Monuments of printing

This weekend I went to Stanford to see the Monuments of Printing exhibition at Green Library.* I’m a bit of a printing nut as well as a type nut so exhibitions of book design and typesetting are always up my alley.

*It’s been almost a dozen years since I spent any time in there. Heck, I’m still getting used to the Bing Wing. It’s also interesting to visit as a guest and be asked things like “Is this your first time visiting Green?” In many ways, enough has changed that, even though I used it as an undergrad, I really haven’t visited this incarnation of it.

The exhibition is pretty good—as long as you already know a lot about the history and craft of type. If you don’t know what ligatures, counters, etc. mean, you’re in for some trouble. Similarly, the term “gothic” is never fully explained even though, unlike “roman” or “italic” (which are explained), gothic no longer means what it used to.*

*Gothic once described Germanic letter forms. Then it became known as blackletter and survived to the 20th century as fraktur long after most of the rest of Europe converted to roman type. In the mid-19th century, gothic started to be used as a synonym for sans-serif type and survives today in fonts like Franklin Gothic which have nothing to do with the gothic font used in the Gutenberg Bible.

I did enjoy the descriptions of where roman and italic came from and I was pleased to learn about civilité. That alternative, local variants to the too-italian italics were considered (but eventually discarded) is both extremely interesting and a nice reminder of how art and technology evolve. Too often we just see the successful developments and not the failed experiments. That civilité failed due to an abundance of ligatures and alternate characters means that, if done correctly, P22 Civilite should be a lot of fun to play with.

What I would have liked to see more of was a discussion of craft. It wasn’t clear to me if we were looking at the craft of the book, layout, or just the type. Discussions of book formats (octavo vs. quarto etc.) and intents were barely present. And discussions about typesetting were practically absent. Many of the books showed the evolution of reading aids through typesetting* but you had to really pay attention to see them.

*From a solid block of text with pilcrows inline to separate the paragraphs to more-modern extra leading between paragraphs.

All that said, I did enjoy it and am looking forward to the second installation featuring the book-arts revival next year.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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