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Stan MacDonald: Kentucky’s scholarly press is essential to telling our state’s story


The University Press of Kentucky is housed in a no-frills building with small offices on the periphery of a university campus. The understated appearance gives no hint at what this relatively small publisher of scholarly and general interest books has accomplished.

The Press has gained a national reputation for its awarding-winning works of fiction and histories about Kentucky, Appalachia, the Civil War, civil rights, military affairs and film. Its books preserve our state’s past. They give voice to our many gifted writers. They allow scholars at our universities to publish their research. They provide facts and careful analysis in an era of quick-fire opinions and polarization. They counter the ugly stereotype that our state is a place where ignorance prevails over intellect.

Click image to see the UK Press’ Spring and Summer catalogue

But this small press that tells Kentucky’s story to the world is at a crossroads.

The Press, organized in 1969, regularly received state funding until two years ago when a wave of budget cuts took that away. The money was not huge, about $670,000 a year out of a state general fund budget in excess of $11 billion, but for the Press it was a major loss and created some uncertainty about its long-range future.

The modest state investment for the Press has been an economical one over the years. University presses typically receive financial support because their mission is education-driven rather than profit-driven like commercial publishers. Even though the Press requires support, it still returns about $3 (mostly from book sales) for every state dollar it receives. The Press is an efficient operation when benchmarked against its peers. Its staff, building and other operational costs are lower and its net receipts from book sales higher, according to data for fiscal year 2018 from the Association of University Presses.

In his recent budget proposal, Gov. Andy Beshear restored a substantial portion of state funding. His proposed appropriation is a strong, laudable first step to ensure the stability of the Press, and the governor has sent a message that he is allied with the many Kentuckians who value the work of the Press. In the coming weeks the House, then the Senate, and then the two together will work through the budget in detail. We respectfully urge our legislators to likewise support the Press by bringing the total amount of funding at or close to the level that was cut two years ago. It will be money well spent – an investment in knowledge.

Citizens can play an important role in this effort. Consider a note, a letter, a voicemail, an email, or even a word in person with your state legislators, urging their support for a renewed state contribution to the operating costs of the Press. The state Legislative Research Commission website (legislature.ky.gov) has mailing and emailing addresses and phone numbers for state representatives and senators. Or call the Legislative Message Line at 1-800-372-7181 and ask that a “restore funding for the University Press of Kentucky” message be sent to all senators and representatives.

The Thomas D. Clark Building, home of the University Press of Kentucky.

This is a statewide cause. Some people think – mistakenly – that the Press is affiliated only with the University of Kentucky. It’s true that UK houses the Press and helps to administer and support it, and UK has helpfully stepped in since the state funding cut. But as its name implies, the “University Press of Kentucky” represents all the state’s public universities, five of its private colleges and universities, and two historical societies. This efficient consortium model allows the Press to draw on the faculty strengths, ideas, and publishing projects of 13 campuses from across the state as opposed to one single campus.

This is a nonpartisan cause, and in recent meetings with a number of legislators in Frankfort, I and others found both Republicans and Democrats willing to advocate for Press funding.

And this is a cause for the public good. University presses are charged with spreading knowledge that is created by university faculties and they also educate general audiences through books of regional interest. But some of these books don’t turn a profit, which is a reason university presses receive financial support. Books published by the Press, such as A New History of Kentucky or The Kentucky Encyclopedia, or a work about a particular region of Kentucky, are of value and interest to students and readers within the state, but commercial publishers or other states’  university presses might not want to publish them because of their limited market.

If we depend on commercial publishers alone – most located in other parts of the country – two things will happen, says Kentucky author Mike Norris. “Our story won’t be told that much, and when it is told, we won’t much like it. We should honor our state and our story by supporting the University Press of Kentucky.”


Since the 2018 budget cut, the Press lost some ground, but a strong shot in the arm from the legislature would recharge it and the timing is most opportune. Within a few weeks, the Press is expected to hire a new director, who will energize the team as they meet the challenges ahead.

Stan Macdonald is board president of the Thomas D. Clark Foundation, named after Kentucky’s late, preeminent historian. The foundation’s mission is to support UPK.

UPK represents these institutions: University of Kentucky as host and administrator; Bellarmine University; Berea College; Centre College; Eastern Kentucky University; The Filson Historical Society; Georgetown College; the Kentucky Historical Society; Kentucky State University; Morehead State University; Murray State University; Northern Kentucky University; Transylvania University; University of Louisville; and Western Kentucky University.


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