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Pressing On, By Samuel Hughes, Photo by Addison Geary
The University of Pennsylvania press has a new home, a new director, and some new goals and projects. It also has a checkered past -- and a changing world of publishing to contend with.

The whine of circular saws the quiet of the old mansion at the corner of 42nd and Pine Streets in West Philadelphia. It's a strangely impressive edifice that once housed the American College of Physicians and now suggests the marriage of convenience between a French chateau and a mental institute. In the north wing, marble fireplaces and oak panelling conjure up images of Eakins-era surgeons discussing neuralgia over afternoon Madeira. The newer south wing is an anonymous warren of Penn-affiliated offices with flourescent lights and drop ceilings.
   A couple of months ago, the University of Pennsylvania Press made the Great Leap Forward from its temporary quarters in the south wing to its venerable new quarters in the north. For Eric Halpern, who took over as the Press's director two and a half years ago after 12 years at Johns Hopkins University Press -- where he rose from senior acquisitions editor to editor-in-chief -- the move means more than just classier office space and a permanent address. In a small, symbolic way, he hopes it will send a message that the Press intends to increase its presence in the competitive world of university presses -- a world in which the Press has not, on the whole, been a major player.
   "The physical setting of a press is very important for its public image," Halpern acknowledges, a few days after moving into his elegant new office. "That's why presses hunt out unusual space. When the Penn Press was at Blockley Hall, I think any author coming to that setting would feel that the Press was in sort of second-class status. So this move couldn't have come at a better time. And I certainly intend for the setting to be matched by the rest of the publishing program -- in short order."
   He's got his work cut out for him. Founded in 1890, the Press does have some impressive titles in its catalogue -- a century ago, for example, it published W.E.B. DuBois's landmark The Philadelphia Negro, while Aaron Beck's Depression and several of the Press's medieval- studies books are minor classics. (For some other distinguished titles, see the sidebar at left.) But in its long and often precarious existence, the Press has only produced about 2,100 books, and even now, in a growth period, it is turning out about 75 a year. While that output puts it in the top third of university presses, it is fairly small potatoes compared to the more than 300 books published each year at Princeton, the 250 or so at the University of Chicago, the 220 from Yale, the 175 from Cornell, and the 2,500 from Oxford and Cambridge combined. Size isn't everything, of course, but it does often have a bearing on quality. And it's fair to say that the Press has never taken on anything close to the stature of the University itself.
   Halpern himself, though bullish on its potential, describes it as a "very small press that has had little in the way of major institutional ambitions at a very major university with very major institutional ambitions." Later, he amends that slightly: "The Press has always been very good and respectable but very small and very -- well, tweedy comes to mind. Certainly nothing of the intellectual or cultural force that a press like Chicago's or Harvard's or Princeton's is at their institutions."
   He is working to change that, within the limits of plausibility. Since the average gestational period for the Press's books is two to three years -- some take a decade to go from gleam in the eye to publication -- it will be several more years before his impact can really be gauged. While his retooling efforts have led to some nice media attention and a quiet air of optimism around the Press, most observers agree that it still has a ways to go.
   "It's possible to be a great university and have a modest little press," says Dr. Edward Peters, the Henry Charles Lea professor of history. "But if you're Penn, and you're in a certain league with other universities, I guess there's an ideal minimum, and that minimum is a little ahead of where we are now. And I suspect that the maximum is going to be the result of a lot of other factors, including the University's interest [in the Press] and its self-image." br>   Peters is responsible for the Press's single most important line of books: its medieval-studies series, which is among the most distinguished of its kind in the country. But, he notes: "It's a very big tail wagging a very small dog."
   Given the University's early neglect of the Press, its budgetary constrictions, and the current publishing climate, it won't be easy to genetically engineer a bigger dog, so to speak. It will have to grow organically, one cell at a time. Continued...
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 3/17/98