books · publishing · university presses

Publishing, region, and place

This piece was originally posted on the University of Nebraska Press blog as part of UP Week in 2013.

There are lots of ways of telling people you live in the middle. Here’s mine: When I zoom all the way out on my phone’s GPS, the blue you-are-here dot pulses between the “d” and the “s” in “United States.”

Given those coordinates, it’s not surprising that many of the books my colleagues and I work on at the University of Nebraska Press are about the continent’s vast interior. But I’m not sure I’d classify these titles—the most exciting of them, anyway—as conventionally regional. That’s because Nebraska’s best books tend to be not simply about a particular place but about place-making more generally.

Frontiers, for example, are a big part of our publishing program, and if you flip through our catalog you’ll certainly see books about iconic frontier topics like the fur trade. Many of these, however, approach frontiers as a process – one capable of providing a window into fundamental questions about everything from the emergence of capitalism to the environmental impact of migration. A book like that is regional but cosmopolitan. Its insights appeal to anyone thinking about the way different kinds of people come together (often on unequal terms) to create places, not only in the Old West but in the Australian Outback, the Russian Steppe, or South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

Nebraska’s series History of the American West is designed to produce this kind of sophisticated scholarship about place. The five volumes in the series (two have been published so far) cover the whole sweep of North America’s western history in chronological order. Colin Calloway’s One Vast Winter Count synthesizes and interprets the enormous literature on the Native west before Lewis and Clark’s arrival. Calloway’s book won major awards, was widely reviewed, and set an extremely high standard for subsequent volumes in the series. Anne Hyde’s Empires, Nations, and Families, about western North America from 1800 to 1860, more than met those expectations. Winner of the Bancroft Prize and finalist for the Pulitzer, it tells stories about intimate relationships with global repercussions. Hyde’s key insight is that unions between European American men and indigenous and Mexican women were the essential ingredient that led to continental trade networks. These relationships, in turn, built individual places—Taos, Cape Girardeau, Fort Vancouver—and ultimately the United States itself.

Discussions about regional publishing at university presses too often, I think, overemphasize the way our geographic diversity helps generate knowledge about places that might otherwise be overlooked. Seen this way, regional publishing is mostly about the value or service it provides to the people of our various states and regions. That’s certainly part of what we do out here in the middle. But initiatives like Nebraska’s History of the West series help put publishing about region, and by extension the broader work and mission of university presses, in a slightly different perspective. Done right, the study of an individual chunk of the globe not only uncovers new information; it can prompt us to think in new ways about the wider world.

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