A 1920 history of Yale University Press notes, “The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else he builds ever lasts.” As a young boy growing up near Cleveland, Ohio, I spent many hours in the public library experiencing the lasting value of books. Books were a vehicle to take me places and show me different cultures. Books opened other worlds and diverse views.
While I was spending time in my local library, the AAUP (Association of American University Presses) held its 1978 Annual Meeting at Notre Dame University. Among the panels, one was entitled “The Now and Future Crisis.” The oil-embargo had led to an economic downturn forcing universities to restrict budgets, and university presses were faced with uncertain futures. In fact, the university presses at Duquesne, Michigan State, and Catholic University had withdrawn from the AAUP because they could no longer support the publication of books. I had no idea at the time that I would become a director of a university press, and the word “crisis” would continue to be a topic at annual meetings.
Fragmentation has impacted university presses. Libraries have become publishers. Individual faculty members, aided by technological advances, self publish their works. Blogs and other digital environments allow new forms of scholarly communication. The book had a unity all to itself. Now, content is pieced together to create a whole, and like the music industry, entire collections (albums) have given way to individual tunes. Customers are creating their own playlists, and reading lists.
As we move into the era of apps, the disintegration of the book and other institutions are leading to individually-selected existences. Customers are explicitly defining what features they wish to have in products and companies need to react quickly. Education, with its antiquated committee bureaucracies, is facing the threat of privately-funded knowledge entities. As this commercialization grows, the influx of funds to public institutions will be diminished. Brand identity and competitive advantage will allow many premier educational institutions to survive, but many lesser brands will end up like the old five and dimes which were decimated by larger warehouse stores.
University press functions will survive in any educational setting. Editing and dissemination of research and scholarship is critical to advancement and innovation. The market barriers to the art of making books aren’t very high anymore. However, the failure to maintain information for the longer term might prove fatal. In our haste to digitize the world, we might actually be dismantling problem solving. Speed of informational retrieval doesn’t build better bridges. Texting doesn’t lead to deep thinking. The best solutions come from a thorough understanding of the total body of research.
A history of Oxford University Press, published in 1922, contains the following passage: “The endowment of research is a difficult subject…The support given to the Press in the past, whether by individuals or by other institutions devoted to learning, has been trifling in consideration of the work which it has produced. The need of such support is now far more urgent; and the record of the Press is proof that financial support would be turned to good account. ” University subsidies to their university presses rarely reach the level of one percent of a university’s total budget. Most are very far below that. Many don’t reach the level of a university president’s total financial package. Let’s not stop the presses.