An Essay by Former Princeton University President Harold T. Shapiro

The tradition of publishing in Princeton began in 1786 when the first printing press was established in town by the Scotsman James Tod with the encouragement of President Witherspoon. The Princeton University Press, however, had its origins at the turn of the twentieth century when a group of alumni first took over the printing of the alumni magazine, then acquired two private printing establishments, and soon recognized the opportunity to enter into scholarly publishing.

Whitney Darrow ’03 was the enterprising young graduate who approached Charles Scribner, Class of 1875, about this plan—only to learn that Scribner (of the publishing firm Charles Scribner’s Sons) had been contemplating for several years the desirability of a Princeton-affiliated press that could publish scholarly books not feasible for commercial firms. Scribner not only contributed substantially to the original capital for the venture; he also purchased and donated both the land and the stately collegiate Gothic building which the Press still occupies today.

Unlike many other university presses, Princeton University Press has always been separately incorporated; yet from its inception it has maintained a close relationship with the University, and its purpose has been “the promotion of education and scholarship … in the interests of Princeton University.” Currently, the Press publishes approximately 200 new books each year in more than 40 disciplines. It is considered one of the top half dozen or so university presses in the country, with particular strengths in scientific publishing (in biology, physics, and mathematics), political sciences, and the social sciences generally.

For most of its history, the Press was both a publishing and a printing enterprise continuing until recently, for example, to print the PAW, as well as most of its own books and even a good deal of “outside” work unrelated to the University. Within the past year, however, a decision was made to sell the Press’s printing operation in order to concentrate efforts fully on publishing per se—that is, the acquisition, editing, and marketing of scholarly works—rather than on printing them.

While the dissemination of scholarly knowledge, to which the Press is dedicated, takes place largely within the scholarly community itself, some books of course also attract the interest of a larger reading public. The reception accorded the publication last winter of Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy provides an example. Although the book’s subject would seem quite specialized, one reviewer wrote: “Here is a book that masquerades as a routine study of Italian regional government but is actually a great work of social science, worthy to rank alongside de Tocqueville, Pareto, and Weber… . The implications of this book are enormous.” To date the World Bank, and the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations have explicitly used the findings of Putnam’s study in their programs. Walter Lippincott ’60, current director of the Press, is particularly pleased by this phenomenon of “a work of first-rate scholarship making a major impact on the world outside of the University.”

In a number of ways the Press does reach out beyond the University in its publishing program. Two new series provide noteworthy examples: the “Princeton Science Library” and “Mythos.” The Princeton Science Library makes the work of outstanding scientists available in inexpensive paperback editions for the nonspecialist public—as the editors quip, “real science by real scientists for real people.” The series was initiated with a reprint of Einstein’s public lectures on “The Meaning of Relativity,” delivered at Princeton in 1922, and includes as well titles by Feynman, Heisenberg, and Oppenheimer, among others.

Another recent venture is the Mythos paperback series, which aims to make available “the best works on world mythology published in this century.” The Press’s prominence in this area is bound up with the Bollingen Series, a publishing enterprise begun by Paul and Mary Mellon in 1943, which came to the Press in 1969 as a result of the efforts of Herbert S. Bailey, Jr. ’42, director of the Press from 1954 to 1986. The central core establishing “the intellectual temper” of the Bollingen Series is the work of psychoanalyst C. G. Jung, which the Mellons wished to make more widely available in the English-speaking world. The series includes the I Ching (or Book of Changes), long the Press’s best selling title. In 1989 another Bollingen book, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, suddenly became a best-seller for the second time (the first was in 1949) when interest in this scholar of myth peaked after his televised series of interviews with Bill Moyers. The Mythos series began shortly thereafter to make available the classic works in the field of mythology to an avid and growing general readership.

The development of paperback series intended for the nonspecialist reader marks a new outreach and also reflects to some extent a shift in the audience for all university press books. Throughout the 1970s the major buyers for such publications were not individual readers but libraries. Over the last decade, however, the budgets of scholarly libraries have come under intense pressure—caused in part by inflation, in part by “the explosion of information,” and perhaps most dramatically by the sky-rocketing costs of periodicals in the sciences. Consequently, libraries’ acquisitions of monographs in the humanities (the heart of university publishing) have declined to the point where they are no longer the major market for university press publications.

What the future will bring—for university presses and for the dissemination of scholarly works—is very difficult to foresee. There are certain to be exciting changes. Clearly electronic communication will play a large role in scholarly exchange, but no one knows as yet precisely what this will mean, although both the University and the Press are actively engaged in studying the issue. One new initiative at the Press, for example, is an electronic enhancement of the traditional catalog or flyer. Rather than merely reading a description of a new book, very shortly professors will be able to preview portions of the book on line, before deciding whether to order it for their classes.

This is just one example of how the dissemination of information will undoubtedly change. Press Director Lippincott believes that the outline of publishing’s future in the electronic age will not be discernible for several years. The fundamental mission, however—which is to identify and disseminate works of great scholarship—will remain unchanged, even if the media for that dissemination changes as the Press enters its second century.

Harold T. Shapiro, 2002