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A Hidden Printshop

Students, scholars, and library staff gain hands-on experience in pre-industrial printing techniques. 

Hope Mayo operates hand-powered printing press

In the basement of Lamont Library, at the end of a corridor of shelves stacked with boxed cartridges of microfilm and bound volumes of government documents, is a small room enclosed by an industrial security cage. Lamont D-20, known officially as the Houghton Printing Room, contains everything a pre-industrial printer would need to practice his craft. There are punches and molds for casting metal type, wooden cases filled with letters and other characters sorted into compartments, a stone smeared with ink, a roller for inking the text to be printed and, of course, the press itself, a sturdy iron machine that does its work with a crank, a lever, and no small amount of labor on the part of a pressman.

Hope Mayo, Houghton’s Philip Hofer Curator of Printing and Graphic Arts, regularly puts on workshops in the press room for students, scholars, and library staff so they can “understand how printing was actually done from its invention in the 15th century down to the Industrial Revolution and the 19th century.” For a period of about 500 years, “printing from moveable type was the most advanced technology available, the means by which knowledge was recorded and information communicated.” As such, knowledge of printing methods has direct relevance to fields ranging from literature and religious studies to the history of science.

Students in the Archaeology of Harvard Yard course, in which students spend a semester excavating the sites of the four structures that made up the original campus, have a very material reason for wanting to learn about methods of printing: during their digs, they sometimes unearth pieces of metal type. “These are relics of the printing press that operated in the Indian College building in the 17th century,” Mayo explained. The students “take printing workshops in order to understand the function of the metal printing types” that they uncover.

Mayo is assisted in these workshops by Susan Wyssen, a manuscript cataloger who, in addition to her library degree, holds an MFA in book arts from the University of Alabama. Wyssen provides workshop participants with an overview of the history of papermaking in the West and helps them to understand the amount of labor that once went into the production of printed books. Learning to spot the differences in watermarks and the types and shapes of papers can help scholars and catalogers to determine when a book was printed and to distinguish a first edition from a forgery.

This kind of hands-on knowledge of the physical processes of book production can be invaluable to scholars. As Mayo observed, “Much of the debate about variant texts of Shakespeare’s plays derives from analyses of how they must have been printed. Seeing how texts were set from individual letters cast in metal, and experiencing how easy it is to make mistakes in typesetting, contribute to understanding possible variations between versions of a text or variations between supposedly identical copies of a single text.”

Printing has taken place at Harvard since the first printing press in British North America was imported to Cambridge in 1638. The Houghton Printing Room, however, was the brainchild of Philip Hofer, founder in 1938 of Harvard’s Printing and Graphic Arts Collection (now a part of Houghton Library). Hofer acquired print artifacts for the collection, but “he also thought that students should understand how these artifacts were made, and, to this end, acquired the iron hand press, type, and other equipment needed for setting up a printing shop,” Mayo said. With their workshops, Mayo and Wyssen continue Hofer’s vision by providing direct instruction in the historical methods of printing with moveable type.

By Thomas Dodson, Harvard Library Communications.

Published on February 1, 2017.