Sustaining & Growing the Vision of an Academic Library’s Fine Press
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This is the speaker notes of the authors’s presentation given at IFLA 2016. View the video recording of the authors’s presentation. The presentation begins at 26:22.
First, by way of a definition: in its most traditional application, letterpress can be described as a relief printing process whereby ink is transferred from a forme of metal type to paper by way of a press. For 350 years or so—from 1450 until the Industrial Revolution ushered in an era of mechanized book production—wooden presses, originally adapted by Guttenberg from a domestic screw press were reconfigured into printing machines calibrated to exert minimal pressure across a sheet of handmade paper, which captured an impression of oil-based, high-carbon ink after making contact with lines of moveable, metal type that had been cast using a matrix and hand-punch
The decline of letterpress printing began in the early 19th century when a steady stream of technical developments altered the landscape of book production and publishing. With the introduction of steam power, book production processes such as typesetting, typecasting, and printing, which had, since the time of Guttenberg, been an intensely hands-on affair, were supplanted by industrial mechanization. Steam powered rotary presses added the element of speed to the printing process, and the introduction of wood pulp in steam-powered pulp mills to the papermaking process resulted in a more reliable and inexpensive source of fiber—albeit inferior, less stable, and prone to deteriorate more rapidly than the cotton and linen rags traditionally used to make paper. The introduction of new matrices in the print shop like stereotyping accelerated the pace of printing due to the fact that type compositors were no longer required to perform the laborious work of breaking down and resetting their shop’s limited supply of metal type. Together, these developments precipitated an expansion of a commercial book market that was becoming increasingly anchored in automated technologies that raised output and dramatically dropped the costs of production.
What was lost amidst the embrace of high speed and low cost book production were a series of tried-and-true artistic and aesthetic standards governing book production and design. This was the backdrop against which the English artist William Morris launched his famous Kelmscott Press and the Arts and Craft Movement in the 1890's. Morris denounced what he saw as the degradation of the book into a purely commercial object and advocated instead for anti-industrial principles to be reincorporated back into the book printing process. He viewed commercial, automated reproduction, advertising, the proliferation of newspapers and magazines, and the rise of cheap paperbacks as assaults on the art of the book. His aesthetic theory and practice is foundational for "fine press" practice—that is, book design and book building which is attentive and considerate of appropriate typographical choices and materiality, where the printing is performed slowly with a letterpress on dampened paper made from high-quality, archival fibers. Morris’ clarion call for book designers and printers to produce beautifully designed and structurally cohesive books helped launch the fine press movement as a counterweight to the commodification of the book.
In the 20th century, many proprietors of fine press imprints and private presses who took Morris’ aesthetic revolution to heart, such as the John Henry Nash Fine Arts Press and Harry Duncan’s Cummington Press, gained support from the academy (Nash teaching part time as a Professor of Typography at the University of Oregon, and Duncan managing a typographic laboratory and teaching within the School of Journalism in the University of Iowa). Morris’ “art for art’s sake” dovetailed nicely with the fact that these printers jettisoned commercial demands and focused their attention on aesthetic and intellectual values in book production, a line of thinking which appealed to the mission of higher education institutions that prioritized scholastic and intellectual pursuits over purely commercial products and generating high profit margins. Proprietors of fine presses were also able to shore up institutional support because their skill set and knowledge base made them eligible for employable at a university level. As print-based commercial advertising and marketing exploded in the first half of the 20th century—leading directly to the development of graphic design and visual communication as an academic discipline—book designers and typographers became hot commodities.
Another reason why letterpress printing remained on campuses despite its obsolescence as a technical instrument in the book industry can be attributed to the fact that across many universities there was already an infrastructure of existing letterpress and binding machinery in place, so why not repurpose it and put it to new use. One incarnation took the form of printing "laboratories." These laboratories, the first established at the Carnegie Institute of Technology by Porter Garnett in 1922 called the "Laboratory Press," were private presses aimed at teaching students the technical fundamentals, principles, and practices of fine press printing. Even before the Laboratory Press was established, in 1917 Carnegie Institute of Technology introduced a four-year curriculum in printmaking with coursed in composition, papermaking, design, presswork, as well as managerial aspects of running an imprint, such as accounting courses, shop maintenance, and advertising strategies.
The famous Shakespearean scholar and bibliographer Ronald B. McKerrow was a forceful advocate for these printing labs, arguing that bibliographic studies would remain incomplete and inadequate without an empirical, hands-on engagement with the material processes and technical procedures that went into book production prior to industrialization. Experiential knowledge of the ink, the paper, the type and presses was fundamental to McKerrow's idea of the “experiential bibliography,” which sought to bring attention to the material aspects of book production as a way to inform one's understanding of book history and print culture. As McKerrow puts it, the "bibliographical press" is "a workshop or laboratory which is carried on chiefly for the purpose of demonstrating and investigating the printing techniques of the past by means of setting type by hand, and printing from it on a simple press."
The academic library, as a center of scholarship and locus of traditional materials and cutting edge technologies, might be the ideal setting for a “bibliographical press.” Furthermore, a laboratory equipped for such historical investigation is also inherently equipped for creative production, and (perhaps unexpectedly) innovation—ideals reflected in the stated values of the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. The Marriott is a dynamic environment that cultivates continual technological and social change, providing a context of possibility, in which fine press publishing might thrive.
