Hit the Books: A Closer Look at the Book Arts Workshop
Students and professors take advantage of the studio’s free classes and vintage printing equipment.
Nestled in the basement of Baker Library, the Book Arts Workshop provides a unique venue for members of the Dartmouth community to learn about letterpress printing, bookbinding and more. The workshop attracts students and professors in many departments — from English to computer science — who take advantage of the program’s studio space and curricular support. To learn more, I spoke to the Book Arts Workshop Program Manager, Sarah Smith, about the workshop’s offerings and niche on campus.
According to Smith, the workshop originated in the 1930s when Ray Nash, a book designer and a scholar on letter, calligraphy and printing founded the workshop and managed it until the 1970s. When he left, the program went dormant until Smith began working there full time in 2013.
The studio has a wide collection of machinery, some of which dates back to the 1880s, according to Smith. This includes a board shear from the 1920s and various vintage presses for printing with metal and wood type. She emphasized that the workshop has expanded its type collection to include many different alphabets.
“I want to involve as many voices as possible and be able to represent different languages. We have accents for the Romantic languages as well as scripts such as Hebrew,” Smith said.
The workshop itself is home to multiple studios — one for bookbinding, which provides space and equipment to teach students how to physically make books, and another for letterpress — which are available for student and faculty use. Smith manages classes that use the studio and hosts open studio hours in the workshop, which allows individual students to come in and use the space and equipment. This past term, she estimated that 10 classes used the workshop for their projects.
“I love the experiential learning aspect of the workshop and want to stretch this connection across classes,” Smith said.
Professors from all across the academic spectrum visit and incorporate the workshop into their curricula. Smith highlighted the wide range of subject areas that are able to use the workshop’s resources — an environmental studies class once came to the workshop to make waterproof field journals and an English class used the studio in the past to create a zine.
One such professor is Jessica Beckman, an English professor who regularly includes the Book Arts Workshop in her classes. In her first year seminar, ENGL 7.54: “The Future of the Book,” one assignment challenged students to redesign the physical book structure of one of the course’s assigned texts using the Book Arts Workshop. Beckman wanted to encourage students to consider how layouts, word placement and empty space change the way readers interpret a literary work, and she found her students were engaged with the task.
“The assignment only calls for a folded, one-sheet book, but this year students ran with it and made innovative, mixed-media, three-dimensional objects. We saw a whole new side of some classmates,” Beckman said.
Beckman also teaches ENGL 54.15: “History of the Book,” in which students use the workshop to learn about ancient writing materials and the revolution of the printing press. Students also learn how to set type and bind a book they make together.
“This year some students made everything from a Cherokee letterpress book to one that forces the committed reader to destroy it. These books become great ways to think actively about materiality, literacy, access and taboo,” Beckman said.
Eva Bianco ’24 took ENGL 54.15 in Fall 2020, and her experience in the class inspired her to become more involved with the Book Arts Workshop. Bianco spent a long time working on her final ENGL 54.15 project — and even when she finished the course, she stayed in contact with Smith. During Winter 2021, when Bianco was taking classes remotely, Smith taught her more about the workshop over Zoom, and Bianco eventually began letter-pressing in person in the spring. By Fall 2021, she officially had a job at the workshop and had begun teaching classes, working on promotion pieces and running open studio hours.
Bianco appreciated that the Book Arts Workshop provided a creative outlet for her that was not on a screen — and she found that her work in the studio challenged herself to broaden her creative mind.
“I got into it through the book arts angle and one of the big draws for me was the tactile element of it. There is such a loud, specific smell of the studio and it really stretches your brain to think in a different way,” Bianco said.
Beckman added that being immersed in the physical workshop space is a valuable learning experience for students.
“Living in a digital era, it’s never been easier or faster to communicate news, ideas and art in writing. But once you've made a physical book, you start to realize what it has taken to preserve and share written knowledge across human history,” Beckman said. “And, at the same time, you start to think more creatively about our future — what does digital preserve and destroy?”
Bianco said that she has gained confidence in her abilities and teaching since getting involved with the workshop, and that she also feels more academically driven as a result.
“It requires problem solving more than anything, as well as a lot of niche knowledge that you learn as you go,” Bianco said. “There are both artistic and technical elements of it, which I love because it emphasizes how multifaceted the process is.”
Beckman echoed similar sentiments and described the workshop as an invaluable teaching resource.
“Being immersed in the Book Arts Workshop nearly always fosters a sense of camaraderie and creativity because everyone has to step outside their comfort zone,” Beckman said. “It’s rare for many institutions to have this kind of creative space, and the fact that it’s designed for and staffed by students is incredible.”