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Rare Intellectual Gems and Timely Topics from the University Press

Before the dawn of 2010, many book writers, reviewers and bloggers offered assessments of the literary offerings of the past 12 months. A few even ventured to sum up the decade. Jennifer Howard, who writes about books for the Chronicle of Higher Education, wondered how many of these lists included books from university presses. She surprised herself when she actually found some. (See “Hot-Type: A Few University-Press Books Hit Mainstream “Best of” Lists, December 13, 2009.)

Those books that rated a mention by some prestigious publications included: Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, by Gordon S. Wood, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, by Benjamin Moser, Muslims in America: A Short History, by Edward E. Curtis IV, all from Oxford University Press, and The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost by Mary Beard, out of Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

In general, however, these books and the many other fine examples of general-interest, academic, literary books from the university and small presses are overlooked when it comes time to hand out accolades. Most are never reviewed, which contributes to their invisibility. So writing about them as Howard does can be a lonely enterprise. It helps if you have eclectic reading habits, a taste for the esoteric and a high tolerance level for pondering research that would bore many mortals. I know, because I have covered university-press books for about 10 years, first for Black Issues Book Review, beginning with its founding in 1999, and since 2007 for DIVERSE: Issues in Higher Education and a few other outlets from time to time.

It is a privilege few others would covet, I suspect. For me, it brings to mind a phrase coined by a former bureau chief of the Washington, D.C. news service where I spent some years early in my career. Colleagues said the chief would designate the kind of hyper-local stories we covered from the nation’s capital for newspapers around the country – oh, say a Federal hearing on mine safety in Appalachia — as “technical exclusives.” They were “exclusive” because no one covered them but us, and no one else cared except a few folks back in some small town served by our papers.

Similarly, many of the books that come out of university and small presses are likely to be of interest to a relatively tiny community of people. That does not make them unimportant or uninteresting. Quite the contrary in many cases.

My own interest in the output of university presses grew largely out of an assignment from a Black Issues Book Review editor to do an in-depth article on the state of the few remaining publishers at historically Black universities. From that time on, I tracked upcoming titles and books from all the university presses that came into the office, many of them Southern presses that frequently published books on African American topics. I often reviewed these books or wrote about their authors when no one else did. When I became executive editor of BIBR myself in 2003, I soon introduced a regular feature on these books to make sure they were represented in most issues.

Now, I am pleased that DIVERSE is launching as a premier source to buy these books online and as a vehicle for them to get the coverage and attention they deserve. Among the reasons I think this is important is the obvious quality and range of books that the university and small presses offer. Where else can you find well-written, thoroughly edited and authoritatively sourced books on just about anything you might want? In recent years, I have had a chance to review books on Creole languages, female professors, the achievement gap, the Don Imus firing, class differences on elite campuses, Gullah cuisine and even a biography of a legendary West Virginia educator who was once my mother’s neighbor.

About 3,000 titles are in the inventory, and its creators plan to double that. I look forward to years of reading more books on an endless array of topics. Hope you do too. We also welcome your comments about the site, the books and your finds among the offerings.

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