Putting Knowledge to Work

A graduate of Princeton in the class of 1929, DATUS C. SMITH, JR., has been Director of the Princeton University Press since 1942. Editor and businessman, Mr. Smith believes that the important job of the university presses is to get the results of scholarship into the hands of the general reader. Under his direction the Princeton University Press has published H. D. Smyth’s Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, Erwin Panofsky’s Albrecht Dürer, Foster Rhea Dulles’s Road to Teheran, and the works of Kierkegaard, and will bring out Julian P. Boyd’s fifty-volume edition of Thomas Jefferson’s papers.

by DATUS C. SMITH, JR.

1

WITHOUT being facetious it may be said that the greatest achievement of university presses during the last decade is that they have survived. Ten years ago it was by no means certain that they would do this in any number, and at the start of American participation in the war it was rather generally assumed that they would have to close their doors. Contrary to these expectations, the war made possible a demonstration of social usefulness more impressive than anything in the past, and today the number of active university presses with a long life-expectancy is higher than it has ever been.

Others besides demagogues are likely to confuse their own interest with the good of humanity, and I am aware of that possible disqualification of my judgment. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the vigor of university presses is of some importance, especially at present when our brothers in commercial publishing — caught between fantastically high “break-even points” on the one hand and consumer resistance to high prices on the other — find it even more difficult than before to include in their territory the commercially bleak domain of scholarship.

It must be said that scholarship is not always as sluggish a commodity as many people, including publishers, sometimes believe; and that publication in editions of moderate size need not produce the financial loss that a rule of thumb from more flamboyant publishing operations might suggest. But scholarly publishing does constantly demand editions below any commercial “break-even point,” and almost always frustrates attempts at assemblyline treatment.

No commercial publisher would be so cavalier toward his stockholders as to take on monumental projects such as the Columbia Milton, the Johns Hopkins Spenser, the Yale edition of Walpole’s letters, the New Mexico series on Coronado, the California and North Carolina studies of SpanishAmerica, Chicago’s Dictionary of American English, or the forthcoming Pennsylvania volumes on the Crusades. These are big, eye-filling projects, but the thousands of lesser works of specialized scholarship are not, when taken together, any less important or, for the general publisher, any less forbidding. I have not read the North Carolina book on gasleromycetes or the Duke treatise on judicial folklore or Michigan’s work on the tax rolls of Karanis, but I do know that for various scholars throughout the world books like these “impossible” publishing projects, large and small, are as necessary as a trowel is for a mason.

Someone may point out that, with development of microfilm and other techniques, it is questionable whether conventional book manufacture is as necessary in all cases as we once thought; and that even with books in the normal sense, greater economy is possible for works of limited circulation. This is quite so, and the university presses are aware of it. The King’s Crown Press, a division of Columbia University Press, made considerable progress along this line; and some years ago, even before short-cut methods were as easy or as attractive as they are today, Chicago brought out the Manly edition of the Canterburg Tales in an offset edition that I understand was fully serviceable to scholars.

Much of this less costly type of manufacture has been going on in the last decade, and more will be done in the future. It will be a boon to scholars and will make the job of university presses easier, but if will not change the attitude of commercial publishers toward scholarly books in general. Even supposing the most generous and public-spirited impulse on the part of the profit-making publishers — and some of them have shown again and again that they can be both generous and public-spirited — they are not equipped to do the specialized job that needs doing.

So I think it is good that university presses are in a strong position. And I believe they have got there primarily because of the development of techniques of manufacture, of particularized promotion, and of sales distribution that are especially well adapted to scholarly books of an anticipated moderate sale, yet do not hobble the possibilities of the volume that outruns expectations and sells 10,000 or 25,000 copies, or once in a while 50,000 or more.

Examples of these better-selling books will come readily to mind: Harvard’s General Education in a Free Society, Minnesota’s hand of the Dacotahs, Yale’s books on Russia by Dallin, Stanford’s Ancient Maya. It should be noted, incidentally, that these were not merely promising manuscripts that happened to come to those presses: each is part of a general publishing program that is integrated with other scholarly work at the university concerned. Plowman’s Folly, of which there are now 340,000 copies in print, including reprints by others, started out life modestly at Oklahoma as one especially interesting item in a program of publishing books on land use.

2

TO MY mind the biggest change in university-press publishing in the last decade is precisely in discovering how to follow up promising titles and realize their full potentialities, and yet to do this without cutting down the careful attention that must always be given to the highly specialized books known in my profession as “saleless wonders.”

No benefit would have been conferred upon society if the university presses had been afflicted with their own kind of best-sellerism. Not only would they have failed to discharge their main function, but in my judgment they would have found themselves, after a period of years, in a financial pickle. Best-sellerism is a disease like myopia, in that the sufferer cannot see things very far away. The publisher of scholarly books who demands sensationalism today and recks not how substantial his “backlist” is going to be tomorrow will find time dealing unkindly with him. Judging from my own observations and from what people at other presses have told me, something like 60 to 70 per cent of current sales income for presses that have been established any length of time comes from the backlist — from books published in earlier years. In short, the scholarly vigor of the whole backlist is of far greater importance to the financial well-being of a press than the pyrotechnics, however beautiful, of a few current titles.

And the wonderful thing about this is that financial interest and scholarly interest are here observed, astonishingly, walking happily down the road together, hand in hand. This does not mean that the job is easy or is done as well as if might be or that university presses always know the longterm answers to the perplexing problems they face. But it does mean that there tend to be rewards for the presses that keep the faith, and punishments for those following false gods. Keeping the faith means doing your best to serve society in the way that is your own forte, and avoiding any temptation to become a second-rate Little, Brown or Alfred Knopf or Simon and Schuster.

