Sarah Caro: University Press Redux Conference

Sarah Caro is the Editorial Director in Social Science at Princeton University Press, based in our UK office. 

Working for university presses most of my career, I have never really questioned their future or indeed the importance of what they do both for the academic communities they serve and the world beyond. I always felt so passionate about what I and my colleagues were doing, so excited by the privilege of working with such a range of fascinating people and ideas, I  assumed everyone else felt the same way too. But perhaps I was being complacent. Perhaps to others outside the world of university press publishing it seems a rarified, mysterious, even irrelevant endeavour.  

There is certainly no doubt that many people have little idea what university presses do, as we were reminded in the opening session of the University Press Redux Conference held at the British Library in London last week. Our own former director Peter Dougherty was quoted as saying, ‘We are a secret. The world needs to know about the great things we do.’ There was much discussion over the two days about the need to communicate all we have to offer more broadly. There may be a tendency to hide our light under a bushel, but the two days of presentations and lively debate could leave no one in any doubt that the UP is not only alive and kicking but also a many varied and splendid thing. Redux indeed.

One striking aspect of the conference is the huge variety in the university press world not only in terms of  output—everything from scholarly monographs, to textbooks, books for a broader audience including cookery books, guide books and natural history, journals, online resources and born digital projects—but also the different ways they reach their audiences and the very different relationships they have with their host institutions. Some UPs are essentially run by their university library services, others are more or less autonomous. Some are run as quasi commercial operations, even returning a surplus to their host institution, while others are dedicated to Open Access. And they are truly global. One of the most interesting sessions I attended included presentations on university presses in Africa and Australia and there were also delegates from presses across the whole of the UK, US, Canada and Europe.

Despite this huge variety, or perhaps because of it, there is a also an incredible sense of community. University presses exist within the world not just of academia but the real world of current events and politics—as was dramatically illustrated by a rather heated debate about the latest OA requirements of the UK government’s main Higher Education funding body. Whatever the differences in how we operate we are all grappling with the same challenges of new technology, diversity, social media, accessibility and simply trying to do what we do better.

I left the BL on the last afternoon, exhausted and full of cold but convinced that the world of the university press is not rarefied (you certainly wouldn’t call it that after some of the more ‘trenchant’ comments during the OA debate), and while occasionally a little bit mysterious, it is always relevant. Relevant because it is about ideas and ideas do not exist without people.