25 MUSE Makers
Bill Breichner has worked closely with MUSE since he joined the JHUP journals team in 1996; as journal’s manager in 2001, he oversaw MUSE’s transition to an independent JHUP division.
“Project MUSE gave us a brilliant business model for sustaining journals during the transition from print to digital distribution. MUSE was egalitarian, a democracy of publishers, in which everyone got the same deal. The support of the university press and non-profit publisher community really allowed MUSE to compete with larger commercial publishers. I think of JSTOR as a sibling from the same era, launched with similar spirit among the individuals involved, a spirit of risk and experimentation. They survived for the same reasons MUSE survived: good people and a good product.
“What are the early accomplishments? Surviving! Becoming an aggregation was huge. Developing the financial model. Delivering the kind of metadata and indexing that libraries loved--a great achievement that gave us a great competitive advantage. Adding books. And creating a way to search across a large corpus of books and journals, without disadvantaging the journals content.
“A key moment, I think, is the when the community realizes that MUSE is going to survive and starts to consider the possibilities. One early idea for expansion was creating a coop of history journals, but we pivoted in March of 1999 and organized a meeting with other publishers to consider creating a larger aggregation of their social sciences and humanities journals.
“I remember very well the meeting at the Hyatt Hotel in Baltimore, led by Marie Hansen who managed our journals program where Project MUSE was embedded. Marie was a good negotiator and always looked out for her journals, but that meeting was our transition from competing with other journals publishers to welcoming them into the MUSE community as partners. The publishers became Marie’s customers rather than her competitors, and she should be commended for ratcheting back her competitiveness and embracing the collaborative approach that has allowed MUSE to grow and thrive ever since.
“MUSE really had to sell itself in the early days, to be a good citizen in the space, to care about all the stakeholders and the needs of libraries, publishers, and users. There was a lot of risk for publishers, and the fact that MUSE was curated and had a quality collection meant a lot. The ‘big deal’ agreements with libraries proved it was possible to increase scale, and Melanie Schaffner deserves a huge amount of credit for making that happen.
“We’ve always been fortunate to have a staff who was devoted to MUSE both as a concept and as a product. They weren’t traditional publishing people, they were computer geeks, music people, and they brought a renegade spirit. They really set the table for what became the MUSE culture—and it also meant that it wasn’t always easy to integrate MUSE into the rest of the culture at the Press.
“It’s a big thing to move from project to product; it’s like moving from teenager to adult. Innovation and experimentation are exciting, but then that has to be period of stability, a sustainable business model, and a plan for growth. That transition for MUSE was a huge accomplishment.
“In those earliest days, MUSE wasn’t a sure thing and there was a lot of debate about whether it would continue. There were questions about survival, future direction, what would happen after the grant, things like that. I remember being in a meeting around the time the grant was ending, and we saw that MUSE was operating in the black. Marie Hansen said, ‘I guess we’ll keep going.’ It’s important to remember that there were lots of ‘projects’ around this time that didn’t survive. MUSE did much more than survive.”