A recent post by Lisa Griffith on the Irish History Blog Pue’s Occurrences has caught my eye. Lias has a job working at the National Print Museum in Dublin and the post shares 5 things she has learned there. Lisa’s post, which reminded me about all the really interesting machines in the National Print museum, also helped to remind me how important it is as scholars dealing with printed matter to understand the physical process of printing.
I was very fortunate, early in my research, to have Dr. Charles Benson insist that if someone was going to study eighteenth century printing they should know the basics of how to operate a hand press. He took a few of us down to Trinity College’s printing house, where a few hand presses are kept for producing Christmas cards, and gave us an opportunity to set some type, ink some paper, and pull the press. This exercise, while extremely fun, also gave us an appreciation for the physical strength and dexterity needed to man (or woman) a hand press all day long in a busy print shop, and a greater understanding of the physical limitations of eighteenth century printers.
However, in case you don’t happen to know the man with the keys to Trinity’s printing house, Dublin’s National Print Museum also offers groups a similar chance to play around with a hand press. The museum, unlike Trinity also contains a very wide range of presses, which really allow visitors to get a sense of the development of this technology over the last several hundred years. Many other institutions offer tours, summer schools, or master classes which teach individuals the ins and outs of hand printing.
If you are serious about studying any aspect of book history during the hand press period, I would advise that you take advantage of one of these opportunities. Understanding the production process ggives us a much better appreciation for the materiality of printed objects, and the best way to understand that process is by doing it, even if it is only once.