Monday 26 November 2012

Visit to Cambridge University Press Museum

On Thursday 8th November, members of the Library Group headed to Cambridge University Press to learn about and view the recently opened Museum within the Press’ vast Edinburgh Building. The space is not usually open to the public, so the opportunity to visit was a real treat. The evening began with some much enjoyed tea and biscuits, kindly provided by the Press. Once these were consumed, we were led through the Press’ labyrinth of corridors towards the Museum. The space that greeted us was inviting and attractive; its layout, furnishing and lighting created the feeling of a high-quality exhibition space, and the professionally presented exhibits within the cases immediately sparked our curiosity. Before exploring their contents however, we sat down to an enjoyable talk by Ros Grooms, the University Press Project Archivist.

Ros began by telling us about the Press’ history: the University was given the right to appoint printers in 1534 by Letters Patent of Henry VIII (this document is held in the Archives); however it was not until 1584 following the appointment of Thomas Thomas as University Printer that printing really got underway (against a backdrop of fierce resistance from the Stationers’ Company in London). The site of Thomas’ press was opposite Great St Mary’s church, on what is now the Senate House lawn, meaning that the current CUP bookshop is virtually situated on the same spot as the University’s first press! We were told about the fascinating development of the Press over the centuries, with an array of illustrations taken from the archive. One particularly fascinating episode occurred in 1877, when the Press declined the proposal to publish what went on to become the Oxford English Dictionary. In a surprisingly informal letter, Furnivall (one of the founders of the new dictionary) confidently promised great profit from the project; however he sought a great outlay from the Press and admitted considerable delay before their investment would be returned – given the tone and demands of this initial proposition, the Press’ decision to decline the venture is perhaps not such a surprise!

Photograph by Annie Johnson
Ros also talked to us about the creation of the Museum. The Museum showcases the Press’ history and highlights its achievements and activity. It was envisaged that a key use of the exhibition would be for staff to show visitors to the Press. Given that a visitor’s time to view material may be limited, it was decided to organise the material thematically so that each case could be viewed and understood independently. These themes include the Press’ early religious printing, some of its most notable works such as Newton’s Principia, its international activity, historic printing equipment, John Baskerville’s 1763 folio Bible, and material relating to staff activities and social events. In relation to this latter theme, it was very interesting to learn about the oral history archive, a project currently in its early stages. This has involved interviewing long-serving staff in order to record experiences and memories of working at the Press. Ros told us that this has given new insights and different perspectives on events that are often found recorded in the archive. For example, some of the interviews have described the nervous excitement that was felt during the preparations for The Queen’s visit to officially open the new Edinburgh Building in May 1981. These personal accounts will offer a valuable new dimension to the Press’ archive.

Photograph by Annie Johnson

A wonderful evening was had by all, and our thanks go to Ros and others at the Press who made the visit possible and so enjoyable.

By Sarah Fletcher, Assistant Librarian at St Catharine's College Library.