The 21st Century University Press

by | Nov 9, 2012 | 0 comments

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Leila Salisbury, Director of the University Press of Mississippi, introduced this panel of two university press directors.

University Press Directors (L-R) Leila Salisbury, Douglas Armato, Alison Mudditt

She noted that this year marks the 75th anniversary of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP).  The vast majority of university presses are non-profit entities and have existed for a long time.  Today, they are concerned with money and mission; the former makes the latter possible.  Many presses are unsure of their path forward.  They are different from commercial publishers.  Many get some support from their institutions, although some are expected to return revenue to their universities.

Nearly all university presses publish electronic content and are constantly evaluating their products.  Some writers portray university presses as outmoded, which is probably because the presses have not done an adequate job of conveying their operations to their stakeholders.  The “crisis” in scholarly communication affects the presses as well because we cannot predict the changes happening to us and coming on the horizon.  This does not mean the presses are outmoded or irrelevant; we must find new ways to communicate our mission.

The AAUP has organized the first annual “University Press Week” to promote presses which will occur November 11-17.

Ghosts of Presses Past

Douglas Armato, Director, University of Minnesota Press,presented an interesting look at the history of university presses.

The first formal university press was formed in Cornell in 1869.  The longest continuously operating press is at Johns Hopkins, formed in 1877.   The first AAUP cooperative exhibit was at the ALA meeting in 1935.

University presses have been in some form of crisis for the last 35 years.  But they have mainly held their own during this period by paying attention to the market.  The current challenges of the digital environment, including open access, require a new partnership with libraries.  Unfortunately, this relationship is showing signs of fraying.

University press sales are overwhelmingly non-library driven today.  Their products are scholarly books.  This book traces some of the early history of university presses and their products.

Presses were started as publishing houses for universities, but since their early days, many of them have been publishing books from many institutions, not only  their own.  Their growth corresponds to the growth in research faculty between the two World Wars of the 1900s.

Presses mainly publish monographs, and many people now consider that scholarship is better carried out with blogs, not monographs.  Presses have been said to publish “books possessed of such little popular appeal but at the same time of some real importance”.  Why are we still publishing them?  Some say that a monograph is a scholarly publication that fails to sell, and if it does sell, it is called a “scholarly book”.  Is there any such thing as an individual purchaser of a monograph?  We have relied on libraries to purchase books that fail to recover their costs.

Open access has affected university presses and has created a turmoil of “creative destruction”.  It needs to be balanced against the need for sustainability so that the content and the publisher both endure.  Creative destruction has come to be seen as necessary for growth, but sometimes the old ways are seen to be the best and are recreated at greater expense.

In place of creative destruction, we need to look at a model of evolution, or co-evolution of libraries and university presses.  Some have said that presses are dinosaurs and are ready for destruction.  But we must not count them out.  E-books have the potential to bring new life to the endangered monograph.  Libraries and presses have historically evolved apart from one another, but they need to evolve faster together using a combination of  blogs, websites, and other electronic technologies.

Why are university presses still needed in a self-publishing world?  Publication by a press, an entity with a mission beyond its own institution, means something both academically and economically.  The decision by a press to invest resources in an author’s work signals that the work has a public value beyond the author’s limited world.  As universities tighten their budgets, presses become more important in providing an environment for scholarly authors to disseminate their work.  And authors care; a growing number of authors are approaching the presses with requests to publish their work.

The 21st Century University Press: A Digital Utopia?

Alison Mudditt, Director  of the University of California Press, is convinced that the future of presses looks very different from the past.  Emerging trends are creating spaces for presses to grow into.  Peer review and quality metrics are changing, and authors are wanting more control over their works.  Much can and should be done to improve the openness and speed of publication in the digital age.  Technology now enables us to meet the needs of our community in more powerful ways.

There is a perception that university presses are antiquated and have not kept up with the changes taking place in publishing.  They struggle to think beyond the print book, primarily because they tend to focus on the social sciences and humanities.  But there has been an explosion in sources of content, and the enabling of self-publishing by the Web.  New models and players are offering new alternatives to traditional publishing.

We need to understand the job that our customers are trying to accomplish.  For example, IKEA thrives because it understands that customers want to furnish a space, not simply buy furniture.  In scholarly publishing, we need to understand that our customers are trying to do research, not simply publish results.  The old print paradigm of pushing content to users is gone.  Users now have a voice in information; publishers can no longer  dictate what readers consume.  They must therefore become experts in the user experience and integrate scholarly information into the whole research process.

University presses have begun to take advantage of these opportunities.  Some issues that have been considered at UC Press are:

  • We must become more financially self-sustaining as we become a resource for high quality content.
  • We have reshaped our organization to accommodate operational economies and efficiencies.
  • Content relationships have been formed with organizations such as JSTOR, Project MUSE, etc.  The presses have formed a content consortium.  The University of Georgia Press has collaborated with the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) in the development of the SAH Archipedia.
  • New projects like Project EUCLID, have been developed, which has resulted in a vibrant online information community.

Presses can play a part in educating the next generation by partnering with local schools in developing apps for their students.

Innovation is alive and well at university presses.  Beyond the usual issues of budgets and resources, some of the deepest challenges are cultural.  We have been too insular and have been dismissive of advances in scholarly publishing.  If we cannot get past this, we lose major opportunities.  We must be ready to let go of print; we have reached a point of no turning back.   We risk irrelevancy if we ignore the advances in digital publishing.  There is much to be proud of and many innovations ahead to be taken advantage of.  We need to be developing tools to help users make more use of our resources and understand the job our users are trying to do.

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Don Hawkins blogs about conferences for Information Today and Against The Grain. He also maintains the Conference Calendar on the Information Today website and is the Editor of Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage, published by Information Today in 2013, and Co-Editor of Public Knowledge: Access and Benefits, published by Information Today in 2016. He received his Ph.D. degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and has worked in the information industry for over 45 years.

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