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Meet our people: Martin Maw
13 May 2021
Martin Maw, Archivist based at our Oxford office, joined the Press in 1998. In the latest instalment of our 'Meet our people' interview series, he tells us what he enjoys most about his role and the highlights of his career to date.
What does your job involve?
With the rest of the Archives team, I’m responsible for all the records of OUP’s work in the UK, from the seventeenth century right up to today. This collection now covers about nine miles/fifteen kilometres of shelf space, and we’re adding to it all the time. Our colleagues contact us if they have hard-copy editorial files or contracts which are no longer in current use, or if they want to find and consult them again. We make sure that the material is available whenever it’s necessary to check details on an old title. Equally, we deal with many requests from outside the Press, from scholars or writers who need to consult our collection, to student and school groups curious about our history, to local historians keen to find out about family members who worked for OUP.
Tell us something that people may not know about the role of an archivist?
Mention archives and many still picture a lonely figure working in a cellar full of cobwebs. It’s not like that at all! With OUP’s reach and reputation, you’re in touch with everyone from primary school children to leading members of the University, and visitors and academics from around the world who expect you to give them informed help with their research. So you don’t just sort and file documents. You need a lot of friendly, diplomatic skill and an interest in the widest range of people. Rather than a hermit in a basement, you often end up being a minor version of ‘Ask Jeeves’ or a concierge.
How long have you been with OUP and what do you enjoy most about working here?
I took over as Archivist in 1998. To put that in context, the worldwide web was only two or three years old, Twitter and Facebook had yet to be developed, and no-one had thought of Microsoft Teams or Yammer. The world was only just beginning to move at its present speed. But despite all those changes, I still get the same enjoyment from the variety of my work. On one day, I might be helping a feminist historian, the next a scholar on nuclear physics, or a Canadian couple who need to find out about their Oxford family bible. I never know what I’ll be asked next and providing answers is hugely satisfying.
What has been the highlight of your career to date?
Two things. First, OUP enabling me to bid for and buy back the metal printing plate for one page in Alice in Wonderland. We printed the first edition in 1865, and to bring that plate back here from an auction house for everyone to admire in our museum in Oxford was a special thing for me. It’s an enchanted object. Second was helping a local family trace details of their grandfather, who worked in the Press a hundred years ago, and seeing their emotion at finding his photograph in one of our old staff magazines. They had never seen a picture of him.
How do you think digital media and social media have changed, and will continue to change, the role of the archivist?
Digital media has transformed archive work out of all recognition, in many ways for the better. New media doesn’t do away with the necessity for a hard-copy collection: those records are unique, and in our case, the records of the Oxford English Dictionary and many other texts form a crucial, irreplaceable part of world culture. But digital platforming should allow those resources to be made far more accessible to an inclusive global audience. Any knowledge of OUP’s history leads you into far wider areas of language and inter-cultural understanding. Human curiosity and study are limitless. All archives—and especially OUP’s—can play a key role in feeding that appetite to explore.