Letterpress gave my mom purpose, then time took it away

By Lauren Hansen

My mom doesn’t have a college degree; she’s worked in a hospital for going on 14 years. She got the job after she moved us out of our dad’s house, attempting to start living the life of a single mother.

Before that, I didn’t know much about her, until one day during a bi-weekly chat over the phone I mentioned this cool immersive-learning class I’m taking at Ball State University, where I get to learn bookbinding techniques and letterpress printing with the Book Arts Collaborative in downtown Muncie, Ind.

“Oh, letterpress, I used to do that,” she interjected when I began to explain what this seemingly ancient practice was that nobody in my class was familiar with before this experience.

Why she never told me this, I had no idea. There were some clues growing up, such as her incessant need to point out each and every typo she saw, or knowledge of how to spell words she didn’t even know the meaning of. All of which you wouldn’t expect from someone who edits books, not delivers patients to the operating room every day.

Usually during these catch-up chats she listens to me complain about my busy schedule or tell her what dinners I cooked that week, without really saying anything herself, except to dote on her black lab, Jet. But the more I asked about her life in the printing business, the more she chattered on about this enchanted life she lived amongst type.

My mom was a little worried about the fact that my class was downtown and off campus, which made me laugh because when she was my age, she moved across the country by herself to start a new life.

I learned she was mainly a typesetter at a newspaper in San Antonio, Texas in her 20s. Typesetters place the moveable type in the letterpress. Before that it was newspapers in Brownsburg, a town next to Indianapolis. My mom loved the high stakes of the newspaper’s schedule. She recounted with maniacal laughter all the times that one crooked line would ruin the entire thing, a half an hour before it needed to be done.

The industry then was mostly made up of men, at least her superiors always were, she said. Though she never really noticed if there was any discrimination, she was content with her nose in her type, and I don’t blame her.

I didn’t have to ask her why she isn’t one of those past-life printers that wander through our shop, admiring the type like windows into their pasts. As I listened intently to her talk about this secret life she used to lead in printing I figured out why: the dream died.

When she moved back to Indiana, there were no jobs for her, not one. Technology was updated and her position was declared unneeded. I can’t imagine what that would be like.

The only thing I can think to say after hearing her speak passionately about her first career love was “I’m so sorry.” I’m sorry for all the people who had to dig out new paths for themselves after their job was taken away from them by changing times. I can see it in the eyes of past printers that look us in our unwrinkled eyes and tell us to keep doing what we’re doing, keep printing and keep teaching.

My mom was a female typesetter with no college degree and had to give it up because the evolving world pushed her out. Now in an all-female class, I’m paying tuition to learn these techniques that she was thrown into and learned to love.

“That’s so cool, Lauren. You’re doing a cool thing,” she said before she hung up.

A week later I got a package from her with pepper spray for protection for this mysterious, off-campus place I’m learning letterpress printing, and a note that said: keep it up.

This piece was written by a Ball State University student and member of the Book Arts Collaborative in Muncie, Indiana. The Book Arts Collaborative is dedicated to preserving and promoting the apprentice-taught skills of letterpress printing and book binding through community interaction. It's not just what we make that matters, but how we learn from one another to make it happen.

A Printer’s Devil: A 21st-Century Journalist Living in the Age of the Press

By Kayla Bickham

After the emergence of the printing press in the mid-1400s, learning to print text such as books, pamphlets or postcards meant aspiring printers typically served seven-year apprenticeships under a master printer. They were referred to as “devils” since they caused so much trouble in the “chapel” of the print room.

To be a printer’s devil at Book Arts Collaborative, a Ball State University cottage industry dedicated to book binding and letterpress printing, is to be one of nine other 21st-century journalism majors who has mastered the computer and now takes on the task of learning a centuries-old trade.

I, being one of the nine, am set apart from the rest of the devils because I am not a master of the computer. Being new to the journalism major has allowed for me to come into this class with a completely clean page. There is no need to adapt to this new art form of journalism because this is, so far, the only one I know.

My classmates who write feature pieces for our university’s magazine and inverted-pyramid stories for our newspaper, now compose text through the arrangement of type that has left their computer screens and found its way to a composing stick. They are replacing one-inch margins to center their articles with furniture in a chase to position their type. Leading in between each sentence takes the place of the enter key on a keyboard. The right font is not found in a drop-down menu but stocked away in a galley tray. Google images now takes the form of an old wooden drawer where we find the best cut fitting for our text.

The actual act of printing their piece is a completely unfamiliar territory. The simple task of left-clicking a mouse to choose between printing in color or black and white requires more steps here at the shop. It now entails grazing the top of a pot of ink with a spatula to coat the clamshell printer’s plate with the desired color. A piece with more than one color means wiping the press clean and doing the exact same steps ... AGAIN.

Considering how the pressmen shaped who I am as a journalist today is absent from my mind because it is actively shaping me at this moment. I am growing alongside the evolution of the printing press. I am allowing it to mold me into the journalist I will someday be.

As a journalist, I will type each word with caution and attentiveness being mindful of how careful I once had to be when composing small type. I will write sentences in a simple manner, leaving out lengthy and drawn out details as I recall how difficult it was to place just one row of type. I will refrain from wasting paper as I think back to how many times I had to physically turn the wheel of a press to print on each sheet of newspaper. I will be a journalist not only with skill but with an appreciation of my craft.

Journalists of the 1970s worked with the press up until it was replaced by the computer. My fellow journalists of today began after the printing press had already transformed into this new world of technology. But the press is not necessarily history--this is my present. Instead of constantly comparing this printing of the past to technology of today, I have the luxury of living in both worlds.

