Archive Fever

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Last week I spent a couple of days in Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library, flipping feverishly through the papers of the Association of University Presses for the book on the history of American university presses I’m working on. I’ve finally finished cataloging my pictures and have begun going back through them and trying to get down all of the thoughts I had about them mid-flip. A lot of what I found interesting was about the origins of the AUP. (Here ends any useful reference to Derrida’s book on the origins of psychoanalysis, alluded to in this post’s title.)

I want to know more about the formation and early stages of the AUP (formerly the AAUP, until 2017, when the constant confusion with the American Association of University Presses apparently became too much to bear) not just because every story needs a good beginning but because the formation of the association happens at the time that university press publishing in the US is starting to come into its own, to see itself as an industry, albeit one forever tied to the individual campuses where presses live and to the scholars they serve. At moments like these, the tensions that animate institutional histories are made visible.

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Take this description, from writer Christopher Morley’s preface to the first joint catalogue (titled Shelfward Ho!), issued before the association was formed, of the motivation for this new project: “Thirteen university presses, pooling their interests, have here listed sixty-five of their most exciting recent issues and and set out for a serious invasion into Bœotia.” Framing a catalogue designed to get scholarly books before a wider audience as an attempt to invade Bœotia–the region of Greece that ancient Athenians used as shorthand for ignorance and dullness–is of course meant to be funny, but it is also potentially telling, at least as concerns the way university presses saw their place in the world.

Also telling is the consistent early jokiness seen in the self-references made by Chicago’s20191015_110651.jpg Donald Bean and other representatives of the future members of the AUP. Calling themselves “producers of highbrow tobaccos” and “bootleggers,” even producing a pamphlet for a 1932 meeting arguing for greater coordination among themselves and with commercial publishers called “The Story of Pure Tobacco,” seems evidence of an anxiety about their position, though whether it was about being businessmen with such an unpromising product, disseminators of scholarship working in the unscholarly world of commerce, or some combination of both, I’m not yet sure.

It certainly seems connected to the tensions between the book business and the business of scholarship that persisted through the twentieth century and today. When press subsidies are cut, when presses are threatened, when traditional monographs seem impossible to publish given pressures on presses to be self-

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sustaining–whenever the question of what university presses are for and how should what they do be paid for–the old tensions embodied in “The Story of Pure Tobacco” are in play. The same is true when you look at the persistent lure of the crossover book, the title accessible and welcoming enough to Bœotians that they might shell out enough drachmai to support the publication of the light-selling scholarly monographs; the invasion into Bœotia is an attractive prospect, but it costs money to mount that kind of invasion, and it doesn’t always pay off. Likewise, the university press’s part in the ongoing contest over the value of the humanities has roots in these origins: beyond the esoteric knowledge produced for knowledge’s sake in the book-centric humanities disciplines, the argument over whether they have something to offer to the Bœotias surrounding the college towns and university-rich cities has become part of the argument for continuing to support them or for continuing to support them less and less.

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Origin stories are funny things; you can sift through the past and find the parts of the story you want to tell. As I sift, I’m coming across evidence of ingenuity as well as of old boy chumminess, of a cooperative spirit against a landscape of haves and have nots, of the amount of time it took to do anything before email, and I don’t want to leave any of this out. I want to end up telling a complicated story about the history of university presses, one that does justice to the many different possible stories, the failures and the successes, the bleak crises and rosy futures, and in doing so to make my own argument for the value of the whole enterprise, in the form of a university press book.

 

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