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NEWS ANALYSIS: A lasting impression on the world of books
A THREE-volume tome made up of 2,500 pages and costing £250 has been published to tell the story of Oxford University Press.
The three books tell the story from the first presses set up in the 15th century until 1970.
But the history is not yet complete, with a fourth volume still awaited to bring the Press’s history up to the present day.
The company enlisted some 50 writers, including historians, and publishing and printing experts, to deliver what is being billed as the first complete history of the Press.
Beginning with the establishment of printing at Oxford in 1478, The History of the Oxford University Press details the publication of Bibles, the Oxford English Dictionary, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the company’s growth into the world’s largest university press.
While the OUP building in Walton Street may look like a grand university college to the outside world, in reality it was a huge industrial site, housing a vast printing factory.
Book historian Simon Eliot, Professor of the History of the Book at the Institute of English Studies, University of London, was approached to oversee the history project.
He suggested “a multi-author” approach to reflect the sheer diversity of the story, with the long list of specialists including experts in print, book-binding and the history of books.
Prof Eliot, said: “There had been a number of previous stabs at writing an official OUP history.
“In the late 1970s the celebrated historian of print Harry Carter produced A History of the Oxford University Press, but he was only to reach the year 1780, for he was not to live long enough to produce volume two.
“Around the same time Peter Sutcliffe, an OUP editor, produced The Oxford University Press: An Informal History, to mark 500 years of printing in the city. This was, however, a general history, and one that had to be completed to meet a tight deadline.”
To many people the Quincentenary effort touched too little on the people who had worked on the shop floor in the Printing House, concentrating instead on its tradition of publishing scholarly works.
“There was a feeling of unfinished business,” said Prof Eliot. “The idea is not to offer a varnished company history. As far as we could, we wanted to produce an objective and balanced historical analysis: a proper warts’n’all account. It has been no easy task. A lot of research has gone into it. For the first two or three years, we did not write anything at all. It is certainly not something that could be undertaken in one volume by one author. OUP accepted that it should not be a house history. We were not producing something to hand to visiting dignitaries.
“It can make uncomfortable reading.”
So, readers learn of the “ghastly hovels” that staff once would have returned to after working 12-hour days at the Press.
The company story is also full of eccentric characters, such as the printer Frederick Hall, who would inspect the Printing House every Friday accompanied by his pet wolfhound.
And the stories of hundreds of ordinary workers who passed through OUP’s door are not ignored – including the more than 350 men from the Press who enlisted during the First World War – 45 of whom were killed. In 1919, 128 were still awaiting demobilisation.
OUP also emerges as a truly global operation. The company’s New York office, the first of its overseas outputs, opened as early as 1896.
By the mid 1950s, it had offices in Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi and Madras.
- Archivist Dr Martin Maw with a Bible printed by OUP in 1853, the same year as the OUP-printed Bible used by American President Barack Obama during his inauguration
OUP archivist Dr Martin Maw wrote three chapters, including one on the paper mill at Wolvercote, where high-quality paper was once produced and which in 1965 became the first British mill to link a computer to its production processes.
It is being left to the fourth volume, the publication date of which is not yet known, to cover many of the biggest OUP controversies, such as the decision to close the printing division in 1989, with the loss of hundreds of jobs, and the continuing debate about OUP’s charitable status, derived from the fact that it is a department of Oxford University.
Prof Eliot said: “OUP has been consciously promoted as a brand in its own right since the mid 20th century as far away as Japan, where it was reported that Oxford possesses much the same brand image as Burberry, Dunhill or Johnnie Walker.”
- Dr Martin Maw with a ‘thumb’ edition of The Book of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient and Modern, printed by the Press around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
- Printer Frederick Hall (1864-1925) would inspect the Printing House each Friday accompanied by his pet wolfhound.
- During the First World War, more than 350 men enlisted from the Press and 45 were killed.
- The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was completed in 1928.
- By the end of the Second World War, all but five per cent of output was devoted to printing and code book production for His Majesty’s Stationery Office. Security was such even the wastepaper baskets were locked away during lunch time.
- Until 1989, the Press had its own fire brigade. During the Second World War it played a key part in local air-raid precautions.
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