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The University Press: Damned or Rediscovered?

It comes as no surprise that many university presses around the country have grown dormant. Economic burdens—primarily those taken on by students—are forcing colleges to reconsider where specific funding goes; presses might seem like more of a luxury than a priority for some administrators. Of course, the publishing industry at large has also been subjected to a tremendous shift. The war continues to wage between digital and print distribution. Millennials, captivated by iPad and Kindle screens, appear to have made their choice. That doesn’t render the university press dead, though. If anything, it practically begs for a restructuring of the programs.

The educational possibilities behind electronic libraries are boundless. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of New York recognizes this. That’s why they recently awarded a $100,000 grant to The University of North Carolina Press. The money will be used to examine how the collegiate journal format can be translated to current web practices. It’s certainly a step in the right direction. Digitizing archives and new publications means that students will have access to thousands of resources with the click of a mouse. Generation Y witnessed the social media revolution (and saw boxy computers transform into hand-held tablets). Appealing to the tech-savvy ways of the modern student might spark curiosity and a fresh approach to learning.

Nevertheless, the experience of actually holding a book can’t quite be replicated on a computer—no, not even with the page turning sound effects. When a university press releases a book, they effectively capture a moment in time. It’s the consciousness of a student body and an era. Halting print production destroys this paper trail that encompasses all of that rich history. This is likely why some are adverse to the digital platform. It’s true that an e-book doesn’t capture the grandness of leather bound volumes and the various faculties who created them over the years. There’s probably also a hint of skepticism. Mediums are transitory (consider the evolution of cassette tape to CD to MP3 in just the past few decades). Authors want the format that will best preserve their work. Archaeologists continue to excavate books from centuries past, but will anyone be able to make sense of our defective laptops?

Clearly there is a compromise to be made here. University presses can succeed if they’re willing to entertain both schools of thought. This might mean making titles available via an app, while still producing a limited number of physical copies. One Baylor University director managed to save his program by working with acclaimed authors and publishers outside of the university. His philosophy draws from the past and the present; the revenue increase speaks for itself.

Carve wants to know what you think. Should colleges focus on digital or physical libraries for their publications? Are there changes to be made, or should universities hold on to their time-honored literary traditions? Sound off by leaving us a comment.