Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
If you were wondering whether Edwin Mellen Press’s lawsuit against librarian Dale Askey (which is still going forward) and its threats of legal action against the Scholarly Kitchen were bizarre one off (two off) occurrences or part of a larger pattern, consider this line from a recent article about Edwin Mellen Press (Herbert W. Richardson is the founder of the press):
“Mr. Richardson says the lawsuits are only the beginning of his counterattack.”
The above quote comes from the rather hyperbolically titled article “Herbert Richardson v. the World” by Jake New at the Chronicle of Higher Education. It is an interesting article insofar as it manages to provide some very valuable insight into the founder of Edwin Mellen Press (EMP), and seeks to give—perhaps—some idea as to the reasons behind EMP’s legal responses to criticism.
Though the Chronicle (as is made clear in the article) has itself been on the receiving end of EMP’s ire in the past (particularly regarding things written in the comments section of the site) the article nevertheless aims to present a fairly sympathetic portrait of Mr. Richardson.
Indeed reading Richardson’s story (as it is presented in the article) makes one come away wondering how a person who felt isolated and persecuted by larger powers could then turn around and sue a librarian for a critical blog post. Mr. Richardson is described in the article as a serious and respected “scholar of religious studies” who spent many years as a professor at St. Michael’s College (which is affiliated with the University of Toronto). As a Protestant professor at a Catholic university Mr. Richardson was willing to hold fast to his positions against the university’s turn towards orthodoxy, Richardson was:
“Asked to sign a document pledging a strict adherence to Roman Catholic teachings. He declined, citing academic freedom and using his tenure as a shield.”
While a professor at St. Michael’s, Richardson founded Edwin Mellen Press with the original goal of using it to publish doctoral dissertations from St. Michael’s students; however, this matured over time with EMP developing a commitment to publishing academic works that might not have the same broad popular appeal as books published by some other academic presses. As the article notes:
“Mr. Richardson says, Edwin Mellen Press looks for work that may appeal to only a few dozen… he says he was only interested in whether a work contributed to scholarship—just about any kind of scholarship. The press has published books on topics as varied as the health problems of migrants living on the Thai-Burmese border to the role of parrots in fiction throughout history.”
The article devotes further words to describing the selection process used at EMP as well as to describing the conditions that saw Richardson lose his position at St. Michael’s (for those interested in the details I recommend that you read the article). Within the article the author devotes quite a few inches to describing the conditions of Richardson’s dismissal, writing:
“To Mr. Richardson and some observers, his case is a textbook example of a phenomenon known as academic, or workplace, mobbing, a type of bullying in which members of a department or university “mob” a colleague through isolation or embarrassment.”
Mr. Richardson comes across in many ways as quite a sympathetic person: a professor willing to buck the administration, a publisher willing to support the publication of somewhat obscure scholarship (that is meant as a very high compliment). And while one comes away from the article understanding Richardson’s experience of persecution it does not explain his sudden turn towards prosecution.
In earlier posts on this topic I noted that the larger damage done by going after librarians for expressing their professional opinions is that it simply makes others wary of voicing contrary opinions. Or, as the article succinctly puts it:
“And in some ways, his legal threats are working. Several current and former colleagues of Mr. Richardson’s interviewed for this article refused to speak on the record out of fear they would be sued.”
This is extremely unfortunate—and there is clearly a line between questioning the policies of a press and slandering an individual. Indeed it is the job of librarians—and other information professionals—to assess the quality of various presses, and at times this can take the form of criticism.
And there are certainly options that EMP could have entertained as responses to criticism other than legal action, or threatened legal action. Or, as Dale Askey (who is still being sued) is quoted as saying:
“”The Web allowed me to criticize Edwin Mellen Press,” Mr. Askey says. “The Web should also allow Edwin Mellen Press to defend itself. If he wants to be heard, it’s there for his use, as well.””
These lawsuits don’t aim to continue a conversation or a debate they aim to stifle it. And thus such legal moves take on the same quality of the website comments that so offended EMP: in the name of a conversation (or “comment”) what it really does is put an end to intellectual debate, which requires give and take.
The main conclusion I drew from the Chronicle piece was a sense that Mr. Richardson knows what it means to be persecuted for taking stand, but in this case it is not Dale Askey or The Scholarly Kitchen with the threatening power. It is Mr. Richardson and Edwin Mellen Press.
For the sake of the scholars who have published with EMP, for the sake of librarians who want to be able to honestly assess presses, and for the sake of Mr. Richardson’s reputation, let us hope that the suit against Askey is dropped.
And dropped soon.
Librarianshipwreck’s past postings on this topic:
Also of interest: