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.
Letterpress gave my mom purpose, then time took it away
By: Lauren Hansen
My mom doesn’t have a college degree; she’s worked in a hospital for going on 14 years. She got the job after she moved us out of our dad’s house, attempting to start living the life of a single mother.
Before that, I didn’t know much about her, until one day during a bi-weekly chat over the phone I mentioned this cool immersive-learning class I’m taking at Ball State University, where I get to learn bookbinding techniques and letterpress printing with the Book Arts Collaborative in downtown Muncie, Ind.
“Oh, letterpress, I used to do that,” she interjected when I began to explain what this seemingly ancient practice was that nobody in my class was familiar with before this experience.
Why she never told me this, I had no idea. There were some clues growing up, such as her incessant need to point out each and every typo she saw, or knowledge of how to spell words she didn’t even know the meaning of. All of which you wouldn’t expect from someone who edits books, not delivers patients to the operating room every day.
Usually during these catch-up chats she listens to me complain about my busy schedule or tell her what dinners I cooked that week, without really saying anything herself, except to dote on her black lab, Jet. But the more I asked about her life in the printing business, the more she chattered on about this enchanted life she lived amongst type.
My mom was a little worried about the fact that my class was downtown and off campus, which made me laugh because when she was my age, she moved across the country by herself to start a new life.
I learned she was mainly a typesetter at a newspaper in San Antonio, Texas in her 20s. Typesetters place the moveable type in the letterpress. Before that it was newspapers in Brownsburg, a town next to Indianapolis. My mom loved the high stakes of the newspaper’s schedule. She recounted with maniacal laughter all the times that one crooked line would ruin the entire thing, a half an hour before it needed to be done.
The industry then was mostly made up of men, at least her superiors always were, she said. Though she never really noticed if there was any discrimination, she was content with her nose in her type, and I don’t blame her.
I didn’t have to ask her why she isn’t one of those past-life printers that wander through our shop, admiring the type like windows into their pasts. As I listened intently to her talk about this secret life she used to lead in printing I figured out why: the dream died.
When she moved back to Indiana, there were no jobs for her, not one. Technology was updated and her position was declared unneeded. I can’t imagine what that would be like.
The only thing I can think to say after hearing her speak passionately about her first career love was “I’m so sorry.” I’m sorry for all the people who had to dig out new paths for themselves after their job was taken away from them by changing times. I can see it in the eyes of past printers that look us in our unwrinkled eyes and tell us to keep doing what we’re doing, keep printing and keep teaching.
My mom was a female typesetter with no college degree and had to give it up because the evolving world pushed her out. Now in an all-female class, I’m paying tuition to learn these techniques that she was thrown into and learned to love.
“That’s so cool, Lauren. You’re doing a cool thing,” she said before she hung up.
A week later I got a package from her with pepper spray for protection for this mysterious, off-campus place I’m learning letterpress printing, and a note that said: keep it up.
Intro by Kayla Bickman