Monday, November 12, 2012

Why Do We Need University Presses?

As part of the University Press Week blog tour, we have a post today from UMP author Ned Stuckey-French and sales representative Bruce Miller Ned and Bruce have collaborated often over the past several months, mobilizing the campaign to save the University of Missouri Press after the announcement of a phase out. Those plans have been superseded by a transition from the University of Missouri system to the University of Missouri's Columbia campus.

The tour continues tomorrow at the MIT Press blog with a post from editorial director Gita Manaktala. A complete blog tour schedule is also available here.

Why Do We Need University Presses?
by Ned Stuckey-French and Bruce Miller

Over the last five months we have learned a lot about what people don’t know about university presses. Sometimes, even the people who are charged with the job of promoting scholarship, disseminating research, and protecting academic freedom don’t understand the importance of an academic press.

We don’t mean to posture here. Our campaign to educate administrators, faculty, readers, and potential supporters taught us a lot about university presses as well. Just as teaching a book helps a teacher understand that book all that much more clearly, so does organizing a campaign help one clarify the issues in one’s own mind. Here are some reasons we need university presses.

1. University presses preserve and disseminate knowledge. They publish books and journals that are read by other scholars and by general readers. These books are held in libraries and archives so other scholars can access them and build on the understandings they contain. Many are taught in classrooms where they help preserve and shape our culture. Last June, ten of the editors of the 16-volume
Collected Works of Langston Hughes explained that their work on that the leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance (who was born in Joplin) “contributes to the larger, ongoing project among scholars of African American literature to recover texts by black American writers that have been historically marginalized from the American literary canon. This large-scale process of textual recovery and publication, begun on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement when students and scholars were advocating for representation of African American literature, history, and culture in American universities, is truly one of academe’s most important success stories. Without the work of scholars engaged in this project, African American literary studies in the academy simply would not exist.”

2. University presses are defenders of free speech, academic freedom, and spirited discussion. A vibrant, healthy democracy thrives on debate and the free exchange of ideas. Readers and scholars of all political persuasions have supported the University of Missouri Press because they know that its catalog is diverse and its books are an essential part of the public sphere. The Press has published books about everyone from Satchel Paige to Laura Ingalls Wilder, from Democratic President Harry Truman to Mary Louise Smith, the first and only woman chair of the Republican National Committee.

3. University presses serve a readership outside the university. University presses are committed first to scholarship, but they reach out to a wider audience as well. Certainly, the UMP does this, for example, with series that focus on the American Military Experience or Sports and American Culture, but they also publish local history, memoirs, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Blue Highways Revisited, Edgar I. Ailor III’s mix of photography and text that retraces William Least Heat-Moon’s famous drive across America, is an example of a book with a more general readership.

4. University presses have a special role in land-grant institutions. The UMP has a special responsibility to preserve and celebrate the people, history, and culture of the Show-Me State. The Missouri Biography Series, edited by William Foley, publishes biographies of important and famous Missourians–everyone from baseball great Stan Musial to the notorious political boss Tom Pendergast. Tens of thousands of Missouri children and adults have learned about their state’s places, folklore, food, land, and culture by reading the Missouri Heritage Readers, which are adopted by schools and available in local libraries across the state. And finally, the UMP is rightfully the center for the study of our country’s greatest writer—Mark Twain. Under the expert editorship of Tom Quirk, the Mark Twain and His Circle Series has become the undisputed leader in the field.

5. University presses play an essential role in developing and evaluating faculty. At university presses, professional acquisitions editors review manuscripts, decide whether they are worthy of consideration, find the best outside reviewers for those manuscripts, evaluate the responses of the outside reviewers, work with the author to revise the manuscript incorporating the reviewers’ suggestions, and present the reviewed manuscripts to the Press’s Editorial Board for final approval. This process is absolutely essential not only to make sure that the Press is publishing the best books possible, but also to help universities nationwide evaluate faculty.

If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, university presses are the uncelebrated record-keepers of world history and culture. Just as the journalism business has always been extremely competitive, from the days of the first penny newspapers to the present, university presses vie with each other to find path-breaking works of scholarship and books that do a double duty, educating the lay reader while contributing to scholarly discourse.

University press books are not usually bestsellers. Book publishing is roughly a $27 billion a year industry, and university presses account for just one percent of that, but the influence of books published by university presses is deep and long lasting. These books do not have midnight launches at chain stores where tens of thousands of teenagers show up in costume, and they are rarely optioned by Hollywood, but they do stay on shelves for years, get taught in our schools, and change the way we think.

The celebration of University Press Week is especially apt in 2012, as we honor the role of university presses in our culture and offer thanksgiving with cheers for the resurgence of the University of Missouri Press.


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