HE History of Oxford University Press (volumes 1–3) was published on 14 November 2013, the output of a collaborative research effort over seven years. Under Simon Eliot, Professor of the History of the Book in the University of London, a team of post-doctoral research fellows amassed a body of research materials with access to the OUP Archive and the Oxford University Archive, and the editors of each individual volume invited contributors in each field to contribute on their area of expertise. Professor Eliot's General Introduction to the edition is reproduced below.


  • Written by almost fifty contributors, experts in their fields of history, publishing, and printing
  • Includes more than 500 illustrations, and 12 maps
  • Contains maps showing the growth and extent of Press activity in Oxford at different points throughout the Press' history
  • Draws extensively on the archives of Oxford University Press and the University of Oxford
  • The first complete scholarly history of the Press, detailing its organization, publications, trade, and international development


General Introduction

The History of Oxford University Press project offers a rare opportunity to trace the evolution of a distinctive organization, engaged in one particular business, across the centuries: the story of the Press spans almost the entire history of printing and publishing in Britain. Although previous works addressed parts of the story, there has been no full scholarly history before. The project was conceived in a series of conversations between members of the Press and various scholars; it was approved by the Delegates in May 2004 and was launched in January 2006. Simon Eliot was appointed General Editor; and Ian Gadd (volume I), Simon Eliot (volume II), Roger Louis (volume III), and Keith Robbins (volume IV) were subsequently invited to edit particular volumes. Throughout its development the History has had the benefit of much good advice and guidance from an Executive Steering Committee chaired by Professor Paul Slack and consisting of Dr Ivon Asquith, Professor Sir Brian Harrison, and Sir Keith Thomas; the editors wish to record their thanks for all the support provided by the Committee. The project has been funded generously by the Press in order to ensure that its archive could be properly examined—in many cases for the first time—not only in Oxford but in New York and other offices around the world. However, this work is not an official history, with all the constraints which that status might imply; the editors and contributors have been given full academic freedom and have been allowed untrammelled access to all the Press’s archives and records up to the early years of this century.

The four planned volumes together cover more than five hundred years of printing and publishing at Oxford, but as the University Press’s size and signifi cance increases, so the period covered by each volume narrows. Volume I begins with the first book printed in Oxford in 1478, only a few years after printing arrived in England, but concentrates primarily on the period after the 1580s as a succession of printers appointed by the University eventually gave way to an institutionally managed press. The year 1780 divides Volume I from Volume II, as that marks the point at which the Delegates of the University Press ceased to rent out their privilege to print bibles to members of the book trade and instead became the major shareholder in a new Bible partnership. The late eighteenth century was also a significant time of change for the book trade as a whole, for it saw the full impact of a legal ruling in 1774 to limit the term of copyright, and the emergence of what were recognizably modern publishing houses. Volume II ends in 1896, the year in which the Press established in New York its first overseas branch. Despite much economic uncertainty, the 1880s and 1890s saw new opportunities emerge as international copyright, intercontinental telegraph systems, and steam ships made a global book trade feasible. Volume III ends in 1970, the year in which the Waldock Committee, appointed by the University to take stock of the Press’s position and recommend ways forward, published its influential report. Volume IV, which is in preparation, begins in a decade of economic turmoil both domestically and globally as publishers and universities adjusted to new pressures and rapidly-changing environments. These challenges have persisted into the twenty-first century.

The enduring success of the University Press has to some considerable extent been dependent, like a successful organism in the natural world, on its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. These volumes follow these adaptations through the centuries, but also identify certain continuities, most obviously in the Press’s commitment to scholarly publishing. Nevertheless, mutability is bound to be a theme in the history of any institution that has survived for so long. For this reason, the Press described in any one volume is substantially different from the Press described in any other volume. Even the name or names by which it has been known have changed over time, and were not necessarily used with anything like consistency until the twentieth century. In consequence Volume I tends to refer to a ‘university printer’ up to about 1690, and to a ‘university press’ after that date. For similar reasons Volume II has generally adopted the generic term ‘the Press’ to cover the printing and publishing institution as a whole. Only in Volumes III and IV can ‘Oxford University Press’ and ‘OUP’ at last be used with confidence.

Although each volume is bound to be different, all adopt several shared approaches. Each discusses the material nature of the Press: its machines and those who worked them; the type and paper used; the costs of the materials and processes employed; and, when such information was available, the prices at which its books were sold. All volumes explore the political and intellectual context provided by the University of which the Press was a part, and also the commercial and cultural environment created by the book trade as a whole. There is frequent consideration of the Press’s relationships with its counterpart in Cambridge, and with the book trade in London. Each volume first provides a narrative of how the Press evolved during the period covered and how its various aspects related to each other. Chapters are then devoted to the range of books produced by the Press, and the local, national, and international markets and readerships they addressed. These surveys not only indicate the many and various titles produced but also highlight particular publishing achievements and their cultural resonances. The proportion of attention given to specific types of book naturally varies across volumes according to changes in the Press’s publishing activities and in the evidence available.

Appendices provide a full list of the Delegates who served during the period, and a chronology of some of the major events and publications covered by the volume. Additional appendices offer volume-specific information. The volumes do not provide a bibliography: all the secondary material consulted can be found in the footnotes. Neither do they include a list of all the Press’s publications. Instead an Annual List of Titles compiled for this History will be available in electronic form through the OUP Archives, along with additional material resulting from the project.

The History’s debt to earlier writers will be made clear in each volume, but special mention should be made of the bibliographical work of Falconer Madan; the researches of Horace Hart, R. W. Chapman, and John Johnson; the published and unpublished work of Harry Carter (in particular A History of Oxford University Press, of which only the first volume was published); Nicolas Barker’s work on the Press and the spread of learning; and Peter Sutcliffe’s Informal History. David McKitterick’s three-volume A History of Cambridge University Press provided many useful parallels and some contrasts.

Thanks are due to the external readers invited by both the Press and the editors to comment on earlier versions of the text. We are also happy to acknowledge our considerable debt to Robert Faber, Jo Payne, Christopher Wheeler, and the other editorial staff who have helped guide the project. We particularly want to thank Christine Nicholls for her invaluable editorial work. The Archivist, Martin Maw and his team have helped us to navigate what is a very large and sometimes challenging collection of archival materials. The University Archive and its Archivist Simon Bailey proved to be a very useful resource, particularly for parts of the earlier volumes where the OUP Archives had little material. We are also grateful to the Bodleian Library, not least for enabling access to the Printer’s Library, formerly owned by the Press but now on deposit at the Bodleian. Thanks too are due to the Institute of English Studies in the School of Advanced Study in the University of London for providing a research centre which helped to support and develop the project.

An enterprise of this size and scope must depend on a host of capable and enthusiastic contributors. We were fortunate to be able to enlist a diverse range of authors; the mix of Press and university employees was particularly invigorating. Through the generosity of the Press, the project was able to fund four postdoctoral fellows: Amy Flanders, Atalanta Myerson, Dawn Nell, and Thorin Tritter. We thank them all for their enthusiasm, hard work, and the many contributions they made to the preparation of this history as researchers and authors. We were also fortunate to be able to call on the efforts of Elizabeth Ackroyd, Mary Carr, Elaine Gilboy, Joanna Howe, and Matthew Kilburn as research assistants. Their dedication frequently went far beyond the call of duty.

Simon Eliot