Printing and Book Studies in Paradise

Tempus fugit. I attended my ten-year college reunion last weekend at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. One activity advertised the opportunity to print a broadside keepsake on an 1834 Otis Tufts iron hand press.

I happily waited on line for an hour to feed a sheet of paper into the machine. Finally, I had my turn at the toggle lever and pressed an image of the college onto ivory paper.  Luckily, a local professional printer was there to assist eager compositors; without a guiding hand I would have used far less force than was required to create the impression. In fact, there are some places on my keepsake where the ink is lighter than others.   


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The front of my broadside keepsake, after I folded it. The chapel spire is lighter than other sections. 

Martin Antonetti, curator of rare books at Smith, spoke with me about how he had rescued the machine, and how it ended up on the third floor of the library.  “I found the press in pieces in the basement of Hillyer Hall when it was being cleared out for the renovation project about 10 years ago. Some of the parts were actually missing, but we had them fabricated by the machinist Greg Young on campus, using a diagram we found in a 19th-century printing handbook.”  Now, alongside cases of antique type, the machine welcomes visitors at the entrance to the Mortimer Rare Book Room. 

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diagram of a hand press 

While waiting for my turn at the press, I also spoke with Barbara Blumenthal, the rare book specialist in the Mortimer Rare Book Room as well as an administrative assistant for the Book Studies Concentration Program at Smith. She explained the new concentration program to me. 

Since the program’s inception in 2011, students have been able to choose from ten areas of interest. There’s a concentration in poetry, the aforementioned Book Studies and even an exploration of Buddhism. Students may pursue a concentration in addition to declaring a major. 

The goal of such a course of study is to combine practical and intellectual experiences around one subject.  Each concentration culminates with a ‘capstone’ experience – an independent senior research project presented at the end of the spring semester. 

The Book Studies Concentration is an exciting addition to the Smith curriculum and an excellent way to explore the vibrant book arts community in the Pioneer Valley.  

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