The time came in college where I had to foot the bill and as part of my tuition plan I needed to work a campus job. The usual scholarship gig was washing dishes in the dining hall — one of those hair-netted jobs that seemed embarrassing because you cleaned up after your friends, but when I went to the campus employment agency to fill out a form I happened to be there as a courtly looking professor kind of man was posting a job in the Sterling Memorial Library’s print shop for a printer’s devil.
I interrupted his conversation with the clerk and introduced myself. He was Professor Dale Roylance, the curator of the library’s typography collection and its Arts of the Book department, a room on the ground floor that displayed the art and science of typography from Gutenberg through the modern era. He questioned my qualifications, he was looking for an experienced printer’s devil with some time in one of the many letterpresses around the residential colleges; and realizing there was no bullshitting the man I was honest and admitted to having no experience or even interest in bibliography and letterpresses. I was a writer and wanted to experience the mechanics of book making first hand and appreciated the craft from having run my high school newspaper and the agony of producing that every week. He was skeptical, but agreed to give me a chance. He warned me the work was tedious and messy — largely consisting of cleaning up after him, wiping up ink, cleaning platens, and putting type back in its proper cases. He’d teach me anything I wanted to learn, but only after I took care of the boxes of scrambled or “pi’d” type and various chores such as cutting mats for exhibits, and being his errand boy around the other presses on campus.
Every afternoon from one to three, I’d walk to the library, step behind the main library call desk, walk down stairs to the vast basement and unlock the door to the Yale Bibliographic Press. On the main bench would be a list of things Professor Roylance wanted done. Go crosstown to the plate maker and pick up some copper engravings. Un-ink and then unlock two chases — the iron rectangles where the type was set, spaced and locked down with quoins — and return the type to the right job box. Set and print six copies of the new library hours and mount in the wrought iron frames at the entrances. Run over to the Beinecke Rare Book Library and get a few rare botanical woodcuts for some forthcoming exhibit. Pop up to the fifth floor map collection and ask the curator for a list of maps for a forthcoming exhibition on Colonial cartography.
I’d turn on the campus FM radio station and play jazz in the subterranean press room while I put on an apron, folded a sheet of the New Haven Register into a pressman’s cap, and pushed around a pushbroom for a while. The press had to be kept clean. Dust ruined print runs and Roylance was a little OCD — which I came to learn was a requisite character trait in a good printer. The worst part of the job was breaking down the chases he’d left behind — he was nearly never there when I was there, preferring long lunches at the Faculty Club to managing me — full pages of type for some special project he was working on. Type setting (and un-setting) is done using a wooden tray criss-crossed with dividers known as a California job box. This is like a QWERTY keyboard of sorts — every letter had its own special compartment, and each box comprised the totality of that type face in one specific point size. The Bibliographic had full sets of Times New Roman, Goudy, Baskerville and Garamond in every size from 6 to 96 point in bold as well as italic versions. There were other fonts as well, but just the main four typefaces occupied a huge storage space, each job box weighing over 25 pounds.
The brilliance of the job box was the size of each letter’s compartment was proportional to the frequency of each letter’s use in the English language. Hence “E” had the biggest compartment and “Q” one of the smallest. One learns to “touch-type” and work a case without looking at it, and with practice the task of returning type to the box gets fairly automated. Setting type, the act of composing a line of text, was far more fun and challenging. A tool called a “composing stick” is used, set to the appropriate width of the text and held in one hand while the other hunts through the job box for the next letter or spacer.
Composing backwards and upside down takes some getting used to, and I was slow and sloppy with my leading, hyphenation and never had the patience to do justified margins.
There were three presses in the Bibliographic Press, but the prize was the 1830-era Albion drop press. I loved that press. It was one of the old Benjamin Franklin style presses, with a big lever one would grab with both hands and swing to drop the platen and make the impression. This is the Albion from the Bibliongraphic Press. It’s since been pulled out of the basement and put on display. I worshiped this thing.
While placards and exhibit note cards were the stuff I was mainly asked to print, occasionally Professor Roylance would pop in and teach me some new aspect of the craft. One month he taught me how to make marbled end papers, a cool process like a Grateful Dead light show at the Fillmore where a solution is prepared, inks are “floated” and swirled into amazing patterns, and a sheet of paper is pulled up to lift the inks from the carrying solution. I remember the recipe called for carrageenan, a gelatin derived from a particular kind of Irish seaweed. Roylance also taught me binding, leather work, embossing, the fine points of spacing and of course the amazing glossary of specialized terms known to printers as part of the craft.
The library became a home – a monastery away from classes, my social life, my daily rowing practices. It was one of three jobs I held down. The first was delivering the New York Times every morning to 300 campus subscribers — a dark o’clock job that involved running up lots of dorm stairs on the eastern side of the campus and which got me warmed up for the morning crew practice at the Payne-Whitney gymnasium where running a dozen flights of stairs a dozen times every day was the worst part of the off-season training regimen. In the evening, after the crew team returned from Derby and the Housatonic Rover, I’d put in two hours at the Chapel Street Wine Shop, delivering kegs of beer around campus in the store’s incredibly abused delivery van (more running of stairs, only this time with full kegs of Heineken or Michelob). But the library was the best. It smelled … like a grandfather. It was an amazing stack of precious knowledge made even more cool by the glowing alabaster walls of the Beinecke Rare Book library, a cube rumored to have a Halon fire extinguisher system that could suck all the oxygen out, kill the patrons and staff, but save the rarest books on the planet. Walking past a Gutenberg bible, getting to hold the original palimpsest of Lord Jim with Conrad’s corrections and notes, checking out Captain John Smith of Virginia’s map of the New England coast — the same map he gave to Prince Charles to do the honors of naming the places on it (hence the future King named the Charles River after himself). Beinecke was the library to end all libraries, but Sterling was my favorite.