The business of publishing is communication, and the special business of university presses is to communicate the results of scholarship. A case might be made that, because of the constantly expanding circles of influence from a scholar’s work, this is fundamentally the most important kind of communication in the world. The scholar’s work is basic. This is not to claim that university-press people are any better than other publishers, but it is to recognize that without the publication of scholarship (by all agencies, not merely by university presses) none of the communication passing through such mass media as best-selling books, newspapers, magazines, radio, would have the meaning, and the rational guidance toward objectives, that in some degree are possible now.

Scholars make discoveries — factual, conceptual, interpretive — and when the discoveries have become known to the rest of us there is at least the possibility that we may act in the light of reason. The findings of scholarship reach the citizen in two ways: directly through the writings of the men and women making the discoveries, and indirectly through the influence of scholars upon other scholars and upon teachers, popular writers, columnists, commentators, editors. The customary way is surely the second, the indirect route of scholar to popularizer to layman.

A list of university-press books that have profoundly affected American thinking would be a long one. For instance, recall the turn that was given to our thought in the mid-1930’s when Yale published Sweden: the Middle Way, by Marquis Childs; or the long influence of John Dewey’s School and Society, which Chicago published in 1899 and which is still going strong; or the deep effect, on scholar and layman alike, of Oklahoma’s pioneering land-use books, starting with Deserts on the March. And it is probably not excessive to say that the Harvard report on general education is still, four years after publication, the most influential single factor in determining the curriculum of American schools and colleges. Or think of the service to every kind of reader which has been given by the Columbia Encyclopedia, or of the way in which Columbia’s distribution of the documents of the League of Nations and now of the United Nations and related organizations has energized scholarship in many fields.

Regional books have a special influence of their own, and their usefulness is not limited to the locality. Much nonsense has been written about regional publishing. Some people talk as if there were some special mystical value in regionalism per se, whereas the regional mind at its worst represents nothing except a kind of small-time chauvinism. But the presses have played a large part in elevating regional scholarship above provincialism. In history, for instance, they have rescued their own chapter of the national story from the clutches of the genealogists and the Washington-slept-here historians, giving it a meaning and a kind of spiritual unity with the life of the country as a whole.

This has happened in a variety of fields: material of originally local interest has been raised to national significance by its rigorous and intelligent handling by able scholars. The Function of the presses in these cases has been to give these writers a mature audience which will both inspire and justify the best work of which they are capable. Oklahoma’s magnificent series on the American Indian is an obvious example. But regional publishing is not restricted to historical and cultural matters. Some of the most interesting universitypress books in economics and in science and technology have had this kind of origin but have subsequently been of both practical and scholarly use around the world: as North Carolina’s volumes on tobacco and the whole range of its books on the economic problems of the South, California’s on citrus fruits, the bird books of Rutgers and Minnesota, Nebraska’s on Western industry, Stanford’s on Pacific problems, and the distinguished studies in agricultural science at Rutgers and Iowa State.

3

FOR all of these different kinds of books the university presses have far better means of distribution than they had ten years ago. Improvement in reaching the layman by the indirect route, via the popularizers, has been especially striking. The popularizers have found scholarly books indispensable tools of their trade, and the presses have made a big advance in the thoroughness with which their books have been brought to the attention of these people. The Walter Lippmanns, let us say, have always made it their business to ferret out the scholarly books that I will be useful to them, but the Walter Lippmanns make up only a very small fraction of the whole list of the country’s popularizers — of the people who take to a large lay public some part of the knowledge and the understanding contained in the primary writings of scholarship.

These popularizers may be found in every community and in nearly every walk of life. They may be authors of market newsletters, loaders of League of Women Voters discussion groups, clergymen who include allusions to secular knowledge in their sermons, research directors for labor unions, Congressmen’s secretaries, news-magazine researchers, editors of trade association journals, teachers in schools of all levels, or merely articulate commuters who like to hold forth each morning on the 7.40. Sometimes these people explicitly say that they are communicating the results of scholarship, but more often they merely reveal a scholarly influence of which they themselves are not fully aware.

Though the total number of non-scholars reading university-press books has grown enormously, it must be admitted that the number of completely disinterested laymen in the group is still comparatively small. For the most readable books — for instance Fairbank’s United States and China (Harvard) or Wedgwood’s William the Silent (Yale)— there is undoubtedly an audience of out-and-out laymen, of people who are not only removed from academic life but have no concern aside from that of an intelligent citizen with the content of the books. It is my impression, however, that for most university-press books most of the non-academic readers have some connection with the material — an oil executive wants a book on the Near East, a Yugoslav-American wants to learn about his homeland, a Wisconsin farmer is curious about a tomahawk found on his place after the Black Hawk War.

Lay interest in scholarly books is not necessarily utilitarian — much of it, in fact, is a reflection of that finest evidence of a liberal education, the development of serious amateurs in various intellectual fields — but I believe we are still some distance from the place where very many laymen merely looking for good non-fiction books to read will think naturally of scholarly books as among the possibilities. This is stated frankly to reveal part of the challenge still facing university presses and their authors. But this acknowledgment should not seem to diminish the impressive achievement of the past decade in enlarging the distribution of scholars’ books to the general public: a decade ago that Wisconsin farmer might never have known that there was a book on the Black Hawk War that he could read with interest.

To return to the happy conjunction of financial and scholarly considerations I mentioned earlier in this article, the expansion of the audience has served both to increase sales income, and thus to enlarge the capacity of university presses to do their job, and also to improve their ability to make the results of scholarship usefully known to a large segment of the population. If American university presses should be able to achieve in the next ten years an advance in any way comparable to what they have done in the last ten, that, would be an important contribution toward closing the most dangerous gap in our national structure — the gap between knowledge potentially useful and knowledge put to work.