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A glimpse into our publishing past

By Denise O’Dea

One of the perks of being part of the University Library is sitting just across the hall from Rare Books and Special Collections, home to all kinds of treasures. Recently, a colleague from Rare Books appeared in the SUP office carrying a blast from our past: a Sydney University Press manuscript box from the 1960s. 

According to the label, it once contained the top-copy typescript of W.M. O’Neil’s Fact and Theory: An Aspect of the Philosophy of Science, which was published by SUP in 1969. (Before the arrival of photocopiers, a “top-copy typescript” was the original typed document that sat atop sheets of carbon paper to produce carbon copies. It was literally the “top copy” in the stack.)

Colour photo of a brown cardboard box about the size of an A4 page. The box shows sign of age and affixed to it is a red and white sticker displaying the SUP logo and the typewritten words: WM O'Neil, Fact and Theory, Top copy typescript.

William Matthew (Bill) O’Neil, whose book the box once held, was born in 1912 in Collarenebri in northern NSW, where his family had a small sheep farm. He came to the University of Sydney on a Teachers College scholarship and earned first-class honours in English and the university medal in psychology. After stints teaching at Marrickville Girls High School and designing vocational education programs for returned servicemen and women during WWII, he returned to the University of Sydney in 1945, when at age 32 he became the universitys second professor of psychology. According to the Australian Dictionary of BiographyThe boy from the bush set up a department somewhat at odds with the formal Oxonian traditions of the faculty of arts. Neither O’Neil nor his lecturers wore gowns, and they maintained their Australian accents. He was a respected teacher and department head and later served as Deputy Vice Chancellor before retiring in 1978. As well as Fact and Theory, ONeil wrote a number of books on psychology and the history and philosophy of science.

At the time this manuscript box was in use, SUP was a relatively new publishing house, having been established by the university in 1962 with a mission “to undertake the publication of works of learning and to carry out the business of publication in all its branches”. (There had been calls to establish a university press at Sydney long before this. In 1938, one letter-writer to the Sydney Morning Herald lamented“The culture and literary importance of a city may be estimated by the number of books that issue from its press. In this regard, it cannot be doubted that Sydney leads Australia ... Does Melbourne publish books? The trickle seems to have stopped utterly. Adelaide has issued a few, but the other capital cities do not appear to come into the discussion. There is, however, one respect in which Melbourne has eclipsed the mother city: it is in its possession of a university press.”) 

Between 1965 and 1987 SUP published several hundred books, including works by A.D. Hope, J.M. Ward, Noel Butlin, James McAuley, Cliff Turney, John Passmore, Gerald Wilkes, Enid Campbell, Anthony Clunies Ross, William Keith Hancock, Peter Wolnizer, W.J. Hudson, Neville Meaney, Boris Schedvin, Andrew Riemer, Roberta Sykes and Elizabeth Webby. It published series such as Challis Shakespeare and Australian Literary Reprints, and journals such as Mankind, Australian Economic History Review, Abacus, and Pathology. This output represented the breadth and the best of the University of Sydney.  

Black & white photograph of an ornate Victorian-era two-storey building.

(Photograph: the Sydney University Press building in the 1960s, University of Sydney Archives. Today, SUP is based in Fisher Library.)

The press became an imprint of Oxford University Press in 1987 and stopped publishing altogether by the mid 1990s. But of course, that wasn’t the end of the story – SUP was re-established in the university library in 2003, initially to produce reprints of Australian classics and out-of-copyright books from the library’s digital collections, and eventually to publish a broad range of new scholarly books in the humanities and social sciences.

The days of top-copy typescripts and manuscript boxes are long gone, and we don’t yet know how future historians will access the publishing history we’re creating now. In 2015, Google vice-president Vince Cerf warned of the need to develop “digital vellum” to ensure that digital records remain readable as technology changes and old software and hardware become obsolete. Scholars in the digital humanities are discussing what skills, methods, tools and conceptual frameworks researchers will need to make sense of digital archives; historian Ian Milligan has outlined the opportunities and challenges of this “uncharted territory” in The Conversation. How can we make sure that we aren’t leaving our successors in 2077 the equivalent of an empty box?  

The title page of Fact and Theory by WM O'Neil, bearing the SUP logo and a University of Sydney Library stamp