An update to my first post on this mostly neglected blog on this here website: I’ve signed a contract with Princeton University Press to write a book on the history of the American university press. A non-comprehensive but wide-ranging look at the history, value, and difficulties of university press publishing in the U.S. with the extremely working title Higher Learning By the Book: A History of the American University Press (I’ll optimistically italicize, since it’s not even a manuscript yet so why bother with quotation marks), it’s still just getting underway. I’ll be visiting archives and interviewing people and reading everything I can find on the subject, which is both a lot and not much–that is, there’s a lot on individual presses and issues and trends but not a lot on the subject as a whole.
Chester Karr’s 1949 AAUP-commissioned study (above) isn’t the last book to tackle the whole subject, but there haven’t been many since. It’s my hope that my book will be the first to tell the story in a way that shows how the history of the institution reflects and influences the history of the modern U.S. and so that argues for its value.
That value is one of the central values of the research university. One of the responses to my essay in the Chronicle last year argued that the big presses were enough–why does every research university need one? The report of the 1957 committee to explore starting one at the University of Missouri (above) contains one good answer. Another good answer is the value of these presses to the knowledge and culture of their state and region, something I didn’t know enough about at the time I wrote that essay–I learned about it from responses on Twitter to my own tweets and responses to the essay. I hope in the next year or so to learn a lot more from the people who work at these presses and from the people who value that work, and to use that knowledge to more fully answer this question. Like the universities and the country in which they thrive and struggle, we do need them, and also like those institutions, we need them to do their best for all of us.
P.S. I’ve just submitted a roundtable proposal for the next MLA called “The Uses of the University Press” on this very subject. I’m hoping it gets accepted and people come and
help me write my book share their thoughts about this question.