Mentorship, open access and violin memes: my time as an intern at the Open Library of Humanities

Posted by Paula Clemente Vega on 21 September 2021

Mentorship, open access and violin memes: my time as an intern at the Open Library of Humanities a blog post by Francesca Tambellini

My name is Francesca Tambellini, and from 28 June to 9 July 2021, I became the Open Library of Humanities’ first ever intern. 

I am originally from Lucca, a small town in central Italy, but moved to the UK in 2013 to pursue a Music degree at Falmouth University. In 2017, I moved to London to work in theatre. Since then, I not only was general manager of a major off west end theatre, but held positions at a tech start-up, a government agency, a cinema and a university. As this professional mishmash might suggest, I felt a bit aimless. That is, until in 2019 I decided to go back to university to study English at Birkbeck. I have always had a passion for literature, and I initially went into this degree to increase my chances of getting a job in trade publishing. As time went by, I became more and more fascinated by the behind the scenes of academic publishing. 

The flaws inherent in the current publishing model became apparent to me through both my professional and student lives: as mentioned, I work in a university, specifically in grants management – I have been a front row witness to the difficulties early career researchers encounter in order to secure funding for open access publishing. And we are talking about researchers who have the full backing of a major university – what about those who cannot count on that kind of economic support? At the same time, as a student, I fought a constant battle against paywalls, those relentless dragons guarding the treasures of academic knowledge. 

It was while I was mulling these problems over that I serendipitously happened to stumble upon an advert for the post of Editorial Officer with the Open Library of Humanities. Here was an organisation that had been working to solve the very problem I had been considering, offering a fair subscription-based collective funding model that allowed for a democratic distribution of publication costs, thus opening up the field to young researchers, who can publish and access quality work without being out of pocket or relying on institutional funding. While I did not have the necessary experience for the role, I reached out to Martin Eve, declaring my love for his organisation and asking whether they might want an intern over the summer. He only took a moment to check in with the team (like the publication costs, the decision making at the OLH is also democratised) before offering me a position. It is a testament to the OLH’s true openness and sheer dedication and passion for open access – all they wanted to know was that I was as passionate about their work as they were (or, well, nearly so). 

The team is scattered across the UK (including Scotland) so, even pre-pandemic, they have always worked remotely. On day one, I hopped onto Discord (an instant messaging platform) and met with the five-people team of the OLH – there is a wonderful sense of authenticity and care in each team member, and it is obvious that everyone is there because they deeply care about what they are doing, which showed in their welcoming attitudes and helpful insights throughout my time with them. 

I worked for the Open Library on a part-time basis for two weeks, with each week divided in three days of working with the Editorial team, one day with Marketing, and one with Tech. 

In my time in Editorial, I copyedited articles for two of the OLH’s journals. It was a great opportunity to peek behind the scenes of the academic publishing process and understand the very specific place in which a copyeditor sits within that process. I also helped out with the OLH’s very first licence audit, and, as I went through the OLH’s various journals with a fine toothed comb to locate any licencing issues, I was able to really understand the huge scope of their publications, and the amazing interdisciplinary work they are putting out (for free!) Of particular note was an article on the use of classical music memes in response to the pandemic. In my own research, I am very interested in the inevitable encounters between “high” and “low” culture in online spaces, so this one was particularly fascinating. Plus, I got to look at some pretty entertaining memes about violins. 

As previously mentioned, the OLH always operated remotely, so the tech team is central to everything they do. They designed, built and continue to manage their own publishing platform, Janeway. As a native Italian speaker, I was given the unique task of helping translate the front end of Janeway into Italian. It was a great look into the various cogs that make up the open access submission process. I definitely learned a huge amount of open-access specific terminology, which I did my best to render in my native tongue, whilst leaving my little Italian mark on the OLH. 

Fridays were Marketing days. It’s Friday now, as I write this blog. This day is dedicated to giving me the space to learn more about the open access model, explore the various ways in which the OLH markets itself, and to reflect on what I’ve done in the previous days. I had the opportunity to discover the webinar series hosted on the OLH’s YouTube channel, which offers discussions with editors and OLH staff on humanities subjects. Yet another way in which this organisation provides quality content for free

I would be amiss if I did not mention the wonderful mentorship offered by the Editorial team, Dr Rose Harris-Birtill and Dr Eleanor Careless. They both took the time to give me an insight into the journeys that led them to their current positions, and to offer advice and encouragement. Publishing is notoriously a very difficult industry to break into, and it was great to hear about the experiences of two people who, like me, did not catapult into it straight after university, but took time to explore other avenues, returned to their studies, and then found a field they were truly passionate about. 

As someone who has just started their journey into academia, these two weeks have not only been a great first step into academic publishing, but also an illuminating peep into the politics and the economics of academic research and publications. As a student, I have been taught about the contents of many papers, but no one ever mentioned the machinations that go on behind the scenes, which ultimately bring a specific paper rather than another one to our eyes. Do publication costs bear more of a weight on the publication of a paper than the paper’s merit? Does the language in which that paper is published do the same? How different would academia be, how different would our fields of research be, if money played no part in the publishing process? These are all questions I was able to pose thanks to my internship at the OLH. Whilst studying at Birkbeck made me a more critical reader, this internship made me look behind the ‘what’ of the content to the ‘why’ of the paper itself. 

I am now off to finish my studies with a better awareness of the environment I am moving in. I am hoping to continue studying and hopefully work somewhere which, like the OLH, promotes lifelong learning outside of traditional institutions and levels out inequalities in the academic field. Before I conclude this little blog, I would like to thank the whole team at the OLH for the unique opportunity, for the passion and the care they put in their work, and for their revolutionary contribution to the world of open access.

Many thanks to Francesca Tambellini from the OLH team for her kind words and for all her valuable help during the internship.

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