The Dark Age to the Digital Age

Posted on May 25, 2011 in Uncategorized




The Oxford SYP’s most recent monthly speaker event brought together two experts on the history of publishing and challenged the audience to consider the past as it meets the present digital age.

Set in one of Oxford’s best independent bookshops, The Albion Beatnik, we were just a stone’s throw away from the giant that is Oxford University Press in the heart of the Jericho neighborhood. The sounds of swinging jazz drifted in the open door from across the street as artistic banners with the words of Ginsberg’s Howl hung down on us from the ceiling (the shop is the Albion Beatnik, you know). In a setting like that, with tables and tea on offer and shelves of fantastic bound and printed literature surrounding you, it’s difficult to imagine a completely digital world without printed books.

The event featured two speakers: Martin Maw, Archivist at Oxford University Press, and Jane Potter, Senior Lecturer in Publishing at the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies at Oxford Brookes.

I have to be honest – I went to this event with a bit of hesitancy. Digital is so in, you know? It’s the hot topic for all publishing conferences and all speaker meetings. It’s in The Bookseller every day! Amazon has just begun its Kindle library lending program. The iPad and mobile devices are changing the way readers interact with their words.

So I was expecting another rehash of the same old print-to-digital history with the same oft-repeated conclusion: no one knows what is going to happen with the publishing industry and digital developments.

What I got instead was a brilliant alternative bookshop setting, two wonderful speakers, examples from the Oxford University Press archive, and a load of history and exposition on book binding, the growth of Oxford and the shape the publishing industry is taking.

For example, did you know:

The first print shop in Oxford was set up in the Sheldonian Theatre in the 1660s.

Oxford University Press used to be housed in the Clarendon Building before it moved to its present location in Jericho.

OUP was considered a ‘gentlemen’s press’ and so eschewed commercialization for customization until the 19th century when the press took on the Oxford English Dictionary project. At the time, the estimated cost of the Dictionary was £9,000 and took ten years to complete. The actual cost was £500,000 and 50 years! Needless to say, OUP began looking at commercialization to turn a profit.

The region of Jericho grew up around OUP with the majority of families who lived in the area also working for the press. Men worked as printers while women were relegated to stitching bindings – even with sewing machines!

While the men made a stable wage, women worked on a system whereby the more they produced the more they earned. Prior to the 1970s, 80–85% of the workforce was male. Today, publishing is a generally female-dominated industry (at least in population… but that’s a whole other blog post).

Some favorite quotes from the evening:

Speaking about his own opinion on digital developments versus the beauty of printed and bound books, Martin quipped: “Nobody wants to be associated with a book which is bound to be unread.” See what he did there? Well… I’m inclined to agree.

Then again, some people, like Jane, argued that there will be “coexistence rather than extinction.” Again, I’m inclined to agree.

A great point in the debate was brought up by someone in the audience and concerned other revolutionary ideas which were supposed to doom the publishing industry. Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, introduced paperback novels in 1935 with the intention that books should cost no more than a packet of cigarettes. Many hardcover publishers believed that paperbacks would destroy publishing. Doubleday’s LeBaron R. Barker even claimed that paperback books would “undermine the whole structure of publishing.”

In hindsight, it’s easy to see why other publishers were worried. But in the present day, hardcovers still sell, paperbacks still sell and now ebooks sell as well. As I sat in the Albion surrounded by passionate publishers and printed books, with a Kindle in my own backpack, I realized they are all coexisting aren’t they?