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Stanford University Press—or at least, the idea of it—was born in Bloomington, Indiana. It was there in 1891 that Leland and Jane Stanford offered the presidency of their new university to David Starr Jordan, who, before accepting the post, drew up a memo of understanding for the Stanfords’ approval. “Before the selection of the faculty,” Jordan wrote, “I should like your assent to the following propositions.” There were four; the first three addressed student admission standards, the balance between theoretical and applied learning, and faculty needs. The fourth and final proposition reads in full: “That provision be made for the publication of the results of any important research on the part of professors, or advanced students. Such papers may be issued from time to time as ‘Memoirs of the Leland Stanford Junior University.’” 

The first iteration of Stanford University Press (SUP) was established in 1892 by an enterprising Stanford student, and member of the “Pioneer Class,” Julius Andrew Quelle. Initially operating out of the university’s woodworking shop, the private printing company Quelle founded produced a student paper and eventually a handful of book-length articles written by Stanford faculty. So successful was Quelle’s outfit that he abandoned his studies, working as a private printer to the university until 1917 when Stanford bought the printing company, and moved the operations to a larger office where the press would be housed for the next eighty-some years. 

Not until 1925, however, was the printing plant furnished with dedicated editorial and sales departments, after which point the press was officially a full-fledged publishing division of Stanford, issuing its first catalog in 1926. Early books on the press list range widely, from scholarly meditations like Between Pacific Tides (1939)—an ecological exploration of the Pacific with a foreword from John Steinbeck—to nonfiction trade books, such as Your Rugged Constitution (1950)—a Cold War-era title redolent with patriotism.

By 1939 the Press had 392 active titles, 12 book series, and 70 employees. As the work of the Press grew, so too did the printing facilities. Erected in 1929, a new building adjacent to SUP’s headquarters contained new equipment including the Press’ first offset printing apparatus, six linotypes, three flatbed presses along with several smaller presses, and a roll-fed flatbed press for printing the student newspaper. During the 50s SUP was noted for its large, modern, and efficient printing plant and by 1952, ranked seventh nationally among university presses with respect to title output. 

In 1956 Leon Seltzer and Jess Bell were appointed as Director and Editor-in-Chief, respectively, inaugurating the modern era of the Press, during which time SUP emerged as a distinguished academic publisher with leading lists in a number of fields. Under their stewardship, SUP garnered a reputation for being a selective publisher, competing with peer institutions on the basis of scholarly quality over quantity of titles. In accordance with this shift in focus, along with the rise of computer typesetting and photo-offset printing, the university decided in 1976 to close the once-renowned, extensive printing plant from which the publishing house had first sprung. 

In the decades to come, a continued emphasis on exacting editorial standards became increasingly central to the Press’ character. When Grant Barnes took over as director in 1983 he was charged with expanding the Press’ publishing program, particularly into the humanities and literary studies. To this end he hired a number of talented acquisitions editors, including Helen Tartar who published prominent theorists and notable translations from European thinkers of the first rank—Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, and Jean-Luc Nancy among them. Her acquisitions established SUP as the preeminent English-language publisher in the field of critical theory. A noted political science editor himself, Barnes acquired a number of important titles in political and social theory, including books by noted British sociologist Anthony Giddens and translations of such influential thinkers as Pierre Bourdieu. Meanwhile Norris Pope, who would assume the directorship in 1992, championed a Latin American history list that garnered an unprecedented number of academic prizes and awards.

At the turn of the millennium the Press’ reporting relationship was shifted from the University Provost to Stanford University Librarian, Michael Keller. Keller, who had overseen the creation of HighWire Press—a platform which quickly emerged as a leading digital distributor of scholarly material—hired a new Press director, Geoffrey Burn, and Editor-in-Chief, Alan Harvey, to help the publishing house navigate an increasingly complicated economic environment of mixed print and electronic publishing. 

During his time as director, Burn’s remit was to sustain the Press’ reputation for publishing works of outstanding scholarship in the humanities, to continue the growth of its position in the social sciences, to strengthen university ties, and to weather the looming recession. In pursuit of these ends, SUP expanded its title list to encompass business, economics, sociology, law, security studies, and Middle East studies. This expansion, which closely mirrored Stanford University’s own areas of expertise, laid the groundwork for more direct faculty-press collaboration, and in the ensuing years would furnish the Press with a bevy of successful titles and series. Notable acquisitions during this period included the launch of a 12-volume Pritzker Edition of The Zohar (a series which will be complete in 2016).

Following Burn’s retirement in 2012, Alan Harvey assumed directorship of the Press. Bringing to the table a deep understanding of the evolving digital landscape of publishing and shifting modes of scholarly communication, Harvey introduced a born-digital imprint of concise, accessible, and timely scholarly books, Stanford Briefs. Also under Harvey’s direction, SUP adopted a new colophon, a stylized redwood tree, to coincide with the Press’ relocation from Stanford to Redwood City, California.

As the Press nears its centennial, SUP is focused ever more on innovating new publishing practices to better serve the scholarly community. Working in close collaboration with Stanford University Libraries, whose mission and outlook are in lockstep with SUP’s, the Press prides itself on being a digital pioneer, and an academic publisher of creative and sophisticated scholarship.