Higher education postcard: Oxford University Press

This week’s card from Hugh Jones’s postbag takes us to a city of dreaming spires and inky fingers

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

Greetings from Oxford!

Here are women at work, in the bindery at the Oxford University Press. Books were printed with many pages on one sheet of paper, which had to be folded before the pages could be bound together to make a book. These women were folding the large sheets by hand, piling the folded sets up – you can see both types of stack of paper in the card.

There’s another card showing men working at the OUP, this time in the forwarding section.

Forwarding is taking the folded sheets from the bindery, and turning them into bound books with covers. There are machines involved, unlike the hand folding in the bindery, and there’s clearly segregation of roles by sex going on here – although is there perhaps one of the bindery ladies on the right in the forwarding section image? I would guess that the cards date from the 1920s.

The University of Oxford had been printing books since the 1480s (in case you think this is a long time, bear in mind that woodblock printing had been going on in China since the seventh century, with the first dateable book printed on 11 May 868 – Gutenberg was using a printing press with moveable metal type in 1439). In 1534 the University of Cambridge was granted letters patent to establish a press – although Oxford printed first, Cambridge had the first permission to do so.

Shameful dirt and dust

The University of Oxford’s Press was legitimised in 1586 following a petition to the Earl of Leicester. The text of this is available from the OUP’s archives, and includes the lovely argument that:

… there lie hidden away in the libraries of that university many excellent manuscripts, now shamefully covered in dust and dirt, which, by the boon of establishing a press in the same city, could be rescued from perpetual obscurity and distributed in other parts of Europe to the great credit of the whole nation.

This permission was confirmed by the university’s Great Charter of 1636 which gave the university the right to print “all manner of books” and an array of powers to prevent others from seizing them and for the university to profit by their sale. And this was used by the university, which was granted a privilege to print the authorised King James Bible, netting substantial returns for the next 250 or so years.

Almanacks and other calendars

In 1668 printing presses were installed (presumably they had contracted out the work before then) and in 1674 the first Oxford Almanack was published – an annual publication of the university’s calendar, which continues to this day. JMW Turner, the painter, had his first employment at the OUP preparing the engravings for the almanack.

On a side note, I bemoan the general loss of printed university calendars. In the late 1980s the short descriptions of modules in the calendar at LSE were the only info to enable you to choose your courses. Annual registration involved a long queue up five floors of circular stairs, the signing of forms, the issuing of a library card and a calendar, which was a book about two inches thick, and then a separate queue for any grant cheque which might be due.

The Oxford University Press is now a global business and housed in very impressive neoclassical buildings. Its 6,000 or so staff publish academic journals and monographs, and of course the Oxford English Dictionary.

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