Rare Book School Presents Presswork: A Documentary

Courtesy of Rare Book School

Rare Book School has just released a 15-minute documentary called Presswork, a remarkable production that explains one of their latest projects: commissioning two eighteenth-century facsimile printing presses.

With beautiful imagery and clear, interesting interviews with those involved, the mini doc gives a brief introduction to bibliography before explaining how, about six years ago, antiquarian bookseller and RBS faculty member Roger Gaskell suggested they commission an eighteenth-century replica rolling press to print engraved books. This would allow their students a truly hands-on approach to studying the history of the book. RBS decided to build one based on a diagram from Diderot’s famous Encyclopédie (of which UVA owns a unique copy, annotated by Diderot himself). “The kind of press that Jefferson would have been familiar with from his own reading,” says Barbara Heritage, associate director and curator of collections at RBS.

A second press, the so-called common press or letterpress, is based on Ben Franklin’s design. With both types of presses available for use, students can begin to understand the differences both in the mechanics and in the finished product—“to fully understand how the book came to be,” in Gaskell’s words.

According to RBS, “Currently, no other university in the world has two eighteenth-century period presses positioned side by side, allowing faculty, students, and visitors to compare, in a hands-on research setting, the intaglio and letterpress technologies that were necessary for producing the illustrated books that Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries read.”

The opportunity to actually use these printing presses is available not just to RBS students, but to the wider University of Virginia student body, who can apply for presswork fellowships, and to the larger Charlottesville K-12 population as well. As UVA Instruction Librarian Krystal Appiah says of younger students, “Seeing the printing presses and how they operate help them understand how these big ideas that they’re learning about in their classes are actualized in the real world.”

Watch Presswork here: