Teaching with Collections: Making Books

 Brandon Johnson

The title page spread of Auras. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

A group of eight graduate students made weekly visits to Princeton University Library (PUL) Special Collections during the spring 2023 term laser-focused on creating one thing: a book of poetry from scratch. 

But unlike the printing and design techniques with which most students are familiar — Microsoft Word, perhaps some Adobe InDesign, and an inkjet printer — this class involved the process of hand printing using an 1840s Albion printing press.

“English 573: Making Books” is the brainchild of Claudia L. Johnson, Murray Professor of English Literature, and David Sellers, a book artist and proprietor of Pied Oxen Printers. In 2017, Johnson came up with the idea of offering graduate students a letterpress printing workshop with Sellers in his Hopewell studio. The inaugural workshop ended with attendees creating a chapbook anthology of poems written by faculty in Princeton University’s English Department. 

What followed was a series of workshops leading up to Sellers and Johnson co-teaching an official, for-credit course combining letterpress and the study of books in Special Collections.

In order for the workshop to happen, Sellers restored the Albion press, which had not been used in approximately 50 years, to working condition in fall 2022. He also loaned all of the printing type, letterpress hand-tools, and materials, which he installed in Special Collections in January.  

“I took this course because I had participated in the letterpress workshop that Claudia and David conducted last spring and I had a wonderful time,” said Mary Kate Guma, a second-year graduate student in the English Department studying Early Modern Literature. “I found the experience of setting type to be very soothing and a nice break from the hustle and bustle of campus life.”



Unlike a typical graduate seminar, whose students are tasked with weekly readings, discussion questions, and papers, “Making Books” had one requirement: students must arrive on time every week at 9:30 a.m. and apply themselves to the art and craft of letterpress printing.

Across 12 weeks, students set out to print 40 copies of “Auras,” a book of poetry written by the first national poet of Wales, Gwyneth Lewis. This process — which involved hand-typesetting, page design, proofing,  and printing on dampened paper — required painstaking attention to detail, a determination to do everything right, and also a lot of time.

“The challenge was fitting the entire process into the time frame of a class while working with a historic Albion press for the first time outside of a complete and tested workshop,” Sellers explained. Thus, students regularly elected to stay after class to complete the day’s press run. 

Jamie Wheeler, a third-year PhD student in the Classics Department, adds “I'm very grateful for the hospitality and flexibility of the Special Collections department that allowed us to use their space.”

David Sellers watches as students prep a page for printing.

David Sellers watches as students prep a page for printing. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

Setting Garamond 156 and Garamont 248 typefaces, students met the challenge of setting all the letters, lines, and spaces, perfectly and consistently across all pages set by eight different classmates, and this involved collaboration and consensus. 

 “I would say the most challenging part of the course was getting the spacing right in the text. Setting the words is easy—you kind of get into a rhythm at some point,” said Guma.

“But having to space everything out so that it is centered on the page or so that some letters don't look closer together than other letters? That is much harder than it seems,” she added.

But this difficulty was a source of pride and pleasure for the students.  Guma relished the methodical nature of the coursework. “For a few hours while you are setting type, nobody and nothing else needs your attention,” she said. “It's all about slowly but surely getting those letters into place.”

Perhaps the biggest and most rewarding challenge was working with Firestone’s small Albion Press, a legacy of Elmer Adler’s original gift to the Graphic Arts Collection. In making 40 copies of “Auras,” the students pulled more than 600 impressions on this marvelous press, carefully maintaining consistent inking and pressure.

“The students quickly grasped what was required, including occasional problem-solving, and they pitched in, including less glamorous chores like cleaning up the ink after each session,” Sellers noted


Trial and Error

Trial and error was part of the process of printing 40 perfect copies of “Auras.”

For Sellers, trial and error came in the form of developing the accompanying artwork featured throughout the book. The content of “Auras” was inspired by the migraines suffered by its author. Illustrating the formless nature of migraine auras was a challenge Sellers met with experimentation. 

“After looking at many digital images of auras and reading descriptions of migraine auras in particular, I created my own interpretations based on a couple of basic assumptions: no two auras were exactly the same, and all auras were asymmetrical emanations from a center core,” Sellers explained. 

Ultimately, seven designs from approximately 40 drafts were selected to sit opposite each page of verse.

Catarina Oliveira applies black ink to the typeface.

Catarina Oliveira applies black ink to the typeface. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

“Technically, I also wanted the artwork to serve the additional purpose of distributing the downward force of the press more evenly across two type forms,” Sellers added, “as opposed to just type on one side of the press bed and nothing on the other, an asymmetrical arrangement that could require time-consuming adjustments prior to each printing class.”

Wheeler noted that experimenting throughout the process made the course even more memorable. 

“No matter how much time you spend designing a page layout, setting the type, and double-checking everything, you won't really know if it looks right to the eye until you actually print it on paper,” Wheeler said. “And when you do and it's beautiful, it's incredibly satisfying.”


Special Collections Collaboration 

Molly Dotson shows Special Collections items to the class.

Molly Dotson shows Special Collections items to the class. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

Johnson’s course objective was to bring the making of a book into conjunction with the study of books. Every week, the class met with members of PUL’s Special Collections staff, English Department faculty, and visiting scholars, who delivered presentations spanning the history of books. 

One week, for example, featured Eric White, Scheide Librarian and Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, discussing the Gutenberg Bible. 

“To be setting movable types and letterpress printing after seeing the first western book printed with this technology—the Scheide Gutenberg Bible—is by any measure an exceptional experience,” Sellers said. “From other printed treasures to ephemera, the artifacts and talks before each class provided invaluable visual and historical references for the class.”

Molly Dotson, Graphic Arts Librarian, presented on various topics including printed ephemera and non-traditional binding structures as well as a session devoted to what were jokingly called "bad books."  

“Professor Johnson suggested a session on mass-produced books, explaining that her students had encountered what could be considered mostly ‘marvels’ of book history in previous presentations,” explained Dotson. “Of course, many social, cultural, and technological changes coalesce in the mass production of books, so I chose objects that could speak to broader trends in both printing and publishing.”

Those objects included 19th-century commercially produced books and related materials such as publishers’ dummies and an electrotype plate.

“This presentation was not about judging and condemning books, but about the different goals that books might have—cheap, rapid distribution, long-lasting high-quality design, implementing new technologies— and those goals are not always mutually compatible,” Wheeler said. 

Transforming Special Collections from a space for studying books into one for creating books falls in line with the Library’s goals to support the life cycle of research and the many forms the research process takes.  

“Installing a pop-up print shop in this space had to have been a challenge for Special Collections,” said Sellers. “They, too, had to accept the unknowns and uncertainties of doing this for the first time in this restricted space. Will [Noel], Molly [Dotson], Eric [White], and Gabriel [Swift] could not have been more supportive.”

“We’ve always wanted to do more than just teach with printed books here – we wanted the printing process to take physical shape within our space, so that the students could see it and experience it for themselves,” noted White.  

“Smiles were everywhere, and the reactions ranged from ‘I’ve always wanted to try this’ to ‘This never gets old.’ Of course, that was just the quick reward — setting type correctly and doing all the real prep work is the lost art we want to rediscover.”

The product of the workshop, a gorgeous student-produced letterpress edition of “Auras,” signed by the poet and executed in the context of talks drawing upon printed artifacts in Special Collections, exceeded the course’s ambitions. Johnson said, “David and I are thrilled with the success of this course, and we are hoping to offer it again.”

Published on June 13, 2023

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Strategist

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications