviewed using double-blind peer review. Other submissions (essays, columns, reviews, etc.) are subject to review by the editorial board.

Funding and Sustainability

ATLA provides a basic budget for the journal, including modest stipends for the Editorial Board, infrastructure support (server space and software maintenance), and a layout editor. This financial and infrastructure support from the Association is essential to the success and sustainability of the journal.

Open Access: “We sense that we are part of something bigger”

The Open Journal Systems platform provides wording for a generic “Open Access Policy,” which is also included on the Theological Librarianship site. But looking back on the roundtable in 2007 and the editorials in the first couple of issues of Theological Librarianship, it is interesting (from the perspective of this blog) to note that the term open access as such was never used. Concerns at the start seemed to be more practical and less “ideological” (if that is the right word). The journal was going to be published online using an open source platform as a cost consideration. Co-editor David Stewart indicated a concern that making the journal subscription-based would have driven down interest. “ATLA wanted to have a more direct channel to potential readers.” The fact that the journal would be easily distributed to and accessed by the ATLA membership, and freely read by other interested persons, was seen as a consequential benefit of this approach. Stewart essentially confirmed my assessment:

The point you make about open access being a more pragmatic concern for ATLA and Theological Librarianship early on is well taken. I would surmise that what is true for our journal at this point is true for many others as well: there’s been a certain amount of collective “consciousness-raising,” and the lines have been drawn more clearly between traditional publishing models and OA. In other words, 2007-08 turned out to be a propitious time to be launching an open access journal, in ways we didn’t appreciate fully at the time.

Indeed. As I scanned the editorial and article content in the journal archive, it wasn’t until the third issue (Vol 2, No 1, 2009) that an article by Kevin Smith entitled, “Open Access and Authors’ Rights Management: A Possibility for Theology?” (PDF, pp. 45-56) actually raised and then delved into the concept of open access as a topic for serious reflection and purposeful action. It was Smith’s article that introduced me to the idea that theological librarians, associations, and institutions might embrace a “task of building an ‘open access culture’—a phrase that continues to served as an inspiration for this blog.

David Stewart provided me with some additional background leading to ATLA’s decision to start the journal. Jack Ammerman, head librarian at Boston University’s School of Theology at the time, had earlier developed a plan to start a “Journal of Theological Bibliography.” He had also explored online publishing platforms, including OJS. It was his idea and prior groundwork that “morphed into something broader,” becoming Theological Librarianship.

As an interesting footnote, Stewart shared that the publisher of the Journal of Religious & Theological Information had earlier approached ATLA about taking on this title as its official publication. ATLA turned down this option because the association wanted to retain more editorial control and ownership than was envisioned by the publisher. Stewart reflected how going with a publisher using a traditional subscription-based model would have sent ATLA in a different direction—away from open access.

I asked Stewart what he and the other members of the editorial team have learned along the way, now that Theological Librarianship is in its fifth year of publication.

Opportunism is at least as important as expertise. Good infrastructure matters. The value of a proofreader. We now know first hand that in many ways it is not that complicated or expensive (at least on Open Journal Systems) to launch a journal. We have also learned something about our community—how many of them want to write for the journal!

It is fair to say that the “ideological” benefits of open access have become more clear as the journal has gotten up and running. The recent event in Durham [see my “Into the Open: Transitions in Journal Publishing” (moderated discussion at Duke University)] was something of an eye-opener. There is a growing disenchantment with traditional publishing. We are part of a much bigger shift in publishing, and (somewhat to our surprise) some who are considering the open access option view us as a “model” of what the process looks like—and are asking for our advice. We sense that we are part of something bigger.

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Posted in Economics & Business Models, Interviews (Journals), OA Policies, Open Access, Publishing Platforms, Scholarly Associations
6 comments on “Open access journal profile: Theological Librarianship
  1. Judging from my personal and recent experience, as an author, of the peer review process used by TL, it is rigorous and thorough. Open Access in no way needs to mean “dumbed down.”

  2. akeck13 says:

    Thanks Gary for making us think about origins and history again as a journal. We have moved from questions about having sufficient writers and readers to now having difficulty imagining the profession without it. The open access piece was also part of a desire to have the publication internally focused to ATLA members but to have articles, essays, and reviews that might inform a global audience of librarians as well as others involved in theological education.

  3. Gary, Just a short update– our scope and purpose now matches our bylaws. Not a lot of change, but you can view it here: https://journal.atla.com/ojs/index.php/theolib/about/editorialPolicies#focusAndScope. Also, one thing David alludes to, but doesn’t detail, is the enormous response we have had from readers around the world. We have stats from Google Analytics and from our Facebook page that verify we have readers who are not our ATLA colleagues! Our reach is growing and that is because TL is open access.

  4. […] of scholar-publishers to produce their own high-quality journals. As was surfaced in my recent profile of Theological Librarianship (which publishes on the OJS platform), there is a growing body of […]

  5. […] utilized each approach to good effect. For example, Theological Librarianship (which I profiled here) publishes two issues a volume/year, though they don’t adhere slavishly to a set number of […]

  6. […] profiled Theological Librarianship as an interested observer on the blog in March 2012. I am very pleased […]

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