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When did Oxford University Press begin?

By Ian Gadd


Determining the precise beginning of Oxford University Press is not as easy a question as it may seem. It’s not enough to brandish triumphantly the first book printed in Oxford, Expositio in symbolum apostolorum, as all that proves is that there was a printing press in Oxford in 1478…

Part of the difficulty is that it’s all too easy to project back our modern concept of a ‘university press’: that is, an institution, under the direct financial and administrative control of a university, dedicated to publishing scholarly works. Using that definition, there was no true ‘university press’  anywhere in Europe prior to the mid-seventeenth century, despite the fact that there were dozens of universities that were printing and publishing. Universities instead preferred to employ printers to do their printing and publishing for them.

Identifying these ‘university printers’ is not always easy. It was not enough simply to be a printer in a university town: for example the Lichfield family remained printers in Oxford well into the eighteenth century, even though they were no longer formally associated with the University. A more problematic case concerns the earliest printers at Oxford. Books were printed at Oxford in the 1470s and 1480s, and again in 1518–19, and a number of the imprints make tantalizing references to being printed at the University rather than just Oxford but it is not until Joseph Barnes in the 1580s that there is a record of a formal appointment. Nor is it until we get to Barnes and his successor that we see unequivocal references to the ‘printer to the university’ in imprints.

Oxford landscape

When did the ‘university printer’ yield to the ‘university press’? Well, for most of Europe, this doesn’t seem to have happened until the nineteenth century or even later. In Oxford’s case, however, it is tempting to identify that moment of transition much earlier. A case could be made for 1619, when the University first took ownership of some printing equipment (a series of type-matrices). Or for the 1630s when, thanks almost entirely to William Laud, Chancellor of the University, the management of printing was enshrined in revised university statutes and a series of charters. A ‘Delegacy’ was established specifically to oversee university printing while the statutes created a new post, an Architypographus to act as an academic overseer of the press. Laud made provision for a salary and for a source of income to underwrite publications. In this decade, the University increased its holding of type and struck a lucrative deal with the London book trade to forbear from encroaching on their printing privileges. Laud also began exploring the possibility of premises for the press and of training suitably scholarly compositors and correctors.

Alternatively, one might date the foundation of a ‘university press’ to the 1660s, with the provision of specially-designed premises (the Sheldonian Theatre) and new equipment: presses, frames, type-cases, and so on. This decade also saw a newly constituted group of Delegates, who initially at least met regularly. But, even then, there seems to have been shortcomings in terms of institutional management which led John Fell (Dean of Christ Church, Vice-Chancellor, and later Bishop of Oxford) to go so far as to create his own partnership in the 1670s which then leased the whole printing operation from the University.

Instead one could cite the 1690s as the decisive moment as oversight of printing was returned to the Delegates. Or for that matter the 1710s, when the press moved into its own specially built printing house (the Clarendon building). Or the 1750s, when William Blackstone radically reformed the management and economics of the press. Or perhaps even the 1780s, when the University resumed control over the printing of Oxford Bibles which had been leased out to a variety of London printers and booksellers since the late 17th century and thus, for the first time, was in economic and administrative control of all printing and publishing done in its name.

Ian Gadd is Professor of English Literature at Bath Spa University. He is editor of The History of Oxford University Press–Volume 1: From its beginnings to 1780.

To celebrate the publication of the first three volumes of The History of Oxford University Press on Thursday and University Press Week, we’re sharing various materials from our Archive and brief scholarly highlights from the work’s editors and contributors. With access to extensive archives, The History of Oxford University Press is the first complete scholarly history of the Press, detailing its organization, publications, trade, and international development. Watch the silent film or learn about arguments over the first printing press in Oxford in our previous posts.

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Image credit: Oxford from above at sunset. © Andrea Zanchi via iStockphoto.

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