In this section, Lauren Huang, a student in the course, shares how the different components of 21H.343J / CC.120J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today worked together, and how she hopes the course will develop in future iterations.
How the Components of the Course Worked Together
21H.343J / CC.120J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today involved several components, including readings, exploring rare books, and building a printing press. The readings and MIT's Rare Books Collection worked hand-in-hand to provide the background for the course. The readings, and the discussions we had about them in class, outlined the history of printing, and the influence that those printed works had on their contemporaries. The readings also introduced the development of the new printing techniques, some of which we were able to see in the books we handled. It was cool to see the techniques that went into printing a book: printing and cutting the folios, the double printing to add red lettering, the elaborate woodcut headers and illustrations. Being able to see books from the Rare Books Collection meant that we could compare manuscripts and printed books with our own eyes and physically feel the differences in the paper compared to the parchment.
The hands-on building of the printing press provided a very different perspective. While the printing press we built was considerably more “modern” in its design and in the techniques we used to put it together, it highlighted the biggest challenges people would have had in creating the first printing presses. Importantly, the experience of building the press meant I learned new woodshop skills and ideas about design instead of unanchored facts about printing and presses.
At times, it seemed to be challenging to logistically juggle the different components of the class. Since only a few people could be in the MIT Hobby Shop working on the press at once, we swapped places every few weeks. I suspect this problem will continue to happen, as there’s only one press available for the class. Having more than one professor was very helpful because we were able to split the class. Maybe limiting the size of the class could eliminate that problem, but I think it worked out okay. It was weird not to see half of the class very often, but it was also nice for people to make progress on the press while the other students were in the classroom.
Ideas for Future Iterations of the Course
I hope that in future iterations, the class will continue to include interactions with rare books and hands-on experiences working with the press. In particular, I hope that future students will be able to do a lot of handset printing! While it might not grow into a fully-fledged print shop, I think it would be cool to try out some of the fancier printing techniques, such as double printing. A lot can be done with the homemade paper to make it more consistent with the paper we see in the rare books. Also, book-binding would be great to include in the class! Perhaps future classes will finish by creating a printed book. I also think the discussions about the readings were more effective than the traditional “read a chapter and test facts” approach to teaching, and I hope the instructors will continue to structure the course in such a way that it remains discussion-based.