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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 work of scholarship to be published under the Stanford name was The Tariff Controversy in the United States, 1789-1833, by Orrin Leslie Elliott. Published in September 1892, the book was given the designation "No. 1" in the "Leland Stanford Junior University Monographs Series.” At the same time, an enterprising Stanford student and member of the “Pioneer Class,” Julius Andrew Quelle established a printing company on the Stanford campus. He published the student newspaper, books and articles for faculty members, and, in 1895, the first work to bear the imprint “Stanford University Press,” The Story of the Innumerable Company, by President Jordan.

Over the next decade, both the University Monographs series and Quelle’s printing outfit released new Stanford publications. By 1899, a publishing series associated with the Hopkins Laboratory boasted 21 titles, including yet another work by Jordan, The Fishes of Sinaloa. Classroom books included works in geology by Branner and by John Newsom, and at least three works in applied mechanics by Leander Miller Hoskins. Further systematic scholarly publishing developed with the start of another "University Series" in 1908, in which Vernon Lyman Kellogg's Inheritance in Silkworms was the first title. This series, which consisted mostly but not exclusively of works in science, ran until 1919.

In 1917, the university decided that it should own the campus printing operation, and purchased the operation and printing presses from Quelle. The Press moved to larger premises, the building in which its offices would be housed on campus for the next 85 years. In 1920, Will Friend, a master printer from San Francisco, was appointed Press manager. At the start of his 25-year career at the Press, Friend often copy-edited books, designed them, set them in type, and then operated the printing equipment himself. Influenced by John Henry Nash, the Grabhorns, and others in the Bay Area typographical and fine-printing community, Friend established the SUP tradition of high book-production standards. 

In 1925, SUP hired William Hawley Davis to be general editor and David Lamson as sales manager. In the following year, SUP issued its first catalog, listing 75 published books. Early books on the press list range widely, from scholarly meditations like Illustrated Flora of the Pacific States (1923) and Between Pacific Tides (1939)—both ecological explorations of the Pacific (the latter with a foreword from John Steinbeck), to works like The Ancient Maya (1946)a definitive text in its field (now in its sixth edition).

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 was appointed as director. Under his leadership, SUP emerged as a distinguished academic publisher with leading lists in a number of scholarly fields. During this era the Press published The Complete Essays of Montaigne (1958), the Bancroft Prize-winning Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (1962), and Origins of the Chinese Revolution, 1915-1949 (1971).

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. SUP became the preeminent English-language publisher in the field of critical theory, publishing prominent theorists and notable translations from European thinkers of the first rank—Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, and Jean-Luc Nancy among them. 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.

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, and to strengthen university ties. 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 the 12-volume Pritzker Edition of the Zohar.

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 new imprint of concise, accessible, and timely scholarly books, Stanford Briefs; a new trade imprint, Redwood Press; and launched a new digital publishing program, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 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.