Varsity: The battle of the printing presses

Alice Mottram 29 April 2015

Rivalry between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge is legendary. After an indisputable defeat at the Boat Race this year, the battle of the blues culminated at the University Challenge final. Gonville and Caius trounced Magdalene College, Oxford with winning answer “hapax legomenon” going down in the history books. Yet, there is an older rivalry commonly forgotten: the fight for superiority between the Oxford and Cambridge university presses. 

Considering that the University of Oxford is the older of the two institutions by a mere 113 years, it is important to note that the Cambridge University Press is the world’s oldest publishing house. Granted letters patent by Henry VIII in 1534, Cambridge has been disseminating knowledge for more than 450 years. Oxford, meanwhile, was slow to the printing race, lagging at least 50 years behind. Jealous of their rival’s printing prowess, they petitioned Queen Elizabeth I for the right to print. But the power hungry Oxonians didn’t stop there.

Cambridge may be the world’s oldest publishing house, but Oxford have superseded all expectations after their slow beginnings and are now the world’s largest publishing house. The Oxford World Classics are a force to rival even Penguin Books for comprehensive academic rigour, sitting on Cambridge shelves and mocking our comparable offerings. Cambridge charge an extortionate £15.99 for a copy of Pride and Prejudice, whilst Oxford sit sniggering with their £6.99 paperbacks. And not only are they printing enviable classics, their Very Short Introductions are the envy of printing presses this side of the Atlantic. Each pocket-sized volume of knowledge is at once accessible and academic. However, perhaps the crown jewels of the Oxford University Press is the OED. This mammoth dictionary is currently in its third edition, which having been begun in 2000 is predicted for completion in 2037. 

Which isn’t to say that the Cambridge University Press isn’t publishing worthy tomes. The Cambridge Companion series is a fail safe for the literature student, and the History of Political Thought textbooks provide incomparable access to history’s great thinkers. It must be conceded, however, that Oxford have the upper hand.

So the deciding round of this win or lose contest must be more subjective. More aesthetic. It must be admitted that Cambridge University Press isn’t overly interested in publishing attractive books. They have a distinctive utility, they are no fuss. Oxford, meanwhile, are publishing their funky abstract-covered Very Short Introductions, which sit pleasingly on any shelf. Not only are their books more covetable, their offices triumph over those of the opposition. Whilst Cambridge squat in a post-war monstrosity, Oxford are sitting pretty in their neo-classical palace. 

It would seem that there is a lesson to be learnt from Oxford, whose press is the gold standard of university publishing. A sour defeat for Cambridge.