Digitizing ‘Christmas Books’ at the UK’s Cambridge University Press

In Feature Articles by Porter AndersonLeave a Comment

Produced between 1930 and 1973, Cambridge University Press’ Christmas gift books were testaments to the company’s capabilities.

Among the 34 privately published Cambridge University Press Christmas gift books is ‘Bridges on the Backs,’ a ‘lift-the-flaps’ book illustrated by David Gentleman and showing the reader views of Cambridge bridges on the River Cam going back through centuries as she or he lifted the flaps. Image: Cambridge University Press, Stephen Bond

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Grooms: The ‘Skill of the Press’ Compositors and Printers’
In an interesting point of irony, Cambridge University Press’ 34 “Christmas Books” series was started by university printer Walter Lewis in the early 1930s, in hopes of showing off the press’ printing and design skills as the British economy slowed. And now, just in time for another economic downturn—as well as for the holiday season, of course—these highly specialized editions, “privately printed at the University Press,” have been digitized by the press to preserve a remarkable collection of limited editions.

These are not Christmas books in the sense of titles themed on Christmas. They’re called the press’ Christmas books because they were given to industry associates and customers at Christmas, in no small part as promotional pieces.

In most cases, only some 100 copies were made of a single title, and all of them were given away to “friends in printing and publishing.”

This meant that Cambridge University Press itself didn’t have a complete set of these rare editions, the last of which was produced in 1973. Starting in 2014, the press has been working to pull together a complete set of its own, drawing on “a mixture of donations and detective work.”

Volumes in the collection of Cambridge University Press’ Christmas Books. Image: Cambridge University Press, Stephen Bond

Ros Grooms, the press’ archivist says, “The books were published for a long time, with a pause for the Second World War, and demonstrate real excellence in the way they are put together. They aren’t showy, but all the signs of quality in printing, typography and design would have been obvious to the people receiving them.

Ros Grooms

“Great care was taken over the books but their secret was really in the experience and skill of the press’ compositors and printers. People were chosen to work on the books in recognition of their skill and they worked together to produce something really special.

“Looking through the pages, it’s easy to imagine the pleasure that these little books would have given to someone opening one for the first time at Christmas.”

In most cases, the books have a connection with Cambridge. Brooke Crutchley Walter Lewis as university printer in 1946, and continued the tradition of producing the books which, by then, had gathered a reputation. About a third of them reprint historical texts and most, of course, are related to printing and publishing since the intent was to demonstrate the company’s capabilities.

Swanson: ‘The Last Book We Needed’

From ‘A Stickful of Nonpareil’ from Cambridge’s Christmas book collection. Image: Cambridge University Press, Stephen Bond

Gavin Swanson, who last year left the press’ academic publishing group—and now is editorial development manager in the journals division—was instrumental in searching out the books.

“Initially, I got a list of the books that we didn’t have and used that,” he says, “together with what was essentially a catalogue, containing a couple of paragraphs of description for each of the Christmas books, their titles and a list of illustrations.

Gavin Swanson

“I would trawl through the sites of book dealers to find the missing volumes and finally came up with an original copy of the last book we needed, 1939’s From London to Cambridge by Train, just before I left the press, so I snaffled it as quickly as I could and that thankfully completed the collection.”

“These are an important piece of our heritage,” Grooms says, “and we are very grateful to Gavin for his hard work and to all those who kindly donated what must have been much-loved items, to allow us to preserve them for many Christmases to come.”

Digitizing Cambridge Press History

Johanna Ward works on the Christmas books digitization project. Image: Cambridge University press digital content team

The press’ digital content team made archive-quality photos of the books and their slipcases that were made for many of the books.

Some of the volumes were photographed on a conservation cradle at higher resolution than others, including the “lift-the-flaps” Bridges on the Backs pictured at the top of this article.

Johanna Ward from the digital content team is quoted, saying, “The majority are robust enough to be digitized on a book cradle, which supports the book to allow for the high-resolution digitization of two pages at once, while not applying much pressure to its structure. … Archival photography is based on specific color calibration methods to faithfully reproduce the book as seen. We’re also digitizing at a ratio of 1:1 and so the image should also be a faithful reproduction of the size of the book.”

She points out that a file from such work isn’t as large as it might have been because these books aren’t large.

From the frontispiece of one of the Cambridge Christmas books, ‘Words in Their Hands,’ a photo essay by Walter Nurnberg. Image: Cambridge University Press, Stephen Bond

Seeing the Results: Not Yet

Publishing Perspectives has asked Cambridge University Press how to see the digitized collection of Christmas books, and unfortunately the archive has yet to post the collection to its site, although they have approached the news media for coverage.

We’ve asked the company to let us know when it’s available, and we’ll revisit and update this story when they have the collection ready for viewing on the archive, perhaps on a Christmas Future.

Meanwhile in the video below, Cambridge University Press archivist Ros Grooms talks about the project, the special work it comprises, and its importance to the press. The piece includes many visuals of the work.


More from Publishing Perspectives on Cambridge University Press is here, more from us on the British market is here, more on university presses is here, more on digitization is here, and more on digital publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

Facebook Twitter Google+

Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

Leave a Comment