A Day at OUP

I spent yesterday at the Oxford University Press, as a member of a graduate workshop about investigating publishers’ archives. It was a most enjoyable day.

We gathered in a smart conference room next to the Great Clarendon Street  reception area, taking our places at a long table. In front of each chair, as well as the predictable folder of course material, was an OUP letter book, a thick volume containing copies of  correspondence from the firm’s past. My volume covered 1884-5.

OUP is an astonishing institution. It has been in the publishing business for five hundred years, and its contribution the the country’s intellectual life has been incalculable. Yesterday we got a hint of how that has been subsidised by the company’s involvement in the highly profitable (but cut-throat) trade of Bible publishing (and more recently by educational publishing and children’s books). So the learned monographs have been made possible by the ESL material and Biggles.

We were taken to get a glimpse of the stacks where the OUP archive is kept. With rows of ledgers and mysterious boxes, it was a place to make any scholar’s nerve endings tingle with curiosity – even though many of the boxes would probably  have contained nothing more exciting than the sales figures for nineteenth-century devotional works.

As well as OUP, we learnt something about the contrasting John Murray and Nelson archives (Murray well cared for; Nelson a jumble rescued from the skip) and there were interesting hints about how to go about examining such storehouses. My own experience has been with the Hodder and Stoughton collection, at the Guildhall Library in London, so some of what was said came as no surprise, but it was all interesting to hear.

After lunch we did a small research exercise, using the letter books. My volume was mostly rather grand letters from Henry Frowde, the grandest of the Press’s grandees at the time. There were slightly patronising letters to authors (one regretting how tiny the royalty cheque was) and others explaining how splendid the Press’s projects were.

But then I saw a name in the index that I recognised – Bumpus, the London bookseller. There was a December 1884 letter with a dignified apology for an insult to Mr Bumpus from one of the OUP employees, and a promise that the man would be severely reprimanded. Then in March of the next year a far more grovelling one on the same subject, explaining that the employee was sincerely sorry that he had lost his temper. What had actually happened?  We will never know, but the letters are interesting evidence of how even the most distinguished of publishers, working for the most august of institutions, live in a world where they must keep on the sweet side of their customers.

The workshop was actually part of the SHARP 2008 conference, which is happening at the moment in Oxford. I did not attend the whole conference, since most of its concerns are a bit outside my range of interests, but workshop participants were invited to the inaugural lecture, delivered amidst the 1890s splendour of Oxford Town Hall.  Professor Juliet Gardiner spoke about the role of the author in the world of modern publishing, a slightly melancholy subject when TV celebrities head the bestseller charts and the death of the Net Book Agreement has provided excuses for cuts in authors’ royalties. But has there ever been a time when the lot of the struggling author was ever other than desperate? Yet the urge to write survives, and I think it always will.

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