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The University of Alabama School of Library and Information Studies, MFA Program in the Book Arts

Steve Miller accepting

Introductory remarks by Paul Gehl


The Alabama program has been a leader in its field, offering a book arts MFA since 1987. This degree program builds on a tradition of printing and book-history training that goes back even further, to individual courses and workshops offered to library science students starting in the 1950s, often by pioneers in the revival of historical printing arts in the Unites States, including Gabriel Rummonds, R. Hunter Middleton, and Carolyn Hammer. The present program’s goal for its MFA students is particularly sensitive to the need for historical knowledge and historically informed creativity. In the words of its own prospectus, it aims to produce “book artists who have well-honed technical knowledge of the various facets of contemporary bookmaking, and who have an understanding of the historical evolution of the book including its materiality, and the role of the book in society. Courses explore the reconciliation of modern sensibilities with historic craft.” The degree program includes two required book history courses that cover the essentials of bibliographical analysis and physical description and an introduction to the cultural impact of printing across five centuries. The program is grounded in the belief that mastering the best practices of the past (that is, recreating historical excellence) is the best preparation for future artistic achievement. In this way, the Alabama program has fostered traditional values in modern printing. In particular, we note that the Alabama program employs three fully credentialed faculty in printing, book binding, and the history of the book, and that they teach both students in the MFA program and graduate students and undergraduates in other university departments. As such, the book arts faculty have a significant role in disseminating appreciation for the historical study of the book among many students of library and information science and beyond. This is an important dimension of higher learning in our age of “digital everything.”

Its extensive instructional program offers over one hundred courses, workshops, and seminars in letterpress printing and typography as well as bookbinding and other aspects of book production. Classes available in Fall 2009, for instance, included an introduction to hand typesetting, contemporary letterpress printing, digital letterpress, platen press, monotypes, and four-color printing from polymer plates. In the course of its tenure, the Center has educated and trained thousands of people including artists, teachers, librarians, book conservators, collectors, and others intrigued with, and engaged by, books and their creation. Many of these former students have themselves become teachers and have provided instruction privately, at other book arts organizations, or in academic institutions. Through this extensive and successful instructional program, the Center has contributed to the preservation and promotion of the vibrant art of printing.

Of course, the true effectiveness of any educational program lies in the quality of its alumni and in their achievements. Alabama’s program excels in this regard, too, having produced such outstanding educators as Inge Bruggeman (Oregon College of Art), Kate Martinson (Luther College), and Katherine McCanless Ruffin (Wellesley College), to name only a few. These alumni and others have filled leadership positions in organizations like the New York Center for the Book and the Guild of Bookworkers. Most impressive is the number of graduates who have maintained their contact with the foundations of fine printing nurtured in the program by establishing private presses that have produced and continue to do work of quality. The Alabama program has had broad influence in other ways too, through an exciting cultural exchange with book artists in Cuba, and as a leader in the foundation of the new College Book Arts Association.

The awards were presented during the Annual Meeting of the American Printing History Association, on Saturday, January 29, 2011, New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, New York City.