Aug 20, 2013
09:30 AMArts & Entertainment
Digital Words Got You Dizzy? Beinecke Library at Yale Honors Legacy of Printing
Digitally created words on a computer screen or smartphone are proliferating at a dizzying rate, but the technology of good old-fashioned printing — ink on paper, ink on just about anything — has still got a lot of life left in it.
And for Timothy Young, curator of modern books and manuscripts at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, the legacy that printing has left us through the centuries is a marvel.
Printing is represented in all its past and present glory in the Beinecke’s exhibit, “Permanent Markers: Aspects of the History of Printing,” through Sept. 14.
Many of us have seen the Declaration of Independence, complete with John Hancock’s swirling signature and those of the other revolutionaries putting their lives on the line. But those copies were produced in the 1820s, Young says.
On display at the Beinecke is the actual first printing of the Declaration by John Dunlap of Philadelphia, produced on July 4, 1776, with Hancock’s name printed at the bottom. “Whenever this is brought out of the vault it’s something that gives me a chill,” says Young. It’s just plain, pure text “that was distributed throughout the colonies as an announcement, a broadside to be posted in public places … to spread the word.”
Not everything carries such historical heft; the display includes playing cards printed on aluminum and shopping bags, which the brochure calls “bagism … the most ephemeral of all.”
Including shopping bags from department stores could be considered a stretch in an exhibit that includes “the earliest datable piece of printing in the world.” According to the catalogue, it is “a set of four Buddhist sutras, or prayers, printed with woodblocks in Japan between 764 and 770.”
“I had to reconcile that but that’s what we do,” says Young. “These are pieces of print with ink on paper that we’re making now that will continue to document what we do.”
Printing can scarcely be mentioned without also uttering the name Johannes Gutenberg, who made disposable wood blocks obsolete. His movable type was a form of recycling, so that the letters used in the Bible could be reused in another book.