Traditional Publishing; my Oxford Experience

I feel this post will follow on nicely from my previous post. Some of you may remember that I set out that I would embrace Traditional and Digital Publishing. On Tuesday I took a trip to Oxford with my Authors Books and Readers module to set some type in the traditional way and print this type on a traditional printing press. On top of this I learnt short history of printing; took visit to the Bodleian Library and had a tour through the rare collections.  To my suprise I saw a lot of the “new” in the “old” and I have not go that the wrong way round. I know commonly we associate the new as a better modernised version of the old, in fact I could envisage much of our newer technology in the old technology. I suppose what I mean is: Traditional Publishing sets the foundation that modern Digital Technology has built on.

I would like to now share some of Oxford experiences that led me to think these things. Please be aware that the concepts of Traditional Publishing are new to me, so I may be a little crude with certain terms. (As usual any mistakes not matter how small, please contact me) Firstly I learnt that Eastern Culture had set the technology for type-setting before we had it in the west, it started with this next piece of technology:

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This a simple printing block was revolutionary, the symbols were carved upon a piece of wood and this could be used time and time again to print what was on the block. However I learnt it held many limitations, this could only be used for this one text on the block, it lacks versatility. The next stage was to develop how it could be used to print different texts, so quite simply the individual characters were cut apart from these blocks into individual characters:

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These Eastern technologies set the foundation for what the west then developed into: ‘the punch’, ‘the matrix’ and ‘the mold’.

The punch:

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This punch is a hard piece of metal that has the letter calved into its point. Paul the leader of our talk said that each punch may have taken the punch-maker a day to produce. This a a very long process and it looked like an amazing piece of engineering. Due to the sheer number of letters needing to be hand crafted it made buying a set of type very expensive. This punch once made is then pressed into a softer piece of metal which forms the matrix. This matrix is then placed in a mold with a hot metal and is shaken in such a way to form the piece of type.

The mold:

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The product of this process:

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The large piece of overhanging metal is then chopped, Paul said this was usually done by an apprentice. Interestingly he also said that an apprenticeship lasted seven years. The pieces of type are then arranged into a set schema designed for ease of use for the compositor. Paul said that originally they were arranged in alphabetical order and this was changed into a schema that had bigger sections containing more of the popular letters, like lower case ‘e’. The following image shows an 18th century version of the kind of arrangement the compositors used:

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This long process seemed wonderful to me, it required such careful detailed engineering. If would like to know more on this process or would a simpler more professional explanation, I found the following information on one of the original developers Johannes Gutenberg by The University of Texas quite useful:

After learning this short history of printing, I became a trainee compositor. This is by no means an easy job. Essentially we held metal contraptions know has composing sticks, Paul said these were originally wooden later replaced by metal. Then holding it with a particular technique to avoid dropping a whole load of type on the floor, we read a manuscript and starting making lines of type. It is in no way as easy as it seemed, in nearly two hours I could only set two lines of type. Here is an image of my composing stick:

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We then took these lines of type and put them into what is known as a galley, then into a device called a chase, then placed in a form and finally transferred into the bed of the printing press:

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The press once more seemed like a wonderful piece of engineering; I am not overly familiar with the exact technology. Once our type was in the press we used a roller to cover the type in ink, traditionally a roller was not available, it was originally a piece of leather stuffed and placed on a wooden handle. I cannot remember the official name Paul used but The University of Texas calls it an ink-ball. We then in turn pulled the lever on the press and a large heavy metal plate known as the platten came down and pressed our inked type onto paper. Please note the press we used was an 18th Century style press and it only required one pull to complete a page. Older presses had to be pulled twice to make one page of type. This is the press we used:

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The final product of this long process:

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I apologise if I haved bored you with this long description. I felt it necessary to share this for a couple of reasons, I wanted to show the foundation of what I feel is Traditional Publishing or the printing of books. Also I wanted to do a service for my module; share the images and the information we learnt from Paul.

I feel profoundly that if the great innovators of Eastern type-setting and Western innovators like Guttenberg had not revolutionised printing, then the foundations for Digital Publishing would not have been set. In the first stages of my project, I am typing line by line from a Digital facsimile to produce a plain text document. I now view myself as a modern compositor, I am doing what the traditional compositors made possible. In a sense I am using a manuscript to set my digital type. Much like the tradition compositors used a manuscript to set type and print on a press. I hope this explains more what I mean about seeing the “new” in the “old”.

The final part of my trip involved a guided tour of the rare collections at the Bodleian Library. Sir Thomas Bodley was responsible for the great restoration of this Oxford University Library that now holds over 11 million printed texts. Our guide described Bodley as a modern thinker of his time. I will not go into detail on too much of what he said, however one thing stuck in mind. He said that the University is currently working to provide electronic copies of thousands of their rarest works. He suggested that Bodley would have fully embraced the modern digitisation of the works in his library. It was one of those things that once more gave credit to my project.

I hope you found this long post interesting and remember do not fear the death of the reader……fear the death of the book.

(Below are some other pictures I took which highlight some of the beautiful sites available in the City of Oxford)

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