UNC Press 100th Anniversary Celebration Remarks by John Sherer

On March 25th, UNC Press held its first in-person, public celebration of the anniversary of our centennial year at the Chapel Hill Public Library. The following is an edited version of the speech given by Spangler Family Director John Sherer that evening.

I try to keep up on trends in university presses, so I do a lot of reading. I recently found a quote from the UNC Press Annual Report I want to read to you.

“The market for specialized, scholarly monographs by all university presses declined precipitously during the past 12 months. . . . Obviously no university press can expect to continue to publish such books, in conventional form, without courting bankruptcy.” That was not something I wrote. Nor was it written by my predecessor, Kate Torrey. It was written by Matt Hodgson, her predecessor, in 1981.

And then I read this in an issue of Scholarly Publishing: A Journal for Authors & Publishers:
“Never in the history of publishing has the technology moved so swiftly, or held greater potential benefits for the art of communication.” That sounds like something I would have written. But it was from October 1969.

We always think we live in exceptional times and that our problems are the thorniest. But I find writings like this to be comforting. What we do is not supposed to be easy. It never has been and it probably never will be.

The founding of UNC Press in the spring of 1922 was a visionary act that was part of a series of investments made by the state and campus leadership to transform UNC from a sleepy southern university into the center of gravity for the study of the South. This includes the dramatic growth of the library and the Southern Historical Collection. And a significant expansion of the curriculum and faculty. But it’s fascinating to me that publishing was seen as a key pillar in this new architecture of change and progress.

There was no secular publishing in North Carolina in 1922. Not even in the entire South. The perception was that the South was not a region that was worthy of study. The UNC Press legitimized the study of the South and shared the southern way of life with the world.

From the beginning, the press identified voices of the region whose stories were not being told or explained. Some were stories that were just overlooked: stories from Appalachia or about women or agrarian life. Some were stories that made people uncomfortable: books about racial injustices, or about poverty, or about lynching.

In his classic book The War Within, the historian Dan Singal wrote about William Couch’s stewardship of the Press, saying that Couch made it “the single most influential institution in launching Modernist thought in the South.”

While we’re here to celebrate this legacy and acknowledge the boldness of these founders—men like Louis Round Wilson, Harry Chase, William Coker, Howard Odum, JG de Roulhac Hamilton—we have to acknowledge that they were very much men of their time. For example, recent research reveals that Hamilton—who was a founding member of our board, built the Southern Historical Collection with views about white supremacy that should make us all wince.

Our legacy needs to be reckoned with. While we’ve published voluminously about race and justice from the beginning, we must acknowledge that there are books in our back catalog that have reinforced racial and social hierarchies. For much of our history, there were few people of color working at the Press. Even today, we have to work hard to have a staff that mirrors the rich diversity of this community. Understanding and acknowledging this legacy can be uncomfortable, but it helps us be better publishers now.

And yet we can still appreciate what our predecessors had to overcome. We’ve had a recent run of success that wouldn’t have been possible without the labors of our predecessors. I want to take a minute to highlight some of the accomplishments in recent years as well as some initiatives we’re trying to move forward on.

• We’re acquiring and publishing more now than we ever have before. More books, more journals. Offering more publishing services.

• Our sales have never been higher.

• Our income streams have never been more diverse. It’s not just sales and services, but grants, and licenses and fundraising

• Our books are winning more awards than ever.

Longleaf Services continues its explosive growth as a vital service partner for almost 20 university presses.

The Office of Scholarly Publishing Services—the division of the press that works exclusively with the UNC System—is helping almost every campus identify and execute on their own publishing goals including the creation of Open Educational Resources—which is saving UNC System students thousands of dollars annually.

• Our marketing team is on the leading edge of building communities of readers—that’s everything from the social media tool kit to virtual exhibits and campaigns that take advantage of the unique affordances of the digital age.

• And between the Press and Longleaf, our business and finance office is managing our almost $10mm in expenses with a level of skill and professionalism that is remarkable.

• We’re publishing more books in open digital editions, which means we’re seeing explosions in readership and use around the globe.

• We received a $1 MM grant from the Mellon Foundation to create a digital-first workflow that could be used by multiple presses—18 in all—to produce Open Access monographs more quickly and less expensively than ever before.

• Longleaf is a participant in a multimillion-dollar grant from the Arcadia Fund to build what’s to be called, the Next Generation Library Publishing program. It’s a suite of open-sourced journal tools aiming to wrest back control of journal publishing away from predatory commercial conglomerates.

• We’re experimenting with audio to expand access and enhance the reader experience.

• We are deeply committed to equity work, identifying the many areas where we’ve projected our own views of meritocracy without understanding the fraught legacies those projections were founded upon.

As we build on our recent success, we have an obligation to continue that tradition of leading through innovation. In the future,

• We need to continue to tell the stories that mainstream publishing overlooks—and in particular, identify the voices in our state and region that are often neglected.

• We need to amplify the idea of the global south, by highlighting the impact of global influences; but at the same time, continue to share the stories of the South to the world.

• We need to expand our title count in order to more broadly support the advancement of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.

• We need to support new modes of publishing that are originating throughout the UNC System, with a particular focus on lowering costs of course materials for students.

• We need to expand access more generally as part of century-long mission to disseminate our works as broadly as possible.

I want to say a few words about the whole team here and the past few years. These incredible accomplishments I was enumerating—they made them happen. I’m standing here leading this celebration because they made sure that even during the darkest and most ungrateful days and hours of the past two years, that the press would endure.

But it has come at a cost. I know this. I’ve listened to the stories from each of you—and I’m talking to you, staff members of the Press and Longleaf. I’ve heard the stories of loss, and sickness, and pain, and grief, and fear, and insecurity. And those of you who love the Press need to understand how difficult this has been for each of them. And that we owe them our gratitude.

The Great Depression. The World War. Countless recessions. The fire. And now the pandemic. This is a great Press, but 100 years didn’t come easily. The last two years sometimes felt like 100 years by themselves.

But despite this, I am confident that the Press’s best years are to come. Despite the pain of the pandemic, we’ve learned to do some remarkable things. We need some time to heal, but we can come out of this stronger than ever.

Building on the previous generations of innovators and on the enormous success of the team today, the Press will endure through the whatever the next calamity is that the fates throw at us. We’re doing the hard work now to ensure the University of North Carolina Press remains an essential and progressive force for the university, the state, the region, and world.

Thank you for being here to celebrate this historic moment.

John Sherer
Spangler Family Director