This year Cambridge University Press is celebrating its 400th year of publishing, making this the oldest continuously operating press in the world. Even ''Oxford sort of followed us, thinking they ought to have a university printer as well,'' explains chief executive Geoffrey Cass. But the age of Cambridge University Press is not its only claim to uniqueness, nor is it the only quality worth celebrating. Today the press can celebrate its unique status as a charitable institution that is entirely self-supporting, its reputation as a university press engaged solely in scholarly publishing (eschewing the urge to publish lighter, more ''popular'' books), its backlist of 7,000 titles kept in print, and its output of new books, this year reaching the 1,000 mark.
''Apart from the antiquity of course, we're now the largest producer of new books of any sort in the United Kingdom,'' Mr. Cass notes. ''The scale of the press isn't, I think, generally known, largely because we do keep our light under a bushel. We've never been particularly publicity-oriented; we just get on with the job of scholarly publishing.''
Anthony K. Wilson, deputy secretary of the Press Syndicate - the body of governing officers of the university which must give final approval to every book published with the Cambridge imprint - adds, ''We are very proud of our history, not just because we're in 1984, but because it's a unique history of the quite extraordinary survival of an organization that can actively trade, publish, and communicate around the world.''
''We send out something like 7.6 million printed or published units (in addition to 2 million examination papers they print) per year. This is a considerable amount of the propagation of Western scholarship,'' Cass mildly points out. Cambridge University Press exports 45 to 48 percent of its annual output to the United States, and ''our sales in America are of course substantially bigger than (that of) any American university press,'' Cass says.
Mr. Wilson explains, ''Free thinking in those days was very dangerous. There was apprehension about how to control the dissemination of knowledge. The aim was to control knowledge while today the aim is to advance knowledge, even controversial ideas, as long as they meet scholarly standards.''
The king granted the charter to the chancellor, masters, and scholars of the University of Cambridge. To this day, all Cambridge University Press printing has been exercised under that name. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is the chancellor of the university; therefore ''every one of our authors - some 20,000 are currently contracted - are all contracted ultimately to the Duke,'' Cass smiles.
''I suppose the nearest objects to us are the national performing-arts companies, like the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare (Company), and the English National Opera. They are trading; they are charities; and they're having to compete in the marketplace with commercial firms. We earn twice, over twice, the combined box office earnings of all four of these put together, and they have a combined government subsidy of (STR)25 million. We are entirely self-financing,'' notes Cass with pride.
A perusal of Cambridge's catalog, as compared with, for instance, Oxford's, confirms Cambridge's reputation of interpreting strictly the role of the scholarly publisher. Unlike Oxford UP, which publishes both trade and scholarly books, Cambridge sticks to the latter exclusively.
Wilson has considerable respect for OUP and says carefully, ''They have jolly good books. They've interpreted their role more loosely perhaps than we have,'' in that they produce scholarly monographs and journals as well as books for a larger general audience. ''We've interpreted our role as very centrally the advancement of education and the dissemination of knowledge.''
CUP, with its royal head, charitable status, and distinguished history, is a uniquely English institution, with good reason to celebrate 400 remarkable years of publishing.
After all, who else has a backlist including the works of Milton, Donne, Newton, Schroedinger, and Einstein?