Saturday, May 30, 2009

On Saving LSU Press

Bertram Wyatt-Brown is an acclaimed historian of 19th-century America, professor of history emeritus, University of Florida, and visiting scholar, Johns Hopkins University. He writes below on the value of LSU Press, now facing the possibility of major cuts, and describes the press's historic significance and its vitality up to the present.

On Saving LSU Press
Bertram Wyatt-Brown

With many other academicians in this country, particularly those in the South, I am most distressed that the LSU community is encountering fiscal difficulties that may lead to a diminution or even an abolition of the great publishing institution on LSU’s campus. I am particularly indebted to the splendid capabilities of the LSU Press under the leadership of the late director Les Phillabaum and more recently Mary Katherine Calloway and her editor, John Easterly. For over a decade and a half I was editor of the Southern Biography Series (which was launched in the 1930s), having retired from the position in November 2008. In the course of that period, we produced over 35 volumes, none of which received unfavorable reviews, some of which won literary prizes, and all of which received acclaim in the marketplace.

Authors with subjects in a variety of fields were attracted to our series because of the high quality of the press's operations. The lives of Chief Justice John Marshall and Daniel Boone, for instance, have won widespread praise and high sales. We covered distinguished figures, both male and female, white and black, and a variety of fields-journalists, Civil War and Confederate military and political leaders, attorneys, judges, reformers, physicians, governors, and clergymen—from colonial times to the recent past. The field of southern history would have been sorely diminished if these works had not been published in our series. We have just published Thomas Settles’s John Bankhead Magruder: A Military Reappraisal. I might also mention that the Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures, which the University sponsors, has produced a valuable set of works. They have included such notable authors as C. Vann Woodward, David Donald, John Hope Franklin, T. Harry Williams, James M. McPherson, William E. Leuchtenburg, Drew Faust, now President of Harvard University, and many others, including myself. Some of the Fleming lecturers have won Pulitzer Prizes in history.

The Southern Biography series is only one of several highly successful aspects of the LSU Press's contribution to scholarship and sound learning. Literature and poetry are also well represented. In the areas of literature and history, fields I know best, the press holds an enviable position in the realm of academic publishing. It published Confederacy of Dunces in 1980. It won the Pulitzer for literature in 1981. The press’s reputation extends far beyond the confines of the South and has an international standing. It is not a regional or local enterprise by any means. At the same time, it should be noted that the press does offer considerable notice of the Gulf region as well as the history and literary achievements of Louisianans. Only the University of North Carolina Press and the University of Georgia Press, in my opinion, matches it in quality and significance in the field of southern studies. As it is, the press manages its funds with great care; there are no frills in its operations, and many on the staff work very hard for relatively modest financial reward. The press team is thoroughly dedicated to top-notch publishing. In addition, we in history and other parts of the humanities, have to have strong academic presses to support the publications of young, first-book authors in our faculties as they seek to rise in the profession. The LSU Press is particularly adept at attracting such promising scholars to publish under the guidance of the professional staff in Baton Rouge.

For the state of Louisiana to amputate or even obliterate the LSU Press would be most tragic and most shortsighted. Better times will come in due course, but to revive a dormant or vanished operation of this kind would be disastrous. It would take many years to regain what would be lost.


Larry Cebula said...

A great commentary by Bertram Wyatt-Brown. Let's hope that LSU Press survives this crisis.

But in the long run can any university press survive? As the print runs for most academic titles decline and prices rise and independent bookstores close and the newspaper industry points the way to oblivion--is there a future for academic publishing beyond a few popular topics?

Randall said...

Larry, I think your concern hits the mark. Would be interesting to see how the publishing industry fared in the 1930s. But maybe certain trends now are unprecedented.

Here's a relevant piece that just appeared in the Chronicle:

"Louisiana State U. Press Fights to Preserve Its Essential Value"

The university's lukewarm defense of its prize-winning but financially shaky press makes clear that even being a "valuable asset" no longer guarantees a secure place in the "academic core" of a parent institution.

Darryl Finch said...

I never question the integrity or scholarship of a LSU Press publication. What steps must be taken to enure its survival?