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An Introduction to Letterpress: A Haptic History

Johann George Altmann, Etat et Delices de la Suisse (Basle: Emanuel Tourneisen, 1776), de Beer Swb 1776 .

An Introduction to Letterpress:
A Haptic History

Intended for those wishing to understand how the business of printing shapes the books of different places and periods, this jointly taught class is divided into equal parts.  Half your time will be spent with Assoc. Prof. Shef Rogers examining items from Otago’s Special Collections to understand the development of Western letterpress book design, and the other half with Dr. John Holmes learning to set metal type in the Otakou Press to create a quarto booklet illustrating some key moments in NZ print history.  The practical experience is invaluable for appreciating the achievements of handpress books, while the theoretical component allows students to study design and printing techniques across a much wider range of situations and styles.  The class will best suit students wishing to gain a broad exposure to European handprinted books and to master the essential terminology of handpress book construction.

Because all Rare Book School classes are limited to a maximum of 12 students, students will work in a group of up to 6 people during the week, alternating between the Special Collections Reading Room and the Press.  The Otakou Press possesses two iron handpresses, a Columbian and an Albion, as well as a Vandercook proofing press, several small Adana clamshell presses, and an engraving press, offering students exposure to a useful range of the sorts of presses they are likely to encounter elsewhere.

Course Instructors

Assoc. Prof. Shef Rogers is a former president of the Bibliographical Society of Australia and NZ, editor of the Society’s journal Script & Print, and current president of SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing). His research focuses on book production in eighteenth-century Britain.

Dr. John Holmes is a retired public health physician with extensive experience in letterpress printing.  An active member of the Association of Handcraft Printers and the British Printing Society, John regularly produces work at his own Frayed Frisket Press and the Otakou Press, and offers classes in letterpress printing.  John taught for the Dunedin RBS in 2017 and we are delighted to welcome him back this year.

Advance Readings

Main texts:

  1. Martyn Lyons, Books: A Living History (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011)
  2. Grolier Club exhibition, “Building the Book from the Ancient World to the Present Day: Five Decades of Rare Book School & The Book Arts Press (
  3. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, ‘The Book: Its Visual Appearance’ in The Broadview Reader in Book History, ed. by Michelle Levy and Tom Mole(Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2015), 15–36. Rptd and excerpted from The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450–1800. Tr. David Gerrard; ed Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and David Wooton (London: Verso, 1976), 77–108.  Either version is fine, or enjoy the original French text if you wish.

Supplementary texts: 

  1. Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).
  2. Book Parts, ed. Dennis Duncan and Adam Smyth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
  3. Alexis Weedon, ‘The Economics of Print’ in The Book: A Global History, 154–68.
  4. Cristina Dondi, ‘The European Printing Revolution’ in The Book: A Global History, ed. By Michael F. Suarez and H. R. Woudhuysen, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 80–92.  More detail than Febvre and Martin on the first two centuries of print.
  5. James Mosley, ‘The Technologies of Print’ in The Book: A Global History, 130–53. Primarily about technology and type.

These last three chapters are also available in vol. 1 of The Oxford Companion to the Book, if that is more accessible. 




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