Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

November 13, 2012

As Often as a Blue Moon: Retirements at AAS

Filed under: Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts,Printing History,Publishing — Joseph M. Adelman @ 9:57 am

Many of our readers here likely follow the American Antiquarian Society’s blog, Past is Present, and many more have likely visited AAS at one point or another in their research careers. With that in mind, it’s worth noting some of the recent posts there to honor the retirements of three longtime AAS staff members: Georgia Barnhill, John Keenum, and Caroline Sloat.

Yesterday, AAS Preseident Ellen Dunlap posted some reflections on Keenum, the Vice President for Development, and Caroline Sloat, Director of Publications, and longtime head of the AAS fellowships program, in which capacity she served as the captain of a frequently unwieldy and ever-changing band of scholars who made their way to Salisbury Street.

Dunlap praises in particular Caroline’s work in shepherding projects through the publishing process, both those sanctioned by AAS and those of fellows:

The work that Caroline has always excelled at is the hardest kind of editing – one that must consider what the author was trying to say, whether or not it should be said or is worth saying, and then figure out – often with great diplomacy – how to help the author make their arguments more cogent, their language more clear, their writing more functional.  And Caroline is legendary for offering this kind of substantive editorial assistance, not just on projects where she was assigned the task – such as AAS Proceedings, the History of the Book in America series, and the Gura book, she has offered the same sort of assistance to fellows working on their dissertations, journal articles, and books, just out of the goodness of her editorial heart. Caroline has devoted herself to making friends at the AAS and for the AAS, and the goodwill that she has engendered – evident in so many fellows reports over the years – is a debt that we could not easily repay except with our thanks for her years of service and devotion.

John Keenum’s efforts, as Dunlap notes, have often been out of public view, appearing to us in the coming to fruition of projects for which he secured funding:

A consummate professional, John took every challenge we faced in his stride… and there HAVE been challenges.  When he came we were still wrapping up the Mellon challenge for core operations, then we got an NEH challenge for acquisitions endowment.  Next was the Kresge challenge for the building addition, then we needed to raise endowment to maintain things like the artists’ and writers’ fellowships that the Wallace grant once paid for, then there was the Mellon challenge for academic fellowships, and then yet another NEH challenge, this one for CHAViC.  And thanks to his steadfast commitment to this institution, his dogged perseverance, his ability to finagle a budget (always on the up-and-up), and his ability to write beautifully cogent prose, under his leadership, AAS has met every one of those challenge propositions, securing the full amount offered as a challenge, often long before the deadline.  John did all this, plus running the annual fund and being our federal grants officer, with precious little assistance. But John has done more than merely raise money for AAS.  He has invested himself in the life of this institution, making friends with staff, fellows, and members alike, buying books for the collection, participating in volunteer projects, just to help out.  He has been a simply wonderful colleague, greatly admired by all.  He will also be greatly missed, but he leaves us a much richer organization for his having been here.

This morning, Paul Erickson honors Gigi Barnhill, the recently retired Curator of Graphic Arts who, as Paul notes, has been an AAS staff member for more than 40% of its existence. AAS recently held a colloquium in Gigi’s honor, identifying four keep characteristics to her curatorial work:

  • “Advance scholarship through publication and research.”
  • “Acquire materials for their collections and build collections of secondary and reference resources at AAS”
  • “Serving as an advocate for her own collections, advising on collection development, preservation, and access, while considering the needs of the rest of the Society’s collections”
  • “Serve as ambassadors of the Society to the communities of Americana collectors and dealers, and maintain active communication and visitation with these important constituencies”

All three will be missed, even as they are succeeded ably by new staff. If you have the time, be sure to click over to Past is Present and read the full tributes.

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June 11, 2012

Thurlow Weed and William Randolph Hearst were Unavailable for Comment

Yesterday the New York Times ran a piece about the U-T San Diego (formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune), the southern California daily owned by hotel magnate Douglas Manchester.* The paper, according to media reporter David Carr, may be part of a “future” in which “moneyed interests buy papers and use them to prosecute a political and commercial agenda. ” The piece led me to two thoughts, one  on the history and one on the future.

The history is easy: Manchester’s move to simply take over a journalistic enterprise to promote his commercial and political interests is classic nineteenth-century journalism. In fact, as most journalism historians would argue (I think, anyway), the ideal of “objectivity” has a much shorter lived history in journalism than does the partisan nature of the press. It’s how Weed and Hearst made their money, how Andrew Jackson controlled the narrative of his Presidency, and the reason why there are two sets of “official” transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

That’s not to say that during this period no one claimed to be impartial. On the contrary. In my own work [ed.: shameless plug alert!] I’m trying to show that paeans to impartiality were a self-negating means of producing politically pointed news. Or to put it another way, and to paraphrase the movie musical 1776 (itself ripping off Franklin): impartiality is only visible in the first person: I’m impartial!, and partiality only in the third: he’s biased!

