Printing at Rare Book School

January 6, 2020

By Sarah Lange

While I pursued my master’s degree in library and information studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had the good fortune to work in Special Collections, the University Archives and the Kohler Art Library. My colleagues often talked about the unique offerings at Rare Book School, and so I enrolled in a weeklong class that would meet the summer after my graduation.

At the end of July, I flew into Charlottesville, Virginia, for my first Rare Book School course, The History of 19th- and 20th-Century Typography and Printing. The instructors, John Kristensen and Katherine McCanless Ruffin, provided a mix of lectures, visits to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, and hands-on typesetting and printing in the RBS printing lab.

Kristensen, the proprietor of Firefly Press, and Ruffin, the director of the Book Studies Program at Wellesley College, live in Boston and they emphasized the historical role the city played in book publishing and printing. That said, they also showed love to fine press printers who taught at UW-Madison. We saw books by Claire Van Vliet, who set up the UW’s type shop in 1965, and Walter Hamady, who taught book arts at the UW for 30 years. In fact, Ruffin herself has a second-degree connection to the UW: She earned an MFA in book arts from the University of Alabama, where she studied with UW alum Steve Miller.

Other treasures we viewed included the Kelmscott Chaucer and John Drinkwater’s Persephone, which Bruce Rogers designed with gold initial capitals and ornaments. Two of my fellow students were so smitten with Persephone that they bought copies from antiquarian booksellers before the week was over.

One of the highlights of the week was setting type in the printing lab for our collaborative project, a two-color broadside featuring 12 typesetting guidelines in six roman and six italic typefaces. The teachers and students added our signatures near our contributions on a dozen or so copies, creating a lovely keepsake from our time at RBS. I learned proper typesetting technique and how to justify lines of text. I also took part in an optional workshop on type ornaments, which was a lot of fun.

In addition to printing the broadsides on our final day, the other students and I gave short presentations on a typeface of our choice. I opted to research Palatino, since the UW type shop has an abundance of it, which I used in projects for Jim Escalante’s Introduction to Book Arts and Letterpress course.

As it happens, typographer and poet Robert Bringhurst wrote an entire book devoted to Hermann Zapf’s most famous design—Palatino: The Natural History of a Typeface. I found it interesting that Zapf designed Palatino for foundry composition and the Linotype machine at the same time, and he continued to redesign Palatino for new technology into the digital era. Bringhurst counts a minimum of 350 Palatino designs!

My course and overall experience at Rare Book School expanded upon my graduate studies and student positions at the UW, and I’m grateful to the Friends of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries for the opportunity they gave me. It has inspired me to continue to learn more about book and print history, experiment with printing, and investigate calligraphy classes. As I look forward to my next adventure, I also hope to share some of what I have learned with others.