In the digital age, WCU students learn the traditional art and craft of typography

This article can be found published in the April 14, 2010 issue of Delaware County Community College’s newspaper, “The Communitarian.”
Dr. Michael Peich watches over Valerie Reason as she prints her poems. (Candice Monhollan)

Dr. Michael Peich watches over Valerie Reason as she prints her poems. (Candice Monhollan)

If you travel up to the fifth floor of the West Chester University library, you’ll find a classroom tucked around the corner, out of view behind the rows of books. Entering the room is like taking a step back in time. The only modern technologies you will find are the laptops in the backpacks of some of the students.

It is in this room that the course of Typography II is taught by Dr. Michael Peich. The course, as stated by WCU, “provides students with experience in production of books, using historical and modern methods of design.”

What makes the class special is that the books are not typed by a computer and printed out. Instead, every single letter is set by hand by the students and every poem is manually arranged by fractions of an inch on the page.

“I met Mike and two of his students at a dinner for the on-campus poet,” said Valerie Reason, a 19-year-old English education major. “They were telling me and a couple of my classmates about the class and we were all enthralled.”

Because these new students did not take the prerequisite course in the fall semester, but were eager to join, Dr. Peich let the students take extra classes to learn how to set type so they would be prepared for what the spring course entailed.

The atmosphere is relaxed in the classroom, allowing the students the opportunity to work in a low-stress environment while they work away on their assignments. An old-fashioned radio is by the press, and classical music and jazz serenades in the background.

The classroom is a relaxing setting for the students to work. (Candice Monhollan)

The classroom is a relaxing setting for the students to work. (Candice Monhollan)

“I like how relaxed it is,” said Laura Nitowski, a 20-year-old English major. “You can come from a really stressful class and just eat food, hang out, and set type.”

Each student is creating a book of poetry, either their own or those of a favorite author.

Reason chose to use poems written by other authors, such as Og Mandino and Maya Angelou. The poems that she has written herself, she said, were ones that she did not feel comfortable sharing with others and with 50 copies of her book being printed, being able to share the content of other authors is rather important to her.

The classroom has one press in it for eight students, so each student is at work doing different things while only one can use the press at a time.

The process can become methodical. Each student sets their poems letter by letter. When the poem is complete, called a form, they then tie it tightly to secure the individual sorts so that the letters will not slide around. Once all of the poems are set, the students move on to the various stages of proof, first ensuring the accuracy of spelling and punctuation and then addressing the finesse of perfectly aligning every page.

Then the exciting part comes: it’s time for the students to print! When looking at the press, it seems intimidating and hard to use, but the students will tell you differently.

“It’s surprisingly easy,” said Nitowski. “At first it seems foreign and complicated, but it’s pretty easy to learn.”

Lauran Nitowski works on setting her poem letter by letter. (Candice Monhollan)

Lauran Nitowski works on setting her poem letter by letter. (Candice Monhollan)

As much fun as the class may sound, this is unfortunately its last semester. Dr. Peich is retiring at the end of the semester and next year the class will focus more on the history of books and their evolution and will no longer feature any sort of printing.

“It’s time for me to do something new,” Dr. Peich said. “I’m not retiring from the press.  I’m going to continue making books.  It’s time for me to do something else.”

But in the meantime, the class is moving along in its final semester and the students are enjoying themselves learning a craft that is very old but new to them. They each signed up for the course for different reasons, but the one thing they all had in common was something they learned in the classroom. No modern technology can ever take away the beauty and quality of hand-crafted art.

“I like doing things with my hands,” Dr. Peich said. “It’s doing things by hand and doing it carefully and right so that the end product is extremely pleasing and people enjoy it. I like maintaining those century-old traditions. It’s really important for anybody to know the traditions that have preceded what we know as the contemporary book.”
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