History of the University of Chicago Press


1891 building housing the University of Chicago Press
The University of Chicago Press Building, built in 1902.

The University of Chicago Press was one of three original divisions of the University when it was founded in 1890, but in its first year or two the Press functioned only as a printer. In 1892 the Press began publishing scholarly books and journals, making it one of the oldest continuously-operating university presses in the United States. From its humble beginnings printing faculty syllabi to the multimillion dollar enterprise it is now, the Press has entirely fulfilled the prescient words of the University’s first president William Rainey Harper in 1895: “When ten or twenty years hence the story shall be written of what the University Press has done for the University, men will begin for the first time to realize that its establishment at the period of the University’s beginning was no foolish dream or idle vision.”



In its second century, the University of Chicago Press is one of the premier American university presses, with three operating divisions—Books, Journals, and Distribution Services. The Books Division publishes approximately 250 books a year, has published over 11,000 books since its founding, and has over 5,300 books in print. The Journals Division currently publishes more than 60 journals and annuals. The Distribution Services Division provides warehousing, customer service, and related services to 90+ publishers at the Chicago Distribution Center. It is also the home of the digital production initiatives of the Chicago Digital Distribution Center, which provides digital printing services, and the BiblioVault® repository for digital book files.


The publication of journals began with the very founding of the Press: the first scholarly publication of the Press was the Journal of Political Economy. Several of the Press’s journals were the first scholarly publications in their respective fields. The American Journal of Sociology, founded in 1895, is the oldest journal devoted to sociology. Until the publication of History of Religions in 1961, no journal had devoted itself exclusively to the subject of comparative religious history. In addition, the Social Service Review was founded in 1927, just as social work was being established as a profession.


The first book to bear Chicago’s imprint was Robert F. Harper’s Assyrian and Babylonian Letters Belonging to the Kouyunjik Collections of the British Museum. It apparently sold five copies during its first two years in print. More auspiciously, one of the earliest Press books has remained in print for over a hundred years—John Dewey’s The School and Society published in 1899. By 1900, the Press had published 127 books and pamphlets and eleven scholarly journals, including the still-thriving American Journal of Sociology, the Astrophysical Journal, and the Journal of Near Eastern Studies.


For its first three years the Press was an entity entirely separate from the University; it was operated by the Boston publishing house of D.C. Heath in conjunction with the Chicago printer R. R. Donnelley. This arrangement proved unworkable; in 1894 the University officially took responsibility for the Press, which was plagued thereafter by financial difficulties, inadequate physical facilities, and changes in leadership.


The Press’s fortunes began to change in 1902, when work commenced on one of the earliest and most ambitious publishing programs in the scholarly world: the Decennial Publications. Composed of articles and monographs by scholars and administrators on the state of the university and its faculty’s research, the Decennial Publications marked a radical reorganization of the Press and its staff and resources.


In 1905 the Press began to publish books by scholars outside the University of Chicago. But most notably, a copyediting and proofreading department was added to the existing staff of printers and typesetters, leading, in 1906, to the first edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. The Manual, continuously in print since 1906, is the accepted standard reference source for writers and editors around the world. It has sold nearly a million copies and is now in its sixteenth edition.


Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the University of Chicago Press continued to grow and redefine itself. A Board of University Publications made up of faculty members was organized to oversee the editorial direction of the Press. To this day, this Board meets once a month to evaluate the book manuscripts and journal projects developed by the Press. In 1931, the supervision of the financial affairs of the Press moved from a committee of Trustees to the Business Manager of the University, a shift that acknowledged the Press as a distinct and viable business under the University’s wing. During these years, the sales income of the Press jumped from $83,000 to $198,000, and it became a thriving enterprise, rife with experimental ventures and ambitious projects. Leading books of this era were: Dr. Edgar J. Goodspeed’s The New Testament: An American Translation (perhaps the first nationally successful Press title) and its successor, Goodspeed’s and J. M. Povis Smith’s The Complete Bible: An American Translation; Sir William Alexander Craigie’s A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, published in four volumes in 1943; John Manly and Edith Rickert’s The Canterbury Tales, published in 1940; and of course the Press’s all-time bestseller, Kate Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Known simply as “Turabian,” the book started out as a pamphlet for students that was produced in the basement of the Press building. First published in 1937, it has become a gold-standard reference work for students everywhere, selling millions of copies in the process.


By the 1950s, the Press, with strong income from these and other large and highly visible projects and help from project subsidies, was financially healthy and could look back on decades of professional leadership. Donald Bean, the Business Manager for many years, was a leader of the informal discussions among university press directors at the annual meetings of the National Association of Book Publishers. In 1937, this group became the Association of American University Presses, and Bean was elected its first chairman. The University of Chicago Press was also the first press to manage the cooperative program of exhibits at the conferences of professional and learned societies, a practice in which nearly every university press in the country now participates.


By 1951, the books and journals divisions of the Press were separated from the printing operation, leaving those divisions accountable to the University’s academic officers and the printing department reporting to the University’s business officers. The Press was now free to concentrate solely on publishing, but it was also free from the income that the printing department had generated. The University compensated the Press for this loss of income via a subsidy until 1955. After a difficult period of belt-tightening, the Press became entirely self-sufficient.


In 1956 the first paperbacks were issued under the Press’s imprint. A number of the Press’s best-known and bestselling books also date from the 1950s, including the translations of the Complete Greek Tragedies and The Iliad of Homer. That decade also saw the first edition of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature which has since been used by students of Biblical Greek around the world. Translations from other languages are now an essential part of the scholarly mission of the Press. The Books Division works with some of the most prestigious publishers in the world, like Gallimard in France, Suhrkamp in Germany, and Einaudi in Italy. The Press is a primary publisher in English of Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur, and Luc Ferry.


In 1967, Morris Philipson began his tenure as director of the Press, a position he occupied for 33 years. Under his leadership, the Press’s annual sales grew from $4 million to over $42 million. Philipson committed time and resources to building the backlist of the Press, believing firmly that books should remain in print and available whether they are wanted by 50 or 50,000 people a year. The result is that the Press now has 5,312 books in print, including a number that have celebrated their fiftieth anniversaries, and a program of bringing books back into print using a digital printing center at the Chicago Distribution Center. Philipson became known for taking on ambitious scholarly projects, among the largest of which was The Lisle Letters, a six-volume work that the New York Times called “one of the most extraordinary historical works in the century” and that won the Carey-Thomas Award for creative publishing in 1981. While the scholarly output of the Press expanded, the Press also made significant strides as a trade publisher when both of Norman Maclean’s books—A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire—made national best-seller lists in 1992 and Robert Redford made a movie of A River Runs Through It. With an impeccable reputation in academic and trade circles, the Press also became known as a house committed to publishing regional titles, a move cemented by the success of 1999’s One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko, a collection of columns by the legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune newspaperman.


In 1982, Philipson became the first director of an academic press to win one of PEN’s most prestigious awards, the Publisher Citation. That award praised him for having “raised the University of Chicago Press to its place as the best university press in the country.” Shortly before he retired in June 2000, Philipson was awarded the Association of American Publishers’ Curtis Benjamin Award for Creative Publishing, an award given to a person whose “creativity and leadership have left a lasting mark on American publishing.”


Paula Barker Duffy served as director of the Press from 2000 to 2007. Under her administration, the Press expanded its distribution operations and created the Chicago Digital Distribution Center and BiblioVault®. Editorial depth in reference and regional books increased with titles such as The Encyclopedia of Chicago, Timothy J. Gilfoyle’s Millennium Park, and new editions of The Chicago Manual of Style, the Turabian Manual, and The University of Chicago Spanish Dictionary. The Press also launched an electronic reference work, The Chicago Manual of Style Online.


Throughout its history the Press has published works of innovation and distinction. It has published the work of twenty Nobel Prize winners, including Enrico Fermi, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, Friedrich August von Hayek, Milton Friedman, George J. Stigler, Gary S. Becker, Robert W. Fogel, Ivo Andric, Jean-Paul Sartre, and J.M. Coetzee. Its books and journals have won thousands of scholarly and professional awards as well as the occasional major trade book awards like the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Its enduring and influential books include Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, William McNeill’s The Rise of the West, Francis Yates’ The Art of Memory, F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, and Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition.


New Press Building, 2001
New Press Building, 2001. © Eileen Ryan Photography.

Garrett P. Kiely became the fifteenth director of the University of Chicago Press in September 2007. He leads a publishing house that is the largest American university press in terms of output, staff, and revenue. The Press employs 300 people across its three divisions of books, journals, and distribution, most of whom are housed in a building built in 2000 to meet the growing needs of the enterprise. The Press currently publishes approximately 180 new books and 70 paperback reprints a year.


The Press’s 50 scholarly journals and annuals cover a wide range of disciplines, from the humanities and social sciences to the biological, medical, and physical sciences. All are peer-reviewed journals of original scholarship with a readership that includes scholars, scientists, and medical practitioners as well as interested, educated readers. The Journals Division has been a pioneer in making scholarly and scientific journals available in electronic form in conjunction with the print editions. This program began in 1995, with the online electronic edition of the Astrophysical Journal Letters, a publication sponsored by the American Astronomical Society. In the succeeding years, electronic editions have been added to the journals in the sciences; then the social sciences; and finally in the humanities. All of the Press’s journals are now available online.


The Chicago Distribution Center—the Press’s warehouse, business services, and order fulfillment unit—distributes books for 60 publishers. In 2001 the Press became the first university publisher to have an on-site digital printing facility with the inauguration of the Chicago Digital Distribution Center. The Press also hosts the BiblioVault® repository that provides university presses with a home for electronic files for their books (http://www.bibliovault.org/).


The Press counts among its authors Nobel Prize winners, famed academics, assistant professors, independent scholars, novelists, journalists, first-time authors, and occasionally an author with no fixed address. It counts among its subjects television talk shows, infectious diseases, kaon physics, the complete works of Verdi, and race relations in the United States. It represents, as the philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote on the occasion of the Press’s centennial in 1992, “a kind of luminous and indispensable reference, both a system of intellectual rules put to the test by a tradition to cultivate and an example of institutional success and technical performance.”


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