The closing of Oxford University Press’s printing arm is expected yet disappointing

Oxford University Press (OUP), the world’s second oldest university press, is closing the vestigial remnants of its printing arm in August.

The passing bells were already ringing; OUP has outsourced the printing of its books since 1979, and the only older university press in the world, Cambridge University Press, sold its printing arm in 2012. This blow was the death knell of a more than four-hundred year history of university printing in Oxford, which was already plainly on its way out, and had been shaky more often than not. Let’s take a quick look at that history.

William Caxton famously established the first printing press in England in 1476, and the first press was brought to Oxford two years following. The University of Cambridge was first to obtain a license to print in 1534 (the crown controlled printing within the city of London), and Oxford was successful in petitioning for the same right, being granted in 1586, making OUP the second oldest university press in the world. In 1636, the chancellor of the university, Archbishop William Laud, petitioned for and received the ‘Great Charter’, which gave Oxford additional rights, including the right to sell its books of any kind anywhere in the kingdom. He also acquired the privilege to print the King James Bible. The Stationers’ Company, which previously held a monopoly on those sorts of things, paid an annual fee to the university not to invoke its privileges, and this arrangement, in one form or another, continued pretty much for over a hundred years, funding OUP’s more parochial interests.

I feel bittersweet about the rich history of printing in Oxford coming to an end, but the modern era does not care for our sentiments

Bartholomew Price became secretary of OUP in 1868, modernising the press, and cutting back the deadwood which he found to make it into a competitive business. He took on the vast, decades-long project, which was to become the Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps the shining jewel among all that the press is known for today. Horace Hart, controller of the press, developed Hart’s Rules as an internal style guide. They were published in 1893 and later became standard for print shops more widely – as well as being this writer’s favourite guide! By the early 1900s, the press had expanded into selling school books, popular literature, and children’s books, and established offices for trading overseas. Deals cut with Hodder & Stoughton were early precursors to the kinds of outsourcing which marked the late twentieth century.

The closure of Oxuniprint in August this year will spell an end to an over four-hundred-year history of university printing in Oxford, but it’s a rather underwhelming end in the face of all that, going out with barely a squeak. The main book printing business was outsourced decades ago. Oxuniprint merely provided printing services for the press and local customers in the Oxford area.

Unite the union are angry about increased outsourcing, and OUP’s failure to take up the government furlough scheme to reduce costs. Their regional officer Kevin Whiffen said: “This is the final chapter in a distinguished printing history at the OUP, but we feel that there could have been a different outcome if OUP bosses had not been hell-bent on pursuing their outsourcing agenda and the inexplicable failure to utilise the job retention scheme for the Oxuniprint workers.

“There is not much loyalty to the centuries-old printing heritage, and those who have given their working lives to it, in this world-renowned university city.”

This blow was the death knell of a more than four-hundred year history of university printing in Oxford, which was already plainly on its way out

Symbolically, the news is gutting, but in practical terms, what does it mean? Not very much. Twenty jobs will be lost due to the closure, out of 6,000 employees at OUP. As I mentioned in the beginning, OUP has been outsourcing the printing and binding of its own books for over forty years. The press points to lower sales as a result of the pandemic, but neglects to mention a more important fact: academic book sales have been decreasing steadily since the 1970s, and many university presses have not had the financial backing from their parent institutions to invest in digital technology. Nor do university presses need printing divisions anymore. The Oxford decision follows the decision of Cambridge University Press to sell its printing division in 2012, and comes amid a broader tendency in the publishing industry towards outsourcing printing and production.

The rise of print-on-demand technology means that a book marketed for, say, the Indian subcontinent, can be printed in Indonesia, and then it doesn’t need to be shipped halfway across the world. Print-on-demand also negates the need for large, expensive stocks of books which might or might not sell, which were traditionally a financial uncertainty for university presses. A Springer book I happen to have on my desk reads ‘Printed by Printforce, the Netherlands’. Why shouldn’t Oxford do the same?

I recall the creamy spines of the middle-late twentieth century OUP monographs printed in Oxford with fondness, as well as the Oxford’s World Classics from school, the leather-bound classics from the turn of the century during the university press’ golden age, and the seventeenth century’s Anatomy of Melancholy, surely the greatest book ever printed in Oxford. I feel bittersweet about the rich history of printing in Oxford coming to an end, but the modern era does not care for our sentiments – a business must move with technological developments if it wants to keep up. I’m happy to see Oxford University Press moving into the twenty-first century along with the other university presses so they can fulfill their mission statements. Would Penguin Books have published The Conscious Mind (OUP) or Modelling Natural Action Selection (CUP), at the small quantities that they sell, and at the price they cost the university presses to produce? Probably not. Long live the university press.

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