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The History of Books for Understanding


By Brenna McLaughlin

This article originally appeared in the July 2002 Journal of Scholarly Publishing, Vol. 33, No. 4.

Within days of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Penn State University Press was swamped with queries about two backlist scholarly titles, Terrorism in Context and The Holy War Idea in Islamic and Western Thought. Sanford Thatcher, director of Penn State’s press, knew that other university presses had published similar books and had an idea. On September 13, Thatcher emailed the Association of American University Presses, and suggested that AAUP compile a short bibliography of relevant books to post online at Six months later, under the rubric “Books for Understanding,” that bibliography contained listings for 671 titles from 65 non-profit scholarly presses, and had provided the foundation for a dynamic permanent public information resource.

Spotlight on the Best Books in the News?

It had long been a goal of AAUP to develop an online resource that would draw attention to books from university presses on topics in the current news. After all, at the beginning of 1999, one of the only works available on Kosovo had been published in August 1998 by New York University Press. When Gao Xingjian was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000, only one of his books was available in English, published by another member of AAUP, the Chinese University Press in Hong Kong.

Such a resource would not only be a public service for people looking for more information about current events, but would also further AAUP’s mission to promote the contributions of university presses to society and scholarship.  Book lists like this would remind people that not-for-profit scholarly publishing is an industry that is able to publish for reasons other than the bottom line. While market research may have counseled against a book on the history of Afghanistan in 2000, a university press would have considered (and several did) the value of the scholarly research to be the deciding factor. The demand for books on suddenly newsworthy subjects often inspires a race to get out “instant books,” but university presses are already there, carefully researched and reviewed books in hand.  People just need to be told about the books.

Much thought and planning went into the conception of an online, get-out-the-word project, and it went through a number of reincarnations. Paul Arroyo, the Electronic Publisher of the University of Illinois Press, generously designed and programmed a beta site called “Best Books” that displayed books with cover images, reviews, and other material.  It was set up so that each press could upload a wide range of materials on books of their choice, including award-winning titles as well as those related to current events.

In the end, however, other web development needs overtook the project. After many years of hosting and maintenance of the AAUP web site by the University of Chicago Press, it was decided that, in the interest of flexibility, responsibility for the site should be shifted to the AAUP Central Office.  After a complete overhaul of the site, a new was launched in June 2001. A placeholder page promised the coming of a resource, now entitled “Spotlight,” or more descriptively “Books in the News.”

Discussion continued on how to shape “Spotlight.” While the “Best Books” pilot was technically and aesthetically pleasing, surveys of marketing and publicity staff at presses alerted AAUP to the practical difficulties of such a program. Small staffs were already hard pressed to prepare electronic files that would conform to the different formats of major online outlets such as and Would participation in the program be large enough to make the resource compelling to the public?  Was there another way to organize the project, some manner of organization that would provide more immediate information to users and simplify the process for presses?

Books for Understanding the Events of September 11: The List

When Sandy Thatcher’s suggestion reached the offices of AAUP, it was embraced enthusiastically. Not only was it just the kind of resource that AAUP had long been committed to providing, it was also something that we could do then that seemed to have meaning in that terrible week. The reminder that university press publishing is, indeed, publishing in the public interest was a comfort to the Central Office staff, and the same emotion was expressed by many press staff members as they submitted titles over the coming months.

The “Spotlight” resource was no further along in early September than it had been in June, but this idea jumpstarted the project. It seemed urgent to get the information out as soon as possible, and AAUP was operating with limited telecommunications ability. The association had lost its primary phone and internet service in the days after the attack, and had only two legacy modem lines that had been kept just in case. The situation called for a quick and dirty list of books, a simple HTML-formatted bibliography with title, author, year of publication, and press.

The call went out to AAUP’s 121 presses on Friday, September 14. By September 19, a list of more than 100 titles was published to the web. By the end of October the list comprised more than 580 books from 60 publishers. You can still visit the bibliography at Books are still occasionally added to the list, which at the moment of writing stands at 671 titles from 65 AAUP member presses.

