Although university presses appeared in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries and in the US in the last quarter of the 19th century, they are a recent development in Canada. Traditionally, Canadian scholars published abroad, with scholarly presses, trade publishers or foreign periodicals - and indeed they still do - because most trade publishers in this country lacked the expertise or the interest to tackle scholarly publishing, which is less profitable than textbooks and trade books.
While many of the day-to-day operations of a university press are similar to those of a trade publisher, the differences are more significant. To begin with, the university press is a specialized firm owned by a university or research centre, and its mandate is to issue scholarly books and periodicals. Occasionally it may issue textbooks, reference works and even books of a popular, commercial nature. Moreover, the recommendation to publish a manuscript is made by academic appraisers who are not connected with the press, in order to ensure an objective decision. Editing such manuscripts is a time-consuming, expensive task; and marketing is costly because of limited runs of books that are aimed at small, specialized, often international, audiences. Because its purpose is to disseminate knowledge, the university press cannot rely merely on profits from sales for its operating expenses, and therefore must turn to its university and to government agencies for funding.
University presses mushroomed in Canada after 1960. In that expansive decade, graduate and undergraduate enrolments climbed steadily, libraries increased their holdings, and faculty members were pressured to "publish or perish." However, by the late 1970s, university budgets had declined, library acquisitions were shrinking, and in fact the whole publishing industry was in a severe financial crisis. The future of many multivolume series, let alone individual monographs, was doubtful. The federal government then reconsidered its various funding programs for trade and scholarly publishing. A consultative group, established in 1976, recommended in Canadian Scholarly Publishing (1980) that more support be given to workshops on publishing, that more low-cost scholarly journals be subsidized, and that more attention be given to "parapublishing."
Since the 1940s federal funding has come from the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP), which is now jointly administered by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and the Social Science Federation of Canada; in 1988-89 ASPP provided funding for 144 books in the humanities and social sciences.
The university presses themselves have streamlined their own operations. Many have shifted to computerized production and marketing. Some have centralized their distribution, as do SMALL PRESSES; others have arranged co-operative publishing and distribution with foreign university presses. Research that is continually revised - particularly both bibliographical and statistical projects - can be fed into a central data base for accessing, thus eliminating costly book editions.
The larger presses publish in many disciplines. The University of Toronto Press, the oldest (1901) and one of the 10 largest in North America, covers the humanities and the sciences among its over 1000 in-print titles. It publishes 140 titles and 29 periodicals a year, and its sales are over $4 million. Its multivolume series include the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill and (in collaboration with Laval) the DICTIONARY OF CANADIAN BIOGRAPHY. McGill-Queen's University Press, which began as McGill in 1963 and amalgamated with Queen's in 1969, focuses on Canadian studies and publishes the Canadian Public Administration Series. The University of Alberta Press (1969), with 83 titles by 1987, concentrates on western Canadian history, general science and ecology. The Wilfrid Laurier University Press (1974) deals with archaeology, military history and sociology/anthropology. The University of British Columbia Press (1971) emphasizes Canadian affairs and Pacific studies. Les Éditions de l'université d'Ottawa (1936), Les Presses de l'université Laval (1950), Les Presses de l'université de Montréal (1962) and Les Presses de l'université du Québec (1969) all deal with French Canadian civilization, literature, medieval studies, law, the social sciences, the physical sciences and engineering. Carleton University Press (1982-99), whose titles included the Carleton Library Series, focused on Canada's history, society and institutions.
On the other hand, research centre presses confine their publications and periodicals to a narrower range of subjects. The Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies (1939) in Toronto, with 230 titles in print, concentrates on the history and culture of the Middle Ages. The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Press (1965) in Toronto publishes materials on education, curriculum and professional development. The Canadian Plains Studies Centre (1973) in Regina issues works on all aspects of the Canadian plains.
Despite these healthy figures, the university presses exist precariously. Editing and production costs are only one aspect of the problem in a country where funding, distribution and limited readership are factors never easily resolved. Yet the contribution of the university presses to Canadian and international culture is no less significant because few scholarly books are widely read. John Porter's The Vertical Mosaic (UTP, 1964) and Wallace Clement's Canadian Corporate Elite (by the Carleton Library Series, 1975) have had excellent sales. But more often scholarly books - eg, Harold Innis's The Fur Trade in Canada (1930) and Empire and Communications (1946) - have a seminal and indirect influence. Ultimately, scholars' ideas influence society itself when it perceives the universe through the printed word.