Dear Alphabettes: What was the best discovery or mind blown experience you’ve had in an archive?

Dear A,

I guess one of your first visits to an archive, or a library, or museum of things related to your interesest will always be one of the most memorable. Even if the things and facts that blew your mind then seem funny (to say the least) today.

I remember my first visit at the Anna Amalia library in Weimar in 1997. I had just come back from an internship in the Netherlands that a.o. brought me to the Plantijn Moretus museum, guided by Fred Smeijers. For a young type enthusiast bursting of curiosity (more than knowledge) there is already barely a more mind-blowing experience imaginable than holding punches by Hendrik van den Keere et al. and learning about how they made them. There, I had Fred to answer all my questions and put things in context.

Fast forward a few weeks later, by myself back in Weimar, I was looking at these marvelous books printed by the private Cranach Presse of count Harry Kessler which by themselves are totally mind-blowing! In case you ever have a chance to see their edition of Hamlet printed on vellum, it’s INSANE! I wanted to know all about these books, who made them, what these typefaces are, and who had made those, who the illustrations, the binding … I had so many questions I couldn’t quite put into order or connect, or even know what keywords to search for in the library’s physical card-based catalog, pre-Google. How for instance is it possible they say this type in the Vergil is Jenson when other books say that guy is long dead and from the 1400s, oh ok, a guy called Edward Price then, and who is Emery Walker? And the whole can of worms of private presses and revivals opened in front of me.

It was there where I finally “got” type history – painstakingly, embarrassing and on my own, even though I had read Counterpunch and saw Fred work for months. I guess the things you painfully figure out yourself are always the stuff that really sticks, and boy was I proud of myself and my “amazing research” (that everyone else but me already knew).

When I came to Fred with my findings and excitement about all these fancy private press books and typefaces he just shrugged and said (something like) “Private Press books are shit. Making cheap books beautiful is the real challenge and art”. I was disappointed right that moment, but sleeping on it, I knew he was right. Cured my interest in fancy press books forever.

Best, Indra

(Comments are open! I’m curious about your archive and library stories.)

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4 Comments Dear Alphabettes: What was the best discovery or mind blown experience you’ve had in an archive?

  1. Briar Levit

    Yes, there’s something about seeing artifacts and making your own conclusions (even if someone has already done that).

    My first time in an archive for my own research was at the Archives and Special Collections Centre at London College of Communication. It was a big ah-ha moment for me, because that is when I first understood that phototypesetting systems often required coding. LCC had these old promotional videos about the college from the 80s (when it was still London College of Printing), and there I saw young people sitting at photosetting systems (I don’t know which, because I was so green), and they were looking at screens black screens of green code text. I was amazed. I knew my topic was going to be much deeper than previously thought when I saw that. This wasn’t going to be a movie just about paste-up—there were much bigger technological evolutions that would need to be discussed.

    Thanks for inviting me to remember this moment!

  2. María Ramos

    My research in type design for Olivetti typewriters was full of great discoveries. I wasn’t sure what I was going to find because there was not much written about the topic. I will pick two among of all the findings. The first one was the discovery of one of the biggest collections of typewriters in the world, Colección Sirvent, which is located in Vigo (Spain). It is a private collection that includes more than 3.000 machines, most of them in very good condition. I was lucky to visit the collection and type in historical machines myself. Meanwhile, Alfredo, who takes care of the collection, was repairing some others. The second discovery I would like to share is the unexpected finding of an internal type design manual for designers working in Olivetti. I got access to it in my visit to the Archivio Storico Olivetti in Ivrea (Italy). It was a typewritten document from 1969 with more than 100 pages and hand-drawn samples. I assume there were not many copies of this manual and for sure it was not a document available to the public. I experienced a great excitement when I started to turn the pages, in a way I was feeling in touch with the history of the company and the machine. Right there, there was a hidden story that could be shared from now. I thought there would be people who would like to read about it and they would share my excitement.

  3. Shelley Gruendler

    . . . when I walked in to the (old) Reading Room at (the old) St Bride Printing Library. I had never before been in a room that was entirely dedicated to what I loved. I had always had to prowl around the art sections and maybe get lucky to find something on typography and printing. But here, I could look at the shelves and understand what each book was about, and I might just have already read it. At that moment, I knew I was in the right place at the right time of my life. It was a moment of belonging.

  4. Amy Papaelias

    For the closing night dinner at TypeCon 2006 in Boston, we were bused to the Museum of Printing, then located in North Andover, MA. I remember walking through a maze of typographic history: printing presses, early computers, floppy disks(!!!), and even a live demonstration of a working Linotype machine. After a buffet dinner in the backyard garden, we climbed the stairs to view the museum’s collection of master drawings from the Linotype library. Seeing those original drawings in person was totally mind-blowing. My n00b reaction was something like: wow, they’re a lot bigger than I thought they’d be!


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