Books for Understanding the Events of September 11: The Books

As the list grew, so did the topics addressed by submitted titles.  University presses have books to offer the public on aviation security, the roots of terrorism, the history of Central Asia, grief counseling, biological weapons, women in Islam, and United States foreign policy, among other subjects.  The list is now sorted into 27 categories and sub-categories, including—in a kind of terrible prescience—sections on Israel and Palestine, and Iraq and Iran.

Some of the titles on the list became bittersweet successes for university presses.  In 1999, Rutgers University Press published Twin Towers: The Life of New York City’s World Trade Center by Angus Kress Gillespie.  The book tells the history of the building of the World Trade Center, and also includes interviews with people who worked in the towers every day.  Rutgers had printed 3,000 copies of the book and it had sold a respectable 2,000 before September 11, 2001. Northeastern University Press had sold 4,000 copies of The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden, and the Future of Terrorism by Simon Reeves, one of only two books available on the Al Qaeda leader.  In the months to follow, both presses were forced to reprint in the tens of thousands to keep up with demand.

Then, as had never happened before, a book published a year earlier by a scholarly press became a national bestseller.  Yale University Press’s Taliban by Ahmed Rashid was sold in huge stacks at Barnes & Noble branches around the country.  For a few months, the norms of the bookselling industry were ignored.  Frontlist trade books that usually dominate front-of-store displays and review space were jostled out of the way.  The New York Times Book Review prominently reviewed foreign policy studies from the Brookings Institution Press, and ten-year-old titles from the Woodrow Wilson Center Press made it to the top 20 on*

The September 11 Books for Understanding bibliography holds many more such books, from Afghanistan’s Endless War from the University of Washington Press and Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong? from Oxford, to California’s Anthrax. The immediate relevancy of such works brings many browsers to the AAUP list, but it is the depth and breadth of titles that keeps users interested and informed.  For example, visitors to the list can find works on handling loss and grief counseling from Beacon Press and American Psychiatric Publishing; books exploring the theory of just war from presses at Catholic institutions; and, from Teachers College Press, a series of Arabic textbooks, workbooks, and language tapes.  As flags blossomed everywhere in the country, readers could learn more about the meaning, history, and purpose of patriotism from several titles in the bibliography. For readers looking for technical insight, the National Academy Press posts full online text of works on aviation security, the blast resistance of structures, and the threat of biological weapons.  The Fundamentalism Project from the University of Chicago Pressoffers five books that seek to address the growing phenomenon of fundamentalism from different angles.  As new twists in the war on terrorism arise, such as flare-ups in the Kashmir conflict or questions of a new relationship with the Saudi regime, one or more books can be found on this list to provide the deep background information.  The list of similar examples could fill another article.

Books for Understanding the Events of September 11: The Reaction

Books for Understanding was a welcome service for a surprisingly wide range of people and groups.  AAUP members were grateful to be able to offer their work as something useful and meaningful.  University librarians added links to the list on their web sites to help students, staff, and faculty find books that might help them understand what was happening.  Links to the bibliography appeared on journalists’ resources sites and ad hoc “September 11 Resources” lists around the web.  Distributors and wholesalers such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor used the list to make certain their ordering systems were as comprehensive as possible. 

The generosity of a number of magazines and newspapers ensured the word got out to the general public.  The New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Review of BooksHarper’sAcademe, and the final issue of Lingua Franca all donated ad space for an announcement of the service.  Jackie Duvall of Columbia University Press also donated hours of her time to design the announcement and prepare files.

As people learned of the Books for Understanding resource, traffic to the site grew.  In October and December of 2001, the list was consistently the most visited page at, overtaking the perennial favorite, the jobs list.  Even Saturday and Sunday traffic doubled from what it had been weeks before.  Somehow, despite the weeks of ducking the yards of phone cords that moved and stretched between offices to allow for ten staffers’ phone, email, web research, and site upload needs with one 56k modem and two Trimline phones, AAUP had communicated needed information to more individuals than ever before.