The library was, for me, the best part of the last Indiana Jones movie. Sterling is the setting of the end of the motorcycle chase through the Yale campus at the 2:44 mark.
Cartography was, and still is, a happy thing for me, especially staring at antique nautical charts. One of the best classes I took in college was taught in the Sterling Memorial Library’s map collection by the map collection curator, Alexander Vietor. The only assignment I remember was to use the university’s computer lab to develop a computer generated map using quantitative inputs. The whole thing was done on punch cards which were submitted for a batch processing run and then output onto a big graphics plotter. I did a map of New England ports with each proportionally sized according to the numbers of barrels of whale oil landed in each in 1824. Between that class and my daily duties in the press, I got to handle some amazing maps, stuff that has come back to the public consciousness thanks to E. Forbes Smiley — the map thief chronicled in an excellent book published last spring by a Boston author, Michael Blanding: The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps.
E. Forbes Smiley III was a well known dealer in rare maps who served a select set of private collectors (one of whom, Norman B. Leventhal, owns some homes here in Cotuit and donated his collection to the Boston Public Library). Smiley, an over-extended, suave self-taught expert in colonial American maps, resorted to theft from a half-dozen university libraries, stealing hundreds of one-of-a-kind maps over the years by simply ripping them out of atlases. His undoing was when he dropped an X-Acto knife on the rug at the Beinecke in 2004 and was arrested and investigated by the FBI. His impact on Yale, Harvard, the New York and Boston Public Libraries is incalculable. I read the book with keen interest, realizing I had personally handled some of the materials Smiley stole. There were a lot of scholars and collectors who passed through the Sterling and Beinecke stacks in the late 70s when I was a student at Yale and Smiley was still a student at Hampshire College. Some wealthy student bibliophiles were renowned for their dorm room collections. One, the scion of a Manhattan real estate empire, was operating a thriving business on campus as an undergrad, and another went on to be Smiley’s more vocal critic, W. Graham Arader III, who was dealing rare maps from a Yale dorm room during my time in New Haven. The New York Times said of Arader at the time of Smiley’s arrest: “At Yale, he [Arader] said, he focused on “blondes and squash,” but became interested in maps after he met Alexander Orr Vietor, the curator of Yale’s map collection. Before long, Mr. Arader was selling maps from his dormitory room. “I love maps, and when you get hooked, you get hooked,” he said.
I was hooked but more on the book making side of things and less on collecting stuff. After all I was paying my through school and my earnings from the library went right to the bursar to off-set my tuition. My masterpiece was the printing of a full chapter of Moby Dick — Chapter 23, “The Lee Shore” — made famous in the great baseball novel, The Art of Fielding. After graduation, when I applied for a internship at the Boston publishing house of David Godine (publisher of Andre Dubus among others), Godine himself, a bit of a prickly man, was ready to blow me off as just another Yale grad dishwasher looking for a publishing job when I pulled my manuscript out and handed it over for his inspection. He pulled out a loupe and started examining my kerning and inking very carefully, criticizing the descenders on my “P’s” and generally ripping apart my work before looking up, smiling and saying, “I started out with a letterpress in my barn. It gets in your blood. The ink I mean. Doesn’t it?” I landed the internship (unpaid of course) but the best memory of my eleemosonary employment at Godine was when he handed back the Melville manuscript and told me it was “nice work.”
It’s sad what Smiley did to some irreplaceable maps but he also changed the way libraries operate and from the book’s account, ruined forever a sense of trust they had in the scholars who depend on them. Extensive security, new rules, and a general climate of mistrust has crept in behind the damage Smiley’s done. Whatever undergrad is lucky enough be the Sterling Memorial Library’s printer devil probably doesn’t get the keys to the kingdom like I felt I had.
I offer this because I started musing about my career in “content management” and my place as the last of the “typewriter generation” — those 50-somethings who didn’t have computers in college but did their work on Olivettis, Smith Coronas and IBM Selectrics. As I finished my first novel the final semester of my senior year (unpublished but proudly sitting on a shelf in the Scholar of the House collection inside the Sterling), the college’s Scholar of the House program arranged for me to hire a professional typist to produce the final manuscript. Due to the deadline I would drive to her home in Orange, Connecticut and spend hours transcribing onto her new Wang word processor, the first of it’s kind with big floppy discs the size of album covers. Those green letters on the black screen. The ability to move paragraphs, to cut and paste …. it marked the beginning of three decades working with words on computers. That summer, as a cub reporter at the Cape Cod Times, I worked on a typewriter, glued my pages together with a pot of rubber cement, and moved stuff around by cutting it out with scissors and pasting it back manually. By the end of the summer the Times was going computerized, and at my next newspaper job at the Lawrence Eagle Tribune I worked at a Hastech terminal, and was given a Tandy T100 with rubber suction cup modem for filing from the State House press room on Beacon Hill at 300bps. I haven’t seen a typewriter, let alone an Albion drop press and California job box since. Now I’m all about cloud-hosted Drupal and “content.” Somehow I don’t imagine anyone who has ever set a page of type by hand has ever called the result a piece of “content.”