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Hands-on Approaches for Teaching Book History


Josef Beery demonstrating the common press at Rare Book School. (Amanda Nelsen)


Amanda Nelsen & Josef Beery: “When the Printer is a Press: Teaching with the Common Press” ¶ Todd Samuleson: “Manageable Engine:” The Common Press as a Focus for Book History Pedagogy” 

10:45 am saturday, october 24 ⋅ track 3 

In a refreshing change to academic protocol, the presenters of this panel decided to deliver their talks as one big program rather than two distinct ones. They asked the audience, well over thirty people, to circle around their chairs and to interject with comments and questions in the course of the discussion. This roundtable format helped to bring out the central and shared ideas in the approaches of teaching book history at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the Book History Workshop at Texas A&M University in College Station. Both programs emphasize the necessity for returning the human body to the study of books and bibliography. Reading about books and their histories can not substitute for the kinds of practical knowledge that material study affords. Likewise, while better than consulting digital surrogates, merely viewing book-objects in a special collections library cannot teach our students half as effectively as hands-on encounters with the materials and processes of composing, imposing, printing, binding, etc.

One fascinating difference between Rare Book School and the Book History Workshop is that the former uses a deductive approach: taking apart the components of the processes to better understand their workings. The vast teaching collection of RBS enables teachers and students to examine historical examples closely. This no doubt enriches their experiences in learning from the many printing, binding, and papermaking demonstrations led by RBS faculty and staff.

Todd Sameulson in the Book History Workshop (with ink balls newly knocked-up by the students) 2009. (Jean Wulfson)

Todd Sameulson in the Book History Workshop (with ink balls newly knocked-up by the students), 2009. (Jean Wulfson)

The Book History Workshop at Texas A&M University uses a more inductive approach. The students in this intensive summer course “build” an eighteenth century pamphlet from the ground up. Crucial to this approach is embracing both error and grime. This has the effect of demystifying the book-making process while at the same time highlighting the physical effort and labor that printing on a handpress necessitates.

Josef Beery & Amanda Nelsen (RBS), and Todd Samuelson (BHW) provided one of the crystalline panels familiar to many APHA conferences. They demonstrated that scholars and historians of printing and bookmaking have everything to gain by remembering that the objects of our study have physical bodies that reveal themselves in new and fascinating ways when we direct our focus to material study.

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