Ancient Craft Still An Art at Library

Photo of type in press

Barbara Hickey

From Communi-K, Volume 13, Number 26, 13 April 1981.


Who are the nine young people hidden deep in the stacks of King Library North and what are they doing?

They are apprentices to the King Library Press — now celebrating its 25th anniversary — which produces handsome and high quality books. All of the books are produced by hand. The apprentices spend months doing the laborious work of hand-setting type and printing on hand-operated presses.

“The press gives those working with it a historical understanding of the book,” said Paul A. Willis, director of UK Libraries. “It adds an element of distinction to the library and University which I hope we are able to maintain.”

Photo of W. Gay Reading at the King Library Press
W. Gay Reading, director of the King Library Press, sets type by hand using one of the four type faces available to the King Library Press.

Gay Reading, director of the press, added that “We perpetuate the craft of producing books by hand.”

Reading continued, “Now more than ever, letterpress printing has become a thing of the past because it is not commercially possible. We try to keep up a tradition of type.”

“Items selected for printing are approved by an editorial board and include unusual and rare materials, Kentucky authors and unpublished manuscripts,” Willis said. The press has been supported by the sale of its publications and by gifts from the late Joseph C. Graves Sr.

Seated at a long table against a wall is apprentice Pam Post who is carefully brushing paste on small sheets of paper. The papers will be attached to slip cases for a just-published book, “On the Cliffs,” by Algernon Swinburne. The book is printed accordian style on a single sheet of paper and is colorfully illustrated by John R. Tuska, UK professor of art.

“We developed our own process to print the book in three colors with hand application,” Reading said. “It's an unorthodox way of doing it.”

Post is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College in New York where she majored in art, mostly print-making. “I originally applied for work at a commercial printer's and didn't get a job,” she said. “Then I heard about this apprenticeship program. I enjoy it.”

Cutting paper for the cases with a hand cutter is Tim Skipp who takes UK courses for his own enjoyment. His hometown is Daytona Beach, Fla., and he became interested in the King Library Press while attending a workshop in Lexington.

“We have some workshops on weekends,” Reading said, “so those who could not come during the week can come in.” The fall workshop produced a first edition of a poem by Robert Penn Warren.

Eileen Fitzgerald cautiously prepares colored inks beside a very old hand press. She holds a master of science in library science degree and took a hand press course during the UK intersession last May.

“I stayed on and I would like to stay with it (hand-printing) although it is not financially rewarding,” she said.

Four of the nine apprentices receive a small stipend, Reading said, adding that the ideal number of apprentices is eight. Most are part-time UK students. Several former apprentices have founded their own presses (companies), he said.

“Learning to print books teaches a discipline necessary to all crafts and an appreciation of the way books (formerly) were made,” Reading said. “The King Library Press is both a teaching press and publishing press. We emphasize publishing books and the apprentices learn by actually producing books.”

The press was founded by Carolyn Hammer in 1956 when she and several other librarians printed a book during their lunch hour on a press in the library's basement. The press was operated intermittently until 1976, when Reading became the full-time director.

The press carries on the tradition of (the late) Victor Hammer, Carolyn's husband, a world-famous fine printer, Reading said. Two of the hand-presses at the library belonged to Hammer, including a wooden one.

Altogether the press has produced about 21 publications plus such things as keepsakes which are given to members of the UK Library Associates at the annual dinner meeting.

Usually only 100 or fewer copies of each book are printed. Only a few copies of “The Confectionary of Monsieur Giron,” by William Kavanaugh Doty, one of the earlier books, remain available. The book has an afterward by Burton Milward of Lexington and was marketed at $30. This is a bargain, Reading said. Although discounts are given to the book trade and to Library Associates members, some new titles will be about $200.

Photo of Eileen Fitzgerald at the King Library Press
Eileen Fitzgerald, Lexington, painstakingly sets type into a page form for a book that will be printed page by page on an antique hand press.

The apprentices are now working on two books: “Byron's Natural Man: Daniel Boone and Kentucky,” by John L. Clubbe, UK professor of English, with a frontispiece by James Foose, prize-winning artist of UK Printing Services, and “The Pride of Life,” a modem English translation of the oldest English morality play, illustrated with brass rubbings contemporary with the text. Three other books are in the “setting” stage, Reading said.

Most of the books are sold to private collectors, book dealers and institutional libraries, Reading said. “There seems to be a growing interest in the products of hand-presses. They usually sell out in a fairly short time. Most of the book dealers are in California and in New England.”

The press is limited to four type faces and two of them are owned by the press. “Acquiring more type is difficult,” Reading said.

Hand-set type is just that. It is set piece by piece, letter by letter, by hand. There is a separate piece of type for each letter and it is used over and over again. After each use it is returned to a specially-designed case, which has as a feature larger compartments near the front so that the most-used type is more accessible.

Paper, he said, also is of prime concern. “The press uses large sheets of hand-made paper and some of the finest hand-made paper is produced now, but its cost is prohibitive.”

Reading said the press expects to share some projects later with Deborah Fredericks, UK associate professor of art, and use indigenous hand-made paper.

Several years ago the press started annual seminars in graphic design. These were coordinated by David Farrell, former curator of rare books. The seminars have been continued with Farrell's successor, Dr. James Birchfield, who heads the area in which the press is located. Reading, Farrell (now head of the library's collection development department) and Birchfield work together on the programs.

The seminars have brought to UK some of the most distinguished people in the printing world. Among them are Germany's Herman Zapf, the world's leading type designer; Adrian Wilson of San Francisco, a leading American book designer and private press printer; Andrew Hoyem of San Francisco, probably the finest commercial printer in the country, and John Dreyfus, a London book designer and a former associate of the Cambridge University Press.

The seminars have attracted national attention, Willis said. Works of the press have been reviewed in Fine Print and exhibited at the prestigious Grolier Club in New York. “The ‘Rabinal,’ which was included in the 1979 Grolier Club exhibit, was listed by Fine Print as among the ‘finest work that has been done in the past 10 years,’” he said.

“King Library Press is one of the oldest and most productive of the collegiate presses,” Birchfield said. “Both its choice of texts and its craftsmanship have set very high standards.”