Higher minds, dirty business

A History of Cambridge University Press
September 15, 2000

The very idea of a university press embodies a well-recognised paradox. Higher learning, the preserve of great research universities, is presumed to be relatively autonomous of commerce; yet such purity can only be fostered, maintained, and brought to fruition by engaging with a world that is decidedly commercial. The university press exists to reconcile these two kinds of interest. It is a tricky business, however, and few university presses worth their salt escape controversy. How far is it proper for a learned institution to compromise scholarly interests in order to maintain the commercial ones on which the dissemination of scholarship itself depends? As its subtitle suggests, David McKitterick's second volume on the history of Cambridge University Press tackles the origin of this question head on. And in doing so, it provokes reflection on our own attempts to answer it.

The modern system of university presses dates from the late 19th and 20th centuries, when they emerged as part of the social changes that led to mass higher education. Oxford and Cambridge can boast university presses with continuous histories reaching back beyond 1700, however, and discontinuous histories extending even further. The importance of these institutions is thus not just that they remain among the most prestigious presses in the world today, but that they acted as archetypes for many other academic printers and publishers. It is this that lends McKitterick's fine work a value beyond its immediate subject. But as the narrative unfolds (the first volume was published in 1992, and we await the final part of the trilogy) its cumulative effect is rather sobering.

The very existence of printing operations dedicated to scholarly work remained precarious for centuries. Renaissance Europe saw repeated attempts to produce a workable compromise between scholarship and commerce, but before 1700 none had attained more than fleeting success. A key reason was a lack of lasting institutional integration; the fortunes of these enterprises ebbed and flowed with the drive of dedicated individuals. In Restoration England, for example, the attempt to establish a learned press in Oxford depended on the unique energy of Bishop John Fell. Only after his death was the printing house taken over by "delegates" of the university, providing its first institutional continuity - Oxford University Press dates its own history to 1690. It was this development that inspired the equally determined Richard Bentley, a recent Oxford resident and friend to several delegates, to agitate for a similar initiative at Cambridge. Bentley hoped to inaugurate an institution that would at once serve the internal wishes of the university's academic population, influence the conduct of a notoriously venal metropolitan book trade for the better, and provide a conduit for Cambridge men eager to engage with the newly cosmopolitan intellectual world of letters. With hindsight, this stands out as the first step in creating the modern institution of Cambridge University Press.

Despite his lack of status at the university, Bentley's agitating proved amazingly successful. Where previously there had been no real university press at all, with printing privileges farmed out to autonomous printers, now the university established an entirely new operation to be overseen by academic curatores (later "syndics"). Yet only in retrospect does this shift seem so significant. In fact, what strikes McKitterick's reader is just how stubbornly lasting many of the elements of the pre-Bentleian world of scholarly printing proved to be. His first volume told a story that was characteristically replete with contests over religious and political allegiance, charges of personal corruption, and struggles to achieve noble ends with meagre resources, and it is not so different here. True, the ideological fire did not burn as brightly under the Hanoverians. But there is no decisive cultural transition to be discerned. Instead, only a haphazard and distinctly stumbling progress towards the creation of a recognisably modern business. The fortunes of the press continued to wax and wane with the dedication of a few individuals and it is these figures and their reigns who structure this volume.

The press remained for most of this period a printer, not a publisher. Indeed, members of the university seem to have enjoyed a remarkably primitive conception of the relation between these activities. And, largely for that reason, the severe problem of undercapitalisation that plagued all early modern printing houses (and for that matter many other early-modern businesses, not to mention governments) continued to dog Cambridge University Press well into the 19th century. Much of McKitterick's story actually boils down to repeated attempts by the syndics to address just this one problem, but to do so with a sometimes breathtaking lack of economic nous. Even the introduction of steam-printing and stereotyping proved less than revolutionary, although for once the press's congenital conservatism did not prevent it from embracing the new technologies altogether.

An 18th-century university press, like its successor, did not spend most of its time producing scholarly works. For the most part, the Cambridge press printed bibles, and in vast quantities. John Baskerville's 1763 edition is remembered as the finest of them, but in practical terms it was only a minor contribution to the everyday business that sustained the press. After bibles, the press produced educational materials: schoolbooks, and, increasingly in the 19th century, examinations. This was mundane work, but, with the bible trade, it provided the all-important constancy of income without which academic books could not have been produced. When it came to learning, apart from the classics, mathematics and physical sciences took pride of place in the academic list - as they had for Bentley, who had cajoled a second edition of the Principia out of Newton. The press called such academic projects "private" work, and regarded them as a considerable irritant. After all, they interrupted its schedule for producing reliable and lucrative bibles and schoolbooks. And their authors were peculiarly pernickety: some seem to have thought that the press existed for their own benefit, regarding an immediate print-run for their latest turgid sermon or occasional verse as a right concomitant with a college fellowship. Others thought nothing of leaving bills unpaid for decades. Above all, many of the syndics themselves never grasped the importance of maintaining constant income if the press were to sustain low-volume, low-profit printing of this kind. Those who complained that science was neglected for schoolbooks had not realised that in the world of the book the one depended utterly on the other.

It was the university itself that proved most important in determining the press's fate. With so many in the university seeing the press as a mere adjunct to Cambridge's own affairs, even quite minor changes in one could immediately affect the conduct of the other. The outstanding example of this (and also the only major event which saw real evidence of modernisation) was in 1781, when the university finally lost its long-standing privilege to print almanacs. In return it gained a regular payment from the state. Modest though it was - amounting to Pounds 500 a year, with a parallel grant to Oxford - this payment was the first public funding ever granted to the universities. Cambridge resolved to spend the money subsidising publications. As a result, the grant would change subtly but permanently the character of the university and the press, since they then became partly public institutions. In the long term, dons began to feel it incumbent upon themselves to compose publications, which the press would then produce.

The development of this convention, not coincidentally, reflected the advent of mathematical and scientific societies run with great energy by men like Charles Babbage and William Whewell. These societies circumvented all the old collegiate fustiness, instead modelling themselves (in the case of Babbage's Analytical Society) on the religious groups that had already proved so successful in using the press for bible-publishing. They manifested a zeal that did much to rescue the press from ancien régime somnolescence . In doing so, they fostered creation of the modern academic author and the modern university press in tandem.

Just as the university's character changed, so therefore did that of the press, and the latter parts of McKitterick's volume address the developing consequences. Throughout, it is a beautifully produced and elegantly written narrative, and one that oozes authority. Moreover, between the lines, it hints at the broader story of the modern scholarly book; its making, distribution, reading, and cultural impact. McKitterick's climax arrives fittingly with the press's decision to establish a permanent London office at the beginning of 1873. That decision committed the press to a future in which it would be neither a mere adjunct to the university nor just another factory. It would instead be a combination of the two: an academic beachhead in the heart of the industrial world. In McKitterick's benignly Whiggish view, this was not only inevitable, but entirely to the good. And at that point the question of scholarship and commerce that would lie at the basis of all modern university presses had at least become explicit.

Whether our Victorian predecessors arrived at the right answer, however - and whether that answer has left university presses well placed to thrive amid today's burgeoning world of new media - will have to await volume three.

Adrian Johns is associate professor of history, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, United States.

A History of Cambridge University Press: Volume Two: Scholarship and Commerce, 1698-1872

Author - David McKitterick
ISBN - 0 521 30802 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £75.00
Pages - 404

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments