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Frank Urbanowski, who built the MIT Press into one of the world's largest and most successful university publishers during 27 years as its director, has announced his retirement as of Jan. 31, 2003.
Under Urbanowski's leadership, the MIT Press went from a $2.6 million-a-year operation with an annual list of 135 titles and four journals to more than $22 million a year with 220 titles and 37 journals. More than one million copies of books and journals bearing the MIT Press imprint are sold each year, 30 percent to export markets. During his tenure, the press published more than 4,000 original book titles and over 1,000 paperback reprints.
Urbanowski published a range of publications in key areas which reflected MIT's strengths, including architecture/arts, computer science and artificial intelligence, economics/finance, brain and cognitive science, neuroscience and environmental studies. Smaller but also important areas are technology studies, critical theory, social theory, and the history of science and technology.
"My favorite book projects were the first and the last," Urbanowski said. "The first was the 'Encyclopedic Dictionary of Mathematics,' a 6,000-page manuscript roughly translated from the Japanese that was gathering dust in a closet when I came to the press. The last on my list was 'Zen and the Brain,' a seemingly offbeat book which was rejected by many publishers before finding its way to the MIT Press, and which has received high scholarly praise and has become one of our ongoing bestsellers."
Urbanowski brought the MIT Press into the forefront of electronic innovation in the publishing industry. It received a matching grant from the Kresge Foundation in 1979 to create a typesetting operation built around a minicomputer; in the late 1980s, it developed a small desktop publishing operation and later full electronic processes. The MIT Press also brought up the first university press web site and produced the first electronic book, William Mitchell's "City of Bits," in 1994.
Later, the press established its Digital Projects Lab. One outcome of that has been the new electronic communities of CogNet and ArchNet. CogNet is now a fee-based program managed by the MIT Press Journals division and marketed primarily through site licenses. ArchNet, derived from CogNet technology, was designed and developed by the lab for the School of Architecture and Planning and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture (see MIT Tech Talk, Oct. 2).
Other highlights of Urbanowski's career were opening the MIT Press Bookstore in 1981, expanding the international marketing operation in London and establishing the Japanese office.
Urbanowski, a material science major at Virginia Tech, joined the college division at Macmillan Co. in New York in 1961 as an editor for science and engineering text books. In 1966 he became publisher at Glencoe Press, a new imprint division of Macmillan that focused on texts and curriculum materials for community colleges. After a brief stop at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., he joined the MIT Press as director in the summer of 1975.
Urbanowski looks forward to moving permanently to Middlebury, Vt., where he and his wife built a house in 1997. In addition to doing a lot of yard work, he'll keep his hand in publishing as a member of the board of directors and consultant for a number of publishers, including the University of California Press, Transaction Publishers, SUNY Press and the Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education Council.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 9, 2002.