At a time when books are increasingly downloaded, some U of T graduate students are learning how to create traditional printed volumes – using 19th century letterpresses and a large collection of wood and metal type in the Bibliography Room at Massey College.
The students come from a variety of disciplines but are all interested in the history of the book. They say the hands-on experience of painstakingly setting type and mechanically printing a single sheet at a time sometimes takes their studies in new directions – and encourages them to use their brain differently.
“The slow pace of letterpress printing allows for a more thoughtful creative process and lets me demonstrate an artistry I didn’t think I possessed,” says Kathryn Middleton, a Master of Information student and one of three designated Printing Fellows working in the Bibliography Room this term, as part of the Book History and Print Culture program.
One of the purposes of the program, says director Yulia Ryzhik, an assistant professor in the department of English at U of T Scarborough, is to get students from various disciplines thinking critically and analytically about the physical nature of the book and the implications of how books are made and distributed. This involves everything from examining manuscripts and marginalia to typography and book binding to paper- and ink-making.
Adriana Ciocci, a PhD candidate at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology and also a Printing Fellow, is making her own verdigris ink using a 17th-century recipe. She says finding an ink recipe from the era was difficult because print shops fiercely guarded these formulations – as food companies today would a “secret sauce.”
She likens the diverse group of students and professors who use the Bibliography Room – under the expert guidance of college printer Kit MacNeil – to an artist studio: “an environment that encourages experimentation while acknowledging the inevitability of making errors while learning.”
Sophie Edelhart, a PhD candidate in Yiddish Studies and a Printing Fellow, is making a Haggadah – a book that sets out the order of the Passover Seder – using Yiddish type acquired from a Jewish newspaper in Hamilton, Ontario.
Edelhart says the process of typesetting and binding the Haggadah, which they hoped to use at their own Passover celebration, has given them a deeper appreciation for books as objects and introduced them to a craft that they now consider a passion. “I really value having a space where every week I get to walk in and just be creative.”
The experience of being a Printing Fellow sometimes takes the students outside the Bibliography Room together. The group visits historical book shops, attends book fairs and other events and often catch up outside of Massey College at the Crafty Coyote, a pub on Bloor Street West. “There’s a lot of camaraderie amongst the ‘Bib Roomers,’” says MacNeil.