Introducing the Book Arts Collaborative

Do you want to learn how to make a book from sheets of paper, thread, and glue?  Do you want to be one of the few who carry on the art of letterpress printing? Do you want to be an apprentice and teach fellow apprentices these skills? We have two opportunities for you.

1. The Book Arts Collaborative seminar at the Virginia Ball Center
VBC participants will get to pilot the courses for the proposed minor in Book Arts and assist in teaching community workshops, supervise open community press hours, work in the print and binding labs, create products for the Collaborative to sell, and prepare materials and lesson plans for workshops. They’ll also be working on the first publication of the Alice Nichols Press, an artist’s book edition to be released in spring 2017. Participants will be required to take just 6 credit hours during each semester of the regular 2016-17 school year. Interested? Either print and fill out, or download and fill out, this BAC Application and email it to rai@bsu.edu. The selection process begins March 14 and will continue until all positions are filled!

2. ENG 421: Book Arts
Do you aspire to write books, teach books, critique books, edit books, collect books, or even burn or ban books? Take this cool course about where books come from, how they have shaped and influenced texts and readers over time, and where they might be headed by mid-21st Century. This course includes some hands on time in a bindery and letterpress shop, in library archives, in your own book collection, and always, always, in your head. ENG 421 is a prerequisite course for advanced classes in book binding and letterpress printing at the brand new Book Arts Collaborative. If you take it, you can sign up for more courses in that maker space.


An Interview with Dr. Rai Peterson

-What first attracted you to book design and manufacturing?

My spouse is related to Julia Miller, who is a book conservator, book historian, and artist’s book maker. She has edited two collections of essays on book binding called Suave Mechanicals, and a historical bindings taxonomy called Books Will Speak Plain. Originally, my interest in it was just in petting the lovely papers she ordered and collected from all over the world, and when we would visit her, I would ask if we could go “tour” her flat files and admire the papers.

I wanted to learn book binding, but I was shy about asking her to teach me. I tried a few experiments on my own, but they came out poorly. Then, in 2005, while I was at Yale doing research on something else, there was an artist’s book conference going on, and one of the rare manuscript librarians invited me to go. While I was there, I realized that I should teach book binding, so I asked Julia to start teaching me, and she did.
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Students in Dr. Peterson’s current ENG444: Book Binding class 

In the way things snowball in academe, I now know a few former students who are well connected in the book world, and they add to my knowledge whenever we talk. Andrew Gaub, who graduated from our department in 2001 is a rare book dealer with extensive knowledge of ancient printing and binding practices, and his insights into the publishing industry in Europe and America from the incunabular (cradle of print, around 1500) period are fascinating.

Laura Kuhlman is another alumnae of our department who has gone on in the book world, pursuing graduate studies at the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa. My circle of book binders and collectors keeps growing, and I’m excited to continue to invite students into that coterie.

Was there a catalyst of some kind that inspired you to propose the minor?

I have been friends with Sarojini Johnson, who is a print-making professor in the School of Art for many years, and we have been tossing around the idea of creating a team-taught book binding class since we first met. This year, we decided to go big or go home and propose a full-year VBC seminar in book binding and letterpress printing, and as we were developing that proposal, the English Department’s own Dr. Adam Beach suggested that we should consider creating a minor so that we could extend these opportunities to students from a variety of majors, including English, of course, into the future.

Why do you think this course/minor is needed at this time?

Book binding and letterpress printing used to be apprentice-taught skills. They were not professions, and the people who did them were hard-working laborers who did not write the books or the texts they type-set. As these skilled workmen have been replaced by machines a few generations back, creative people have expressed an interest in keeping the techniques alive by learning them and passing them back and forth. English majors and art majors are particularly keen to learn these skills so that they can create the texts or images they’re printing and binding and have complete creative control over how they are presented to the public.

As computers make publication easier than it has ever been (think WordPress and “send”), people are eager to learn and remember the ways books and ideas were propagated before. As Phil Repp, the Vice President for Technology at BSU said to us recently, “People crave authenticity.” Phil has also told us that making things in the physical world is a very valuable experience for designers of virtual products because it is so much easier to judge functionality, versatility, and design qualities in an analog product like a hand-bound book or a hand-printed page.

What aspect of this course/minor are you most excited to teach, and for the students to learn?

Sarojini and I are excited about all of it! In addition to the BSU minor in Book Arts, the Book Arts Collaborative that we are starting downtown will offer classes for children and adults in all kinds of binding, printing, and related skills. For example, we’ve talked to a local press collector who will be teaching classes in safe press operation and maintenance, and the owner of a local comic books store is planning to offer a course in designing and writing comic books.

Previously, Sarojini and I have only been able to offer introductory courses in book binding, and Ball State has not been teaching letterpress printing. So, we’re very excited about getting students to more advanced skill levels and finally having the presses and other tools to teach students to manually set text and print their own work.

In addition to the 18th, 19th, and 20th century presses we’ll have at the Book Arts Collaborative, we will also have 21st century technology, and participants will be able to print longer works on a laser printer using Adobe software to format their text, and we’ll be making polymers, which are extremely hard plastic molds made from computer designs for printing. In the minor and the scope of the Book Arts Collaborative, we’ll be covering printing methods from about 900 A.C.E. up to the present day.

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