Celebrating a Century of Excellence: The University of North Carolina Press Turns 100, Part One

2022 marks the one hundred year anniversary of the founding of the University of North Carolina Press.

This first blog post of a series of five is taken from an essay on the history of UNC Press written by Advancement Council member the Rev. David C. (Kirk) Brown, first delivered to the Pen and Plate Club of Asheville.

Read parts two, three, four, and five

The exercise seemed innocent enough: what new books might we add to our reading list? My wife Shelley and I were in Denver with a couple of hours of free time before dinner with her college roommate. We had wandered into Tattered Cover, one of the nation’s largest independent bookstores. Surrounded by wonderful displays of books, including “Staff picks,” New York Times bestsellers, etc., and eager to remember the titles, we began jotting notes to ourselves on our smart phones. We couldn’t wait to report our discoveries to Shelley’s college friend, an executive with Tattered Cover. But midway through our report, she held up her hand and said: “Stop right there. What you are telling me is a stab in the heart to independent bookstores. When you found those titles, were you going to have the decency to go outside before ordering on Amazon, or did you order them as you stood at the display?” Not what we had expected to hear, but what ensued was an engrossing conversation about the future of publishing, the future availability of books. Cathy’s point was that if we succumb to the convenience of Amazon, we are going to find that the choices available to us are increasingly limited to the books that sell, or to the books Amazon thinks will sell. And by extension, the books that are published will be increasingly limited to what is commercially profitable. It was an important reminder that in our haste to find the least expensive version, we may well be relinquishing options we do not yet imagine.

What I had yet to learn was the value of other publishing options, most notably the university press. And as I have become more familiar with one such press, the University of North Carolina Press, I am realizing what a treasure I have too often taken for granted. I suspect I am not alone. So I invite you to join me in a brief excursus, and a closer look at this precious jewel in our own state. A couple of disclaimers: first, this is anything but exhaustive. There is not time enough in an evening’s presentation to do justice to the topic. And second, many of you are much more knowledgeable than I about UNC Press. I suspect that over the years there have been many ties between the Press and our Club.

Early 20th century UNC Press colophon

In order to appreciate the UNC Press, we need to understand just what a university press is, and how it differs from other commercial publishing enterprises. Despite its name, a university press rarely has its own printing press; rather it is a publisher, the scholarly publishing arm of a college or university. Unlike its commercial counterpart, profitability is not its chief aim. The Association of University Presses exists to advance “the essential role of a global community of publishers whose mission is to ensure academic excellence and cultivate knowledge.” At one level, of course, that means providing a forum for ongoing scholarly discourse and debate. But another way of advancing knowledge is to take the conversation that might have been confined to scholars outside the academy for interested readers in the public sphere. When it was founded in 1937 as the Association of American University Presses there were just 21 charter members, of which UNC Press was one. Today the Association includes 159 members from 17 countries. In addition to serving the scholarly community— researchers, teachers, students, librarians, etc.—university presses reach out to broader readerships throughout the world that depend on “informed and engaged peer- reviewed scholarship.” Each press has its own catalog (or list) of books, its own distinctive ethos and vision, defined in part by the relationship with its parent university. But all such presses are guided by a set of core values—integrity, diversity, stewardship, and intellectual freedom. So university presses seek first to foster an ongoing conversation, driven not by opinion, but by argument and extended discourse. Often the enterprise is anything but profitable—in a financial sense—but utterly invaluable to the advancement of learning and the ongoing pursuit of the truth.

Central to the process is the integrity that comes through peer review, a critical component of all university presses. It is said that “the core mission of any university press is to publish high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarship under its imprint.” Before a manuscript of interest goes to print, it is first read by at least two independent and anonymous reviewers, experts in their field, who offer the author and the press constructive feedback and criticism. This can be a lengthy process, sometimes taking years, but it speaks to the ongoing conversation typical of university press publishing. This is true for scholarly monographs; but it is equally true for trade books about cooking, travel, wildflowers, or folklore. In an age of fleeting opinion passing for fact, or internet searches that can turn up any number of competing claims to the truth, the university press stands for more deliberate and argument-based writing.

The oldest university presses are Cambridge and Oxford, both founded in the 16th century. The impetus for such presses was very different from what we understand university presses to be now. From its inception the promise of the printing press was to help democratize learning and literacy. No longer would knowledge be limited to the few scholars who had access to books; now virtually everyone had such access. But without appropriate guardrails, there was no way of ensuring the quality of books available. So amidst the flood of books being published in the decades following the advent of the printing press, and especially given their close ties to the Church, Cambridge and Oxford realized the danger of heretical and unauthorized texts finding their way into the academy. Originally, then, the university press stood not so much for “freedom of the press” that we hold so sacred today; instead it was a kind of licensing agent for the university, a gatekeeper for the parent institution. Only later would the press as publisher begin to emerge.

The Rev. David C. (Kirk) Brown is the recently retired chaplain of Christ School. Kirk received his A.B. from Davidson College, his M.A. from the University of Virginia, and his M.Div. from Virginia Theological Seminary. He is a life-long educator. Having taught German and English for 12 years at Virginia Episcopal School, he then attended seminary and was ordained an Episcopal priest. After serving three years at St. John’s Church in Roanoke, VA, he returned to school work, serving 24 years as Chaplain at Christ School and teaching religion. Kirk lives with his wife, Shelley, on a farm in Fletcher, NC.