a brief history of book printing and binding

The other night in my Print Production Workflow teleclass, some questions came up about terminology and how, exactly, the physical book got put together.

Youtube is an invaluable source to help us visualize a process. Here is a curated overview of book printing, from letterpress, the same process that produced the Gutenberg Bible, to the Expresso Bookmaker, and back to contemporary letterpress and hand binding.

If you have just entered book production in the past five years, where all you’ve known is Word and InDesign and blurb, this shows you the amount of hand-work that went into creating books and why they were so precious.

For those of you who participated in the teleclass, notice the workflow aids in the commercial printing, such as job jackets and tickets, physical stations, and quality control.

letterpress

I mentioned in the teleclass that I love factories with clankity-clank machinery, so this video from John Kristensen of Firefly Press in Massachusetts is almost-heaven to me. [Heaven would be actually being there amidst the font drawers and presses.] He mentions the problem of “too many choices” with computers. But even within the limited scope of hand-set type, you will see the exacting [some might say, obsessive] attention to detail.

traditional [commercial] printing & binding

Depending upon your generation, this video might be delightfully retro or just downright irritating [“men” in the press room, “girls” in the bindery.] Nonetheless, it is a very good overview of traditional printing and bookbinding on a commercial level. It also provides a historic context for some of the language still used in digital page composition.

Feminist side note: Interesting that in an era when virtually all women were secretaries and typists, few are pictured as linotype operators.

Another video from the same 1947 series, shows more historic context and the high level of skills once required* . Just because the mechanical tasks are being taken over by computer programs does not lessen the need for judgment and a trained eye. And, even though we no longer have formal apprenticeships, that doesn’t eliminate the need for experience.

*This language—“a growing industry, high on the list of those offering stability of wages and employment, …and real opportunities for advancement.”— evoked the same emotional response—sadness and a sense of irony—as Shelley’s poem Ozymandias.

inline binding

The production of C-Span’s book on Abraham Lincoln. shows the same process as previously, only much faster with fewer operators.

expresso bookmaker

And the same process again, this time printing one at a time in a fraction of the space. Because there is little human intervention, there is also no real quality control, a given in print on demand [POD] publishing.

well-crafted digital printing

I’m adding this video from Photobook Press showing that digital printing is not incompatible with fine, hand crafted bookmaking. [09/24/14]

 

 

fine hand printing & binding

Now to come full circle to the Pictorial Webster’s: Inspiration to Completion

This man shares my soul in his love for these engraved blocks and the opportunity to organize them and print with them. I just love all the jigs they use. You can see how labor intensive sewn signatures are. However, the good news for personal historians, is that we often produce fewer than 50 books. So this is certainly an option to consider for some projects.

Other posts you may like:

print production circa 1970

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  1. [...] a brief history of book printing and binding. “Youtube is an invaluable source to help us visualize a process. Here is a curated overview of book printing, from letterpress, the same process that produced the Gutenberg Bible, to the Expresso Bookmaker, and back to contemporary letterpress and hand binding.” [...]