That media analysts like Carr fail to acknowledge this history in writing the narrative of the changes in journalism over the past few years is disappointing. Instead we get treated to Golden Age pablum:

Many of us grew up in towns where the daily paper was in bed with civic leaders, but the shared interest was generally expressed on the editorial page. Occasionally, appropriate lines of inquiry would be suspiciously ignored in coverage, but the news pages were just that, news.

I’ll take my bias the old-fashioned way, thank you very much.

As for the future, I must admit that I’m still trying to sort out how to interpret this through a historical lens. In many regards, I want to be cautious. The nineteenth century was a Golden Age for partisan journalism (whether party- or business-based), but an awful lot has happened since then. We live now in a cultural milieu that seeks unbiased news, whatever that means, and a move towards more partisan-oriented journalism has consequences.

On the other hand, as media critic Jay Rosen has argued for several years, the “View from Nowhere” no longer serves even the function it once purported to serve. Saying where one stands as a journalist may eventually prove far more effective at communicating information and the contours of a debate than the weak-kneed “he said, she said” journalism we’re frequently presented today. But doing so means that Manchester gets to own a newspaper that proclaims a viewpoint, and if he’s going to do those things, it’s to the good that he say so, as Rosen noted on Twitter.

In any case, combined with last week’s discussion of movie mash-ups involving Lincoln and vigilante freedmen and the news that gonorrhea is making an antibiotic-resistant comeback, the nineteenth century is having quite a run.

* If his name sounds familiar to the historians out there, Manchester was locked in a labor dispute with several unions at hotels that were used for the 2010 AHA convention.

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June 4, 2012

University of Missouri Press: A View from Abroad

Filed under: Academia,Missouri,Publishing — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:33 pm

University of Edinburgh professor and dean Frank Cogliano has graciously shared the letter he was inspired to write to my institution’s administration lamenting the scheduled demise of University of Missouri Press. It is a reminder that scholarly publishing has a worldwide reach and an impact that is felt on other continents even it often goes unnoticed in offices right across town. Of course, the following represents Frank’s opinion rather than the official position of his institution – not that we couldn’t use some Scottish intervention right about now:

Dear President Wolfe,

I am writing to you to ask you to reconsider the decision to close the University of Missouri Press. University presses play a vital role in disseminating scholarship that might not otherwise find an audience.

The University of Missouri Press has fulfilled this role admirably over the years. A brief search of the catalogs of the libraries I use most frequently reveals that the University of Edinburgh library holds 266 titles published by the University of Missouri Press. The nearby National Library of Scotland has almost 500 titles published by Missouri. These may not be huge numbers, but they are not insignificant. Moreover they demonstrate the wide range of Missouri’s reach, even as far away as Scotland. As an historian of the United States who teaches outside of the United States I can attest that the output of university presses is vital. It is sometimes very difficult to convey to British students that there is more to the United States beyond New York and Los Angeles. Publications by university presses help to fill that gap. (It’s worth observing, however, that the range of titles in our library published by your press extends far beyond Missouri-related themes.)

I appreciate that these are difficult times in higher education. We are all facing severe budget constraints. Nonetheless I ask respectfully that you reconsider the decision to close the University of Missouri Press. A quality press is one of the hallmarks of major research university. You may find you regret this decision when better times return.

Sincerely yours,

Frank Cogliano

Frank Cogliano
Professor of American History
Dean International (North America)
School of History, Classics and Archaeology University of Edinburgh William Robertson Wing Old Medical School Teviot Place Edinburgh EH8 9AG SCOTLAND

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May 31, 2012

It is a small publisher. And yet there are those who love it!

Filed under: Academia,Missouri,Publishing,Regionalism — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:30 pm

State and Local History, Forever.

Charlie "Mad Dog" Gargotta, assassinated in downtown KC Democratic Club, 1950

That was a title I was planning to use for a future post. I had some scholarly points to make about the power of state institutions, including arbitrary jurisdictional boundaries, to shape society, culture, and economy, and the continuing value of understanding people’s lives and thoughts in particular localities rather than in universal generality or world-historical significance as our academic scientism so often drives us to do. Kansas history and Missouri history were my first loves as a budding junior high historian. Missouri history I particularly loved, and not out of sheer patriotism or parochialism. Missouri’s past is a rich stew, but the elements are often distasteful: pro-slavery guerillas tore the state and its neighbor apart in one era, gangsters brutalized and corrupted it in another, and enough internal armed conflicts broke out at various times to qualify the state as a small Third World nation. Our greatest contributions to world culture include music that was developed to play in brothels and gambling dens (i.e., Kansas City jazz) and the novels of a local bard who got the hell out of Hannibal as rapidly as he could. Then there is our favoritest son, Harry Truman. Sure,  everyone loves him now, but for the much of his time as president Truman was remarkably unpopular, and he presided over the beginnings of some of the worst aspects of the Cold War in his efforts to co-opt Republican criticism.  Back home, his old friends in KC were burglarizing courthouses and assassinating each other while he was in the White House. In more recen

t times, we can lay claim to one of the early avatars of modern evangelical politics, John Ashcroft, and the Vatican of American Pentecostalism, Springfield, that produced him.

Probably most compelling for me is Missouri’s sheer depth of regional confusion. It was a southern slave state that could not join the Confederacy. It also formed the beginnings of the Wild West. Later it became a Rust Belt factory state, a whitebread Midwestern farm state, or Appalachia West, depending on where you looked.  Then there are our two great but thoroughly messed-up cities, Kansas City and St. Louis. Both cities experienced bitter racial divisions owing to populations that included large numbers of blacks and whites who had migrated from the rural countryside, but also segregation systems that were weak and “northern” enough to permit some tremendous achievements and departures in African-American culture, especially the kind that crossed over racially and shaped American popular culture more broadly: Scott Joplin, Count Basie, and Chuck Berry are just three of the most famous examples. There is probably no individual element of all this that is absolutely unique, but any space where you can get (mentally, at least) Meriwether Lewis, Jesse James, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Langston Hughes, and the Mafia together to enjoy some Budweiser and barbecue surely holds some interest.

Evidently the higher authorities at the institution where I work do not agree. That is why, instead of further ruminations on state and local history, I am turning this post into a personal plea. The administration of the University of Missouri System (our campus and three others) announced just before Memorial Day weekend that it was going to close the University of Missouri Press. Opposition is mounting to this move, including a “Save The University Press” Facebook page started by a Chicago publisher’s rep, Bruce Joshua Miller. (Other good follow-ups and comments on the story can be found at the Chronicle of Higher Education, our own local newspaper, and an online journal called Jacket 2.) Readers can find the necessary coordinates in those stories to make whatever kind of comment they might care to on this development. It would be useful right about now for the rest of academia to express its views on this loudly enough for the authorities here in Columbia to hear. I think the administration does care about our reputation, but it may not have realized just how this will be seen from elsewhere.

One of the saddest parts of this for me, and the part that reflects a fairly common attitude around academia, is the utter indifference this move shows toward state and local history. The mission of scholarly publishing in general is disseminating work that does not have mass-market appeal, and hence cannot be published commercially.  A related mission of a state university press in particular is to be the publisher of first and last resort on the history and culture of its state, serving a constituency and a market that — at least in most places — only it can.  University of Missouri Press may never have been the biggest or best of scholarly publishers, but it has performed its role of serving the state admirably. There would be no multi-volume state history without it, or any available modern scholarly work on dozens of important but inevitably Missouri-based topics: for instance, the biographies of forgotten but once-powerful national figures like Senators Thomas Eagleton and Stuart Symington. Thanks to University of Missouri Press, you can actually buy a new copy of James Neal Primm’s Lion of the Valley, a 640-page history of St. Louis from the French and Indians up to 1980 that is an absolute model of a scholarly city history. For any city below the level of New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, the local scholarly publisher is usually going to be the only feasible outlet for a work like that, and now Missouri is not going to have one.  It is obvious that the makers of this decision do not grasp what this will mean for the state. A member of our Board of Curators was quoted to the effect that, “If books are good enough, they’ll be printed elsewhere.” Probably not, actually. The place for local history is in its locality. Scholarly histories of here are best researched here, and they need to published here, especially if — as will be true in most cases — they do not have much national commercial potential. The decision exacerbates the concentration and homogenization of culture that has already produced a situation where people know more, and find it easier to learn about, New York or London or Paris or LA than the places they actually live. I can personally attest to the truth of this observation from talking to my Missouri History students.

It all makes me want to paraphrase Daniel Webster, from his famous defense of what was then a weak little academic institution called Dartmouth College:  ”Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak, it is in your hands! I know it is one of the lesser lights in the literary horizon of our country. You may put it out! But if you do so, you must carry through your work! You must extinguish, one after another, all those great lights of science which for more than a century have thrown their radiance over our land!” It is, sirs, as I have said, a small university press. And yet there are those who love it! And need it.

(more…)

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