Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940

By Carl F. Kaestle; Janice A. Radway | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12
Crafting a Communications Infrastructure
Scientific and Technical Publishing in the United States

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette

.  .  .

In the twentieth century, as American science, engineering, and medicine grew to maturity, a complex, interconnected communications system, involving books and journals, commercial publishing firms, and nonprofit professional associations, developed alongside the research organizations to support the dissemination of knowledge. The system’s products fit no single model, ranging from slender theoretical essays on physics and elaborate astronomical charts to detailed engineering handbooks, from medical treatises to best sellers about evolution and atomic energy. Textbooks synthesized the state of knowledge in a field and trundled on through the years in revised editions. Reference books served as indispensable research tools, telling where to locate a certain star, how a chemical reacts to heat, or precise values for logarithms.

These publications were manufactured similarly to other products of American publishers. Their professional functions, however, were unique: validating status and the status quo, establishing credit and priority, defining and defending intellectual boundaries, and formalizing evolving technical standards. With the exception of books aimed at popular audiences, the authors usually were the same specialists who validated, evaluated, and then bought and consumed the content. Every researcher was expected to participate in the publishing system not only as reader and author but also occasionally as reviewer, editor, or adviser.

Each entity in this communications infrastructure—commercial publishers, nonprofit university presses, professional associations, and government agencies—operated independently and set its own policies, procedures, and goals, yet all accepted the practitioners’ standards for evaluating intellectual quality. This arrangement structurally reinforced scientists’ control over the content vital to their work, without requiring them to assume the financial or managerial responsibility for publication and distribution. Scientists served as advisers to publishers. Laboratories, research corporations, or government agencies, not individuals, generally underwrote book production. And the publishers in-

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