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MIT Bookmaking Course Schools Kids in Renaissance Technologies

Students in MIT’s ‘Making Books: The Renaissance and Today’ build books from scratch, from making paper to constructing a printing press.

DJ Pangburn

DJ Pangburn

Screencaps via 

If the public library was the proto-internet, then the book was both a trusty storage device and an early website. This is essentially how MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences approaches books in the course "Making Books: The Renaissance and Today," in which students learn about bookmaking technology.

The course, led by MIT historian Anne McCants and Jeffrey Ravel, sees students making paper and building a handset printing press. The idea is to illustrate that people in the distant past were also clever technologists, while also reconnecting students to the notion of making instead of merely consuming.

"Most of us are now divorced from the process of making the things we use," McCants tells MIT SHASS Communications. "We wear textiles every day but only a few specialists now understand how fibers are made and combined. In the 15th century, however, nearly everyone lived in close proximity to textile makers, and the essential properties of fibers and construction processes were familiar to the general population. That kind of familiarity is very important for being able to innovate with materials."

This semester past, MIT Hobby Shop director Ken Stone led the students in the building of the printing press. First, students milled a huge reclaimed wooden beam from an old building, then they worked the wood in various ways until they had assembled a screw-type letterpress printer commonly used throughout the early modern period. During the build, students toured a Colonial-style print shop in Boston called Edes & Gill, paying particular attention to an early handset press like the one they were building. There they picked the brains of printmaster Gary Gregory.

"That enabled them to develop a working understanding of how functional requirements inform design,” Stone says. “The design can draw on details from previous presses and the designers' knowledge but needs to be adapted to the materials, equipment, and experience of the builders."

To make the paper, students deconstructed rags until they created a pulp, from which they screen-molded sheets. This process, rather astonishingly, took a week to complete. Beyond making paper and a printing press, the instructors asked students to consider whether the book is dying because of digital media—a disconcerting proposition since looking at a screen both day and night sounds like ocular torture. So, long live the book.

Click here to see more work from the MIT Hobby Shop.

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