Book Arts Collaborative: A Printer’s Devil

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It started with six Ball State University students: a couple of seniors, a journalism major, a creative writing major, a freshman and a student who was a week late to registration. For them, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during the fall semester of 2017 meant inky hands and carpooling.

Located in downtown Muncie, Indiana, Book Arts Collaborative was their newsroom away from the Unified Media Lab on campus. Stories were told through the postcards they ran through the printing press. Designs were created through the decorative paper and colored waxy thread they used to sew together the pages of a book or journal. Once they were invested in their own projects, pitches were tossed across the room from their workstations which were wherever they laid their tools that day.

This Immersive Learning Class was designed to study the shift of journalism’s abandonment of movable type from a front row seat. During the exploration of this dying art form, an appreciation for what came before them arose and began to further mold them into the writers they are today. Read more below to see the documentation of their journeys as young printers in this foreign world.

A Printer’s Devil: A 21st-Century Journalist Living in the Age of the Press
By Kayla Bickham

After the emergence of the printing press in the mid-1400s, learning to print text such as books, pamphlets or postcards meant aspiring printers typically served seven year apprenticeships under a master printer. They were referred to as “devils” because they caused so much trouble in the “chapel” of the print room.

To be a printer’s devil at Book Arts Collaborative, a Ball State University cottage industry dedicated to bookbinding and letterpress printing, is to be one of nine other 21st-century journalism majors who has mastered the computer and now takes on the task of learning a centuries-old trade.

I, being one of the nine, am set apart from the rest of the devils because I am not a master of the computer. Being new to the journalism major has allowed for me to come into this class with a completely clean page. There is no need to adapt to this new art form of journalism because this is, so far, the only one I know.

My classmates who write feature pieces for our university’s magazine and inverted-pyramid stories for our newspaper, now compose text through the arrangement of type that has left their computer screens and found its way to a composing stick. They are replacing one inch margins to center their articles with furniture in a chase to position their type. Leading in between each sentence takes the place of the enter key on a keyboard. The right font is not found in a drop-down menu, but stocked away in a galley tray. Google images now takes the form of an old wooden drawer where we find the best cut fitting for our text.

The actual act of printing their piece is completely unfamiliar territory. The simple task of left clicking a mouse to choose between printing in color or black and white requires more steps here at the shop. It now entails grazing the top of a pot of ink with a spatula to coat the clamshell printer’s plate with the desired color. A piece with more than one color means wiping the press clean and doing the exact same steps … AGAIN.

Considering how the pressmen shaped who I am as a journalist today is absent from my mind because it is actively shaping me at this moment. I am growing alongside the evolution of the printing press. I am allowing it to mold me into the journalist I will someday be.

As a journalist, I will type each word with caution and attentiveness being mindful of how careful I once had to be when composing small type. I will write sentences in a simple manner, leaving out lengthy and drawn out details as I recall how difficult it was to place just one row of type. I will refrain from wasting paper as I think back to how many times I had to physically turn the wheel of a press to print on each sheet of newspaper. I will be a journalist not only with skill, but with an appreciation of my craft.

Journalists of the 1970s worked with the press up until it was replaced by the computer. My fellow journalists of today began after the printing press had already transformed into this new world of technology. But the press is not necessarily history–this is my present. Instead of constantly comparing this printing of the past to technology of today, I have the luxury of living in both worlds.

To take this class means that I can reside in a world that my classmates are merely visiting. They are taking a break from their new technological world of journalism and entering foreign ground. For me, however, this is my native land. This odd jargon is my native tongue. My journalistic journey has just been born and starts here where I am known as a printer’s devil.

Intro by Kayla Bickman