At the Marriott Library, as digital collections proliferate, the position of the physical book is shifting. Books and other objects that cannot be adequately represented in digital form may be strong candidates for special collections. A wax audio cylinder is as valuable and instructive an artifact as it is a record of sound. The ability to examine historic bindings in person enables research into archaic materials and methodologies, as well as the legacies of particular volumes, undiscoverable on a flat screen. Similarly, fine press books’ physicality is part of their inherent data. Their information is not only theoretical and linguistic, but also (and often primarily) tactile and visual. Traditional fine press is characterized by letterpress-printed text, handmade paper, and meticulous typesetting. Readers’ contact with surface texture, pages’ weight and drape, and an unmediated view of printed imagery are essential.
As technology changes research methodologies, the utility of libraries’ physical spaces also transforms. The Marriott Library maintains quiet work areas and stacks, but it also embodies the “new” library as a social space—a center for dialogue, gathering, and group work. It is home to a maker space, tech labs, group work areas, exhibition spaces, a coffee shop, a forthcoming sculpture garden/performance space, and more. My intent is not to draw lines between old and new—but rather to illustrate the complexity, diversity, and flexibility of contemporary academic libraries. The Red Butte Press, as a book-centered, collaborative, hands-on enterprise, meshes fluidly with this model. The press’s work integrates the history of printing and the book with cutting edge modes of production, interdisciplinarity, research, and collaboration.
The connections between the Red Butte Press and the library are not solely theoretical; the infrastructure of the Library itself benefits the press. Red Butte Press’s archive resides in the same building as the press itself and is available to library patrons—students, faculty, and staff as well as the general public. Inventory is housed in a secure, climate-controlled environment, and sales are supported by the library’s online shopping platform. And the press is also a boon to the library. The studio, home to the Book Arts Program, functions as an educational space and a draw for patrons. The Program offers academic classes, community workshops, and K-12 outreach. The antique equipment in the glass-walled studio attracts curious passersby. Staff and volunteers welcome patrons and offer informal tours. Visitors learn firsthand that these presses are not museum pieces, but heavily used tools for student projects as well as RBP editions. As more and more content (and content users) are “born digital,” the Book Arts Studio provides not only a working window into the history of information technology, but an opportunity to innovate with art practices, hybrid forms, and the material book.
A staff of five people work at the press (though this work is only a portion of each of their jobs). The team handles concept planning, project management, contact with contributors, printing, bookbinding, promotion, and sale of editions. Students, volunteers, and part-time employees assist core staff in production. Shifting from a traditional model of fine press, the Red Butte Press has, in recent years, changed its focus to working with local authors and artists, and to completing each production in-house rather than commissioning far-flung contributors. The effects of this change are multifold: interdisciplinary collaborations are fostered on campus, creative dialog occurs in person, and students engage in the process. Red Butte Press’s book Problems of Description in the Language of Discovery by Katharine Coles exemplifies how this inherently physical process has the power to foment meaningful local connections.
A professor in the English Department, Coles received a National Science Foundation grant to travel to Antarctica and develop a manuscript. While there, she was inspired by Ken Golden, a University of Utah mathematician whose “rule of 5’s” theory—an examination of the salinity and permeability of sea ice—has been instrumental in studying the causes and effects of climate change. Coles’s fascination with mathematical language was the basis of the poem “Problems of Description in the Language of Discovery”. Back in the northern hemisphere, the RBP selected this piece from her manuscript for our next book. As a publisher of artists’ books, we aim for their materiality to hold meaning in concert with content. To this end, we contacted Ken and members of his team, requesting access to their field notebooks. They loaned the press their books to reference, and Ken sat down with me to explain his theory in layman’s terms. We scanned the pages of the team’s water resistant, spiral-bound notebooks, which became the basis for the final product’s structure. Mary Toscano developed a visual language abstracted from the scientists’ sketches. Coles selected a paratext that resonated with her poem from their handwritten notes, which the RBP’s designer threaded between the lines of the original poem in an alternate color and point size. A graduate student printed the book alongside Red Butte Press’s lead printer, and the complex binding was executed by a team of employees, students, and volunteers. In the end, the book served as a confluence between the Creative Writing and Math departments, as well as the Red Butte Press and Library. Thus the RBP mirrors the library as a point of creative convergence. With each project the RBP draws people out of their silos and into the library.
At the RBP, authors and artists participate in the ideation and bookmaking processes. Chap. XXIV’s author, professor Craig Dworkin, engaged with the project on numerous levels. The text is the missing chapter from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. A missing chapter was one of many tricks Laurence Sterne played in the original work—often considered the first experimental novel. Dworkin accompanied RBP staff to the studio of Provo-based papermaker Robert Buchert, to help make paper for the edition. The paper was crafted to approximate the stock on which the first edition was printed, and the finished pamphlet is the same trim size. The concept was that it could be slipped into position between chapters 23 and 25. The Laurence Sterne Trust at Shandy Hall in Coxwold, England loaned RBP a first edition to reference during the planning stage, and has made Chap. XXIV available for purchase through its store. Dworkin also assisted with the binding of the edition, which was accomplished by a team of staff and volunteers in an epic work session that ended after midnight.
So. What does the future of Red Butte Press hold? We expect to grow our audience by evolving alongside the technological developments and shifts in publishing that are bound to take place in our library in the years to come. One way to broaden our reach would be by offering different versions of an edition: working with Digital Scholarship Services to make a digital product available; producing a cheap paperback with our print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine. Moveable type and relief forms could be constructed with 3D printers managed by Creativity and Innovation services, and our teaching faculty can further develop the press as a pedagogical tool. Thus we aim to continue producing high quality, innovative work—bringing unique recognition to the library, and actively engaging students, faculty, and patrons.