From iPads to Letterpresses

Written by Gordon


The little boy, no older than 8, grins and settles back into his chair.

“Jasper?” Rai Peterson verifies. The boy nods his head, satisfied he impressed the college professor.

Peterson explains to the students that letters go into the press backward in order to print a product. Once the students understand this, Peterson leads them to the back of the workspace. Here, there are eight presses waiting. One is set up to print a wolf and the words, “Inspire Academy.” Peterson asks for volunteers to turn the crank, which presses the paper against the inked type.

Silas Granneman is one of the first volunteers. He starts to turn the crank, but gets stuck, not strong enough to finish the job. One of Peterson’s college students assists him. When the final product is pulled from the press, the children shout with excitement.

“Oh, now that’s cool!”

“I’m getting this framed!”

The kids line up, hoping to get a turn at working the press.

It’s a workshop day at the Book Arts Collaborative, an immersive-learning course at Ball State University. The Collaborative is located in the MadJax building, which is a newly-renovated makerspace in Muncie, Indiana. The course gives college students the opportunity to learn how to bind books and work a printing press, as well as teach others these skills through community workshops. With just 4,500 press operators working in the state of Indiana, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Ball State students have the unique opportunity to work with a professional press operator for a college course.

Peterson began the project in 2016 because she wanted students to appreciate books and understand why they mean beyond the page.

“I think that in spite of changes to the format of the book, such as the e-book, books are a staple of our society,” Peterson said. “Books are a certain size with chapters of a certain length, so if someone said ‘you should write a book on that,’ … we already have an idea of how much they’ve studied it because we know what we can learn from a single book.”

The class challenges college students to not only learn the skills of letterpress printing and book binding, but also to run a business. Students create materials that are then sold in a shop, and the money earned goes back into the business. These students also assist in community workshops, like the one today during which 21 third-grade students from Inspire Academy, a public charter school in Muncie, will visit the workspace and create their own notebooks.

For Holly Westerfield, having the Inspire Academy students in the workspace was one of her favorite parts of the class. Westerfield serves as the retail manager for the Book Arts Collaborative and works with children when she volunteers.

“It was fun to see them learn new things to get to do,” Westerfield said. “It’s not something you get to do everything today, and getting to do something that has been around for hundreds of years was fun to pass down to another generation.”

After seeing what the Book Arts Collaborative has to offer, the children are led next door to watch a larger press, operated by Kim Miller, owner of Tribune Showprint. She warns the kids not to touch anything before feeding posters into the press. The students gasp and talk among themselves as they watch the paper fly through the machine.


“Look what it’s doing!”

Tribune Showprint is a partner of the Book Arts Collaborative and is the oldest, continuously-operated print shop in the United States. It contains a large wood type collection and is home to a Babcock 35 printing press, one of the only in the world.

“A community center is something Rob [Miller, her husband] and I had been wanting to do for awhile, so when [Peterson] came with this request, it was a win-win,” Miller said. “We didn’t have to pay for it, but we could be involved by providing this equipment that wouldn’t be used again. It was really a perfect storm.”

Once the children finish with Miller, they walk through the collection of type, gazing at the variety of fonts and sizes. They’re often reminded not to touch anything, though a few sneak a poke anyway. They then snake their way back to the Book Arts Collaborative side, settling back into their seats so they can learn to stitch together a notebook.

Silas struggles, unable to line up the holes so he can stitch together his pages. He pokes his needle around, trying to find the opening, before finally asking for help. One of the Book Arts Collaborative students sits down and pushes the needle through the pages, letting Silas pull the rest of the thread through. Soon, Silas takes over himself.

“I thought it was really cool,” Silas said. “You actually get to do some effort and do something fun.”

His teacher, Bridget Duggleby, passes by as Silas finishes his notebook and smiles. Her hope was that her students would get to learn something new that will stick with them whenever they hold a book.

“We’ve been studying accessibility to books and reading around the world,” Duggleby said. “I thought they’d appreciate it more if they could see the whole process.”

As the students finish their notebooks, they chatter about what they accomplished. When Duggleby announces that it’s time to go, some students protest, wanting more time to finish their projects. In a world immersed in e-books and iPads, these students beg to finish learning the ancient art of book binding.

“Workshops are an integral part of Book Arts Collaborative. We love to welcome the community in and encourage the creativity of people of all ages,” Peterson said. “Children are really fun collaborators. They see the possibilities over the limitations of the medium, and there’s nothing like the smile on a kid’s face the first time she lifts a page that she made from the press.”

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