Short history of UPP

A Concise History of the University of Pittsburgh Press

In 1931, the University of Pittsburgh joined with the Buhl Foundation and the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania to commission the research and writing of a dozen monographs. Known collectively as the Historical Survey, these were to be scholarly accounts of the history of western Pennsylvania and among the first detailed histories of the colonial period to look beyond the eastern seaboard, including four National Book Award finalists.

A number of these volumes have stood the test of time and are still in print. These books achieved their remarkable longevity because of the often surprisingly modern character of their scholarship, which examined the social and cultural life of ordinary people, recognized the agency of Native Americans and the complexity of their interactions with European settlers, and accounted for the role of women in the region’s history—decades before such approaches to the writing of history were common.

The need to publish these groundbreaking books led to the idea of establishing a press at the University. With support from the Mellon and Buhl foundations, Chancellor John Bowman authorized the creation of the University of Pittsburgh Press in September 1936.

With Leland Baldwin and other Pitt faculty providing scholarly guidance on the content of the Historical Survey, and Lawrence Irwin contributing his experience in book design and printing, the essential ingredients of a functioning Press were established at the same time that the finishing touches were being applied to the new Cathedral of Learning. But, as it happened, the very first book to be published by the Press was not part of the survey, but a history of the university itself, written by Professor Agnes Lynch Starrett and published in 1937 for Pitt’s 150th anniversary.

University presses were not yet a common sight on the American academic scene, and the University of Pittsburgh Press was one of the first to be established since the late nineteenth century. In 1938 it was one of a handful of presses that joined together to found the Association of University Presses, which has since grown to an international membership of over 140 publishers.

The author of the first book published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Agnes Lynch Starrett, became its first director, and the first woman director of any university press. She organized and led the Press in its early decades of development and articulated its mission: to endeavor “through the publication of books to extend the University’s teaching and research beyond the classroom, the laboratory, and the professor’s study . . . thus fulfilling a key function of a university in a democracy—the widest dissemination of tested knowledge.”

The growth of the Press was modest in its early years. The ten volumes of the original Historical Survey were published between 1937 and 1941, with one more title in 1942 before operations were suspended for the duration of the Second World War. After the war, the Press began to expand the number of books and the variety of subjects it published.

The postwar decades saw rapid changes in the worlds of book publishing and the academy. Rising college enrollments driven first by the GI Bill and then the baby boom went hand in hand with the dramatic growth of all kinds of publishing, typified by the “paperback revolution” and an ever-increasing demand for textbooks. New disciplines, new departments, and whole new universities were created, and American scholarly research and output soared.

In response to these powerful trends, many new university presses were established while existing presses expanded to meet the needs of their academic constituents. As its second director, Fred Hetzel led the University of Pittsburgh Press in navigating this terrain, establishing a presence in a wide range of academic disciplines—some of which continue to be active parts of the Press’s publishing program—while maintaining a strong commitment to publishing books about Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. Hetzel also led the effort to establish the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize for short fiction, one of the top literary prizes in the nation.

During this period, the press went from publishing around ten books a year to an average of thirty, and then forty new titles each year. Book series were established to move the program into important new areas such as political science, foreign policy, Latin American studies, literary studies, Russian and East European studies, and others. Another outstanding development from this time was the creation in 1968 of the poetry series by assistant director Paul Zimmer, who also served as the series editor for ten years. The key role played by book series, and series editors, in framing the University of Pittsburgh Press publishing program has been a hallmark of the Press ever since.

The Press was now firmly established on the national scene as a significant scholarly publisher. During the 1970s, the New York Times selected an annual list of outstanding American university presses for recognition—and each year the University of Pittsburgh Press was among them.

The University of Pittsburgh Press entered the 1990s as a robust publishing operation, but a traditional, straightforward strategy of across-the-board growth was becoming less viable as market conditions for all publishers changed and presented fresh challenges. Declining sales of scholarly books—the basic unit of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences and the principal product of all university presses—were emblematic of a deeper set of changes in the overall system of scholarly communication.

The Press found ways not just to endure this challenging publishing environment but to flourish. The third director of the Press, Cynthia Miller, developed new long-term strategies and brought in new staff to ensure the continued vigor and increased professionalism of all Press operations. Her legacy is visible in the Press’s publishing program, which now combines long-term strengths with new efforts that focus on reflecting and advancing areas of academic excellence at the University, all supported by the expertise necessary to take advantage of advances in technology to edit, produce, and publish books in print and electronic formats.

Pittsburgh’s editorial program is built around major book series. The long-standing Pitt Latin American Series was later joined by Illuminations: Cultural Formations of the Americas. The series Composition, Literacy, and Culture has become the most prominent in its field, with special emphasis on issues of race, gender, and the influence of technology on writing, teaching, and scholarship. The Russian and East European Studies series was the joint recipient (with the university presses at Northwestern and Wisconsin) of a multiyear grant from the Mellon Foundation that enabled it to expand and take full advantage of the “archival revolution” in the former Soviet bloc. A second important Mellon grant underwrote a significant expansion of the Press’s offerings in the philosophy and history of science. And the Press continued successful collaborations with other Pittsburgh-area institutions, including the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Heinz History Center, the Frick Art and Historical Center, and the Westmoreland Museum of American Art.

In 2013 Peter Kracht was named the fourth director of the Press. Under his watch, new series have been launched, including Central Eurasia in Context; Culture, Politics, and the Built Environment; Intersections: Histories of the Environment, Science, and Technology; Latino and Latin American Profiles; and Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century. At the same time, the Pitt Poetry Series has gone from strength to strength under the guidance of its talented editor Ed Ochester, most notably with two of its many accomplished authors named poets laureate of the United States, as well as many other accolades, including a National Book Award finalist.

Pittsburgh’s books have won more than two hundred awards from academic, library, literary, or publishing associations, plus eleven major book design awards. The Press’s books are regularly reviewed in national and international media and scholarly journals, and its authors give readings, lectures, and media interviews all over the world. Press books so far have been translated into ten different languages.

As the astonishing capabilities of the internet and other information technologies profoundly affect the creation and dissemination of scholarship, the Press has been able to thrive in this rapidly evolving environment because ultimately our focus is not primarily on the format of the books we publish but on our essential role in identifying extraordinary writers and fine scholars and bring both to the widest possible audience.

Even as we continue to respond to demand from faculty, students, and general readers for traditional print publications, we offer nearly all of our publications as simultaneous ebooks, in Kindle and Nook formats, as well as in several academic library aggregator offerings. In cooperation with the University of Pittsburgh Library System, we were one of the first to digitize substantial numbers of our older backlist books. Short-run digital-printing technology has also opened up exciting opportunities for affordably printing old and new books, allowing us to extend the life of our books and to offer previously out-of-print books as quality paperback editions.

It’s an exciting time to be a book publisher. And with a lot of hard work by our professional staff—just fourteen people, but with a combined total of over two hundred years of publishing experience—we have increased the Press’s publishing program from fifty new books each year to about seventy-five, while maintaining the quality and scholarly integrity of every book we publish.

If the long history of the University of Pittsburgh Press has taught us anything, it’s that times can and do change, and we can and will change with them. But our fundamental mission as a university press remains the same: to select and publish the most important, most meaningful, most creative, and most the fascinating scholarship that we can—and then bring these books to readers in Pittsburgh and around the world.