Books for Understanding as an Ongoing Public Service

The momentum of Books for Understanding, combining the enthusiasm of AAUP members and the public’s awareness of the resource, spurred the development of a permanent “Spotlight” resource. The name “Books for Understanding” was adopted as an umbrella title, and AAUP decided to keep the format of a categorized text bibliography. Many current visitors to the September 11 list are overawed by the sheer size of the list.  At 671 titles, the list impresses but can quickly overwhelm. After some debate, it was decided to leave the September 11 list in this somewhat flawed state.  It would stand, in the words of one AAUP board member, as “a monument” to both the terrible events that it responded to and as a graphic answer to the question, “Why not-for-profit scholarly publishing?” But the experience of compiling this bibliography showed AAUP what other information and features would be most welcomed by visitors to future bibliographies.

The wholesalers who used the list requested that ISBN’s be provided. Providing web links whenever possible to title information in presses’ own online catalogues is a simple way to dramatically improve the usefulness of the list for many visitors. While users are presented with an easy-to-scan list, access to detailed information and ordering is just a click away. One repeated query from list visitors was about the intended audience of different books. Were they highly technical, intended for specialists, or were they addressed to a more general audience? Now when calls for titles on new subjects go out to AAUP presses, publicists are asked to designate the title “S” for special interest or “G” for general interest. 

Another new feature is targeted to journalists and news show producers, and answers another long-standing wish list item for AAUP members. Called “Journalists’ Resources” this feature posts contact information for many of the featured authors. In the bibliography, an author’s name is linked to their entry in “Journalists’ Resources” which contains a short bio as well as contact information. Hungry as today’s news shows are for experts on current stories, this is one way to connect the media with a large pool of some of the top authorities in any field.

In addition to asking presses to specify an audience for titles, AAUP is planning another advisory feature. Call it a handselling section. Eventually respected scholars, booksellers, and other public figures will be asked to recommend books from a Books for Understanding list that they consider indispensable. It is, frankly, an idea stolen from the late and lamented Lingua Franca, which had a regular column called “Breakthrough Books.” Plans for the first of these recommendations are underway, and should be live in late spring.

But what topics would new lists address? The subjects of the two lists compiled for the launch of the permanent resource should answer that question. Lists are now online addressing Civil Liberties and The Enron Affair. The first, Civil Liberties, is expected to be a long-term resource. The issue has been a hot-button topic for years, and in the wake of the war on terrorism the struggles to balance security and freedom are likely to continue for sometime. Already, more than 150 titles are included on issues including freedom of expression, religious freedom, constitutional law, and racial and ethnic discrimination. The second topic is much more obviously tied to the headlines, but the more than 50 books included under the Enron Affair address a surprising array of background stories, from campaign finance to business ethics, to the stock market craze of the ‘90s, to energy and economic policy. The books that university presses have published in these areas provide a much needed breadth and depth to the public debate.

AAUP is confident that the resource is being used by many of the intended audiences. Visitors to hit a peak for 2001 of 18,000 in the month of November, when need for the September 11 list was at its height. The average number of visitors per month in the first quarter of 2002 was over 18,000, and the bibliographies remain some of the most popular pages.  Promoting the resource to journalists, booksellers, librarians, and teachers is a priority for the association in the coming years.

Never again, we hope, will a Books for Understanding list have the emotional impact of the first bibliography. But the Books for Understanding project will remain an important resource for the AAUP community and the public.  It is AAUP’s responsibility to draw attention to the exceptional work that our members do, and it is one of the commitments of university presses to connect the research and writing of scholars the public.  Books for Understanding is a way to do both.

Books for Understanding can be seen, and used, at  Please visit the resource, sign up for alerts about new bibliography topics and features, and let AAUP know what you think.

Brenna McLaughlin is the Communications Manager of the Association of American University Presses and coordinates the Books for Understanding project.

* Justin Rood, “Think-Tank Presses Are Suddenly Best-selling Publishers,” The Washington Post, October 25, 2001.

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