To take this class means that I can reside in a world that my classmates are merely visiting. They are taking a break from their new technological world of journalism and entering foreign ground. For me, however, this is my native land. This odd jargon is my native tongue. My journalistic journey has just been born and starts here where I am known as a printer’s devil.

This piece was written by a Ball State University student and member of the Book Arts Collaborative in Muncie, Indiana. The Book Arts Collaborative is dedicated to preserving and promoting the apprentice-taught skills of letterpress printing and book binding through community interaction. It's not just what we make that matters, but how we learn from one another to make it happen.

Dear Prospective Book Arts Collaborative Students

This week we’re launching our blog with a post by our founder, Dr. Rai Peterson, who is responding to this question from the Department of English: “Do colleges subtly discriminate against poor and first-generation students?”

Book Arts Collaborative is an immersive learning model that welcomes students from all backgrounds and at all economic levels.  We provide all of the tools and materials necessary to learn book binding and letter press printing. We offer a sound professionalizing experience at less the cost than the average course with more required text books.

Our students run a business.  They teach letter press printing and book binding skills, lead shop tours, design and deliver classroom experiences, and conduct field trip workshops for local schools.  We deal with the public on a daily basis, and we work on professional levels at all times.  Our business is student-managed, and work-team organized.  It operates exactly like post-graduation employment, but with a safety net.  Because we are a for-credit experience, no one gets fired at Book Arts Collaborative, has their pay docked, or loses the chance for advancement based upon an honest mistake or lack of understanding.  And everyone, regardless of socio-economic status or family background, has the same chance at a management position here.

Our primary mission is to preserve and teach the apprentice-taught skills of letter press printing and hand-sewn book binding, skills which provide the major underpinning to today’s automated book production and digital design and printing fields.  We also hold two founding values dear: we want to provide well-designed products and thoughtful instruction to students and community members, and we resist becoming laborers who must crank out work based upon someone else’s vision.

The formation of these values began in Iowa in the nineteen seventies.  I was a first-generation college student, a scholarship girl.  My tuition and room and board were paid in full.  I had to buy my own books and school supplies as well as hygiene essentials, snacks, and meals on Saturdays when the dining hall was closed.  At the beginning of each school  year, I took out a National Direct Student Loan in the amount of one thousand dollars, and I budgeted it nine ways to cover my expenses.

My school was a small private college, and most of the students there came from upper middle class families.  When I began my freshman year, my father was liquidating our family business, a small town drive-in restaurant, and my mother was looking for work in the midst of their divorce.  My parents wanted me at home to babysit, help divide up the family’s belongings, and listen to their endless complaints about one another.  They were not in a situation to support me financially or otherwise.  But armed with my scholarship and such credit as student loans afford, I left home.

I did my best to enthusiastically congratulate roommates and residence hall neighbors who received care packages from home containing everything from peanut butter to pretty clothing.  My college friends went on school-sponsored interim trips like scuba diving in Belize or cathedral hopping across Europe while I found, and I sincerely mean this, equal satisfaction in service projects close to home.  I took advantage of opportunities to work closely with professors and local agencies instead of gaining professional experience through travel or unpaid internships in distant cities.

Pitching in to bring a children’s theatre project to a small town or working on the (gulp) John Anderson campaign, I found that people genuinely valued me, my ideas, and my youthful enthusiasm for the cause.  They could not pay me, so, naturally, they did not fault me for having no money.  Volunteering was a nice atmosphere.  Because everyone was working on a shoestring budget, thrift and ingenuity were as valuable as trust funds.

Book Arts Collaborative recreates that sense of community, exercising creativity and job loyalty, to pull together and make something nice for the common cause.  Yes, we make hand-sewn journals and greeting cards and broadsides and such, but we make something more: a place where earnest hard work and good ideas win the day. We invent and create the products we sell, working together over long tables and composing benches, every day.  We work with community members of all ages, and we enjoy sharing ideas and interrupting with “What if?”

By selling the products we make on consignment through retailers, we make the money to replenish our shop supplies and challenge ourselves to earn new equipment and better quality materials to continue our exciting cycle of invention and creation.  Demand for our product gives us the opportunity to continuously practice and upgrade our skills so that we become qualified to teach one another and the public.  All of the supplies and tools in our shop are there because we and the students who came before this semester’s group earned them.  Our rent is currently paid by a Provost’s Immersive Grant from Ball State University, but we buy the contents of our shelves and cabinets through the products we seemingly magically pull from them every day.

Our egalitarian mission does not end with welcoming students into a hands-on immersive experience without extra fees.  We sell the items we make at barely above cost so that our customers in East Central Indiana can own hand-made objects for the same price as foreign or machine made ones.  Buying an item made in the Madjax building by Book Arts Collaborative students supports immersive learning opportunities at Ball State, but it also provides the buyer with a one of a kind, hand-made item that is available nowhere else.

Teaching an immersive learning seminar gives me the opportunity to pay it forward like my professors did when they encouraged me to look around and find productive uses for my ideas and energies within walking distance of my campus.  The (free to students) MITS bus stops three blocks from our door, and our current students who ride it are among the most creative and valued members of our team.  It doesn’t matter how you get here.

Clearly, I was a headstrong mess when I started undergraduate school.  If I had it all to do again, I’d make some changes, but I’d still jump into immersive learning with both feet, hands, ears, and eyes.  However, I’d have campaigned for Jimmy Carter instead.