What Was a University Press?

What follows are extracts from University of Minnesota Press director Douglas Armato’s presentation at the 2012 Charleston Conference on Issues in Book and Serial Acquisition. These are snapshots of the history of the university press; debates about the humble “monograph”; and a model for the future of scholarly communication. You can also read the full text here.
Published as part of University Press Week, Nov. 11–17th. Click here for a full blog tour schedule.


· The first book published at an American university was at Harvard in 1636.

· The first formal university press established at Cornell in 1869 – heralding a familiar phenomenon of university publishing operations being closed or threatened with closure, the press at Cornell ceased business just six years later, in 1884, only to be resuscitated in 1930.

· The longest continually operating university press was founded at Johns Hopkins in 1878.

· At the height of the Depression, university presses were being founded at a rate of about one each year, a rate which continued through to the 1970s, when the end of the Federal subsidies for university libraries under the Cold War Era National Defense Education Act began the long slide in library monograph purchases, the “Monograph Crisis,” that gained speed with the “Serials Crisis” of the 1980s and faces new challenges with the movement toward Open Access today.

· In the late 1970s, more than 70% of university press book sales were to libraries, with the rest—to bookstores, to individuals scholars and graduate students, for course use, and overseas—seen as “icing.” That “icing” now overwhelms the cake itself, with libraries accounting for only an estimated 20% to 25% of university press sales. Yet amid this career-long “crisis,” university presses have in fact held their own, with overall sales even increasing by about ten percent over the past, economically difficult, decade.


· At the center of the debate over the future of scholarly communication—and the future of university presses—lies the humble monograph, of which libraries complain they do not get enough use and presses complain they do not get enough sales. Someone always seems to be to blame for the monograph—authors for writing them, publishers for publishing them, libraries for not buying them. A recent blog post from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s estimable Jennifer Howard carried the impatient headline “Ditch the Monograph.” Kathleen Fitzpatrick, in her book Planned Obsolescence proposes that scholarship could be better carried out in blogs than monographs. And my own author, the media scholar and philosophical provocateur Ian Bogost, diagnosed in his recent Alien Phenemonology that too often scholars write “not to be read, but merely to have written.”

· So what is the scholarly monograph and why are we still publishing them? The Webster’s definition of a monograph is “a learned treatise on a small area of knowledge” and most other dictionaries follow suit. But for scholarly publishing purposes, I have my own definition: “a monograph is a scholarly book that fails to sell.” At the time when the University Press Ebook Consortium (now part of Project Muse) was forming, I found myself in a heated argument with a fellow university press director on whether there was any such thing as individual, non-library purchasers of scholarly monographs. After an hour, I finally realized that he exempted from his definition of “monograph” any book that actually sold or had significant course use or bookstore sales. Monographs, thus, are what we in university presses call the books that don’t sell.


· Arguably, libraries and presses have been evolving in different directions, but if that divergence gets much wider it will lead to chaos and to a less-rigorous system of scholarly communication precisely at the moment when the explosion of information and discourse demands more interlinked systems.

· Some will say, have said, that presses are an evolutionary dead end—a “dinosaur”—and eagerly await their extinction in the tar pits of the open web, a commercialized mire that, frankly, is just as likely to swallow libraries. But I wouldn’t count presses out. Presses have innovated constantly and continue to do so. A university press launched Project Muse and we collaborated eagerly in the creation of JSTOR, cornerstones of Humanities and Social Science scholarship. And the e-book programs on both those platforms have the potential to bring new life and usage even to the disparaged monograph. After all, how many believed that journal backfiles could gain such usage before the advent of JSTOR?

· What I see ahead for the humanities and social sciences is an intensely innovative, hybridized environment for university scholarly communication—one that encompasses both open access and nonprofit models, scholarship in university repositories and that published by presses in the established forms of e-books and e-journals, large digital humanities initiatives, and a lively constellation of individual and collaborative scholarly blogs, micro blogs, and websites. In many cases, specific research projects will span and flow across all these forms in what I think of as a process of endosmosis and exosmosis, from less concentrated scholarly forms to more concentrated ones such as the monograph and back again.

· Why are scholarly publishers and specifically university presses needed in this emerging environment when freely available software make self-publishing an option for any scholar and when libraries increasingly are expanding their own missions to become publishers, but without the presses fiscal burden of cost recovery? The answer for me is that publication by a university press, by an entity with a mission that extends beyond its own institution, means something both academically and economically—it is both an evaluative process of editorial assessment, peer review, and faculty board approval and an evaluing in terms of the press’ decision to invest financial and personnel resources in a particular author’s work.

· Over the past decades, university presses have sponsored scholarly work in areas that in many cases were discouraged or actively disparaged by university departments themselves—areas such as feminist studies, Chicano Studies, GLBT Studies, emerging areas of inquiry such as work on tourism, sports, and video games. Literary theory as a method flourished on the lists of university presses long before it had more than a toe-hold in language departments, presses focused on African-American history while vestiges of segregation still existed in universities themselves, even areas of science such as human genetics and cognitive science, once both thought of as marginal, were aided by the recognition provided by the presses at Johns Hopkins and MIT. Sometimes accused of rushing to “trendy” areas of scholarship, university presses at their best provide an alternate locus of accreditation for emerging areas of scholarship and scholarly method and, by working across institutional boundaries, help to correct for localized pockets of conservatism. As universities now address their budget crises by combining departments, shuttering interdisciplinary centers, and tightening tenure opportunities, university press imprints will be even more important to innovative and boundary-challenging scholars.

· University presses will survive and continue to evolve for this reason as well —that while new modes of scholarship continue to forecast “the death of the author,” the author is far from dead. Take it from a university press publisher, they bang down our doors, and not just to satisfy tenure and promotion requirements. And scholarly authors care: they revise diligently in response to peer review and editorial feedback, obsess over how their monographs are edited, titled, produced, publicized, and sold. Authorship is more than communication; many of the best academic blog authors are also recent university press authors. As long as there are scholars who consider themselves authors, there will be university presses.


Douglas Armato is director of University of Minnesota Press, where he also acquires titles in digital media and social theory. In collaboration with the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota, he developed the Mellon Foundation-funded Quadrant initiative, which seeks to redefine how faculty and presses collaborate in developing publishing programs. He is a past president of the Association of American University Presses and also served two terms on that group’s Board of Directors. He has regularly spoken on issues of scholarly communication and digital publishing.

Read the full text of this presentation here.

University Press Week blog tour next stop: University of Illinois Press.

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