Preserving the Printing Arts

Upper and Lower Case combined

Here’s a fun trivia question: do you know where the “Uppercase” and “Lowercase” designations came from, for the alphabet? Have a look at this little case on the right, and you may get a clue.

In the manual printing process, the individual letters of lead that were placed one-by-one into frames to lay out words on a page were stored in wooden cases like this one. You’ll notice that some compartments are larger than others; those are for letters that are used most often in the English language, like the letter “E.” And to keep capital letters separate from the regular letters, those were put into a case that sat higher than the main case, perhaps on a shelf or table.

And so the capital letters were in the “upper case,” while the regular letters were in the “lower case.”

The page folder

Folding the pages

Not long ago, I toured Coach House Books in Toronto, a small press that still does runs of, say, 300 books (though they do much larger runs as well), and which still creates a lot of their work manually. Well, many of their processes are automated, but they still set up even those steps by hand. In fact, they even have a small press where they literally hand-set those lead letters in order to print posters, cards, and even wedding invitations.

You’d think, though, from all the talk these days of the digital revolution and the growing power of ebooks, that the days of this sort of small publishing house are numbered. Many people believe that the huge, much more automated presses that churn out paper books may soon find themselves with a lot less work to do.

Yet I was actually encouraged as I learned about some of the books that Coach House actually publishes. These are printings that the larger presses may never be able to handle well, yet books like these will continue being designed and printed. For example, one of the tour guides displayed a lovely book of reproductions of Chinese paintings, with descriptions and history. These reproductions are very delicate, and were printed carefully on rice paper. Which, I suspect, would have been torn to shreds on a larger, more swiftly-moving press.

Binding and gluing the books

Gluing and Binding

The Fall 2010 slate of titles that Coach House will be publishing includes several plays and many books of poetry. These books would rarely be published by a larger house, because they likely wouldn’t pay for themselves. In a smaller publishing house like this, though, they can still make a go of it. The upcoming publications also include several novels by Canadian authors like Linda Griffiths. And Coach House has an extensive back list in subjects like film, drama, and music, as well as urban studies, architecture, art, and photography.

Many of these are “niche” books that simply wouldn’t work as ebooks. Nor would they have a wide enough market to justify the larger publishing houses printing them on paper. Yet they are valuable volumes, perhaps more valuable for the very reason that they aren’t mass market books. They will always be written, and there will always be a need for publishing houses – like Coach House Books – to bring them out.

For a paper book-lover like me, this is a very comforting thought. The old printing arts – even the manual typesetting of letters, one at a time – will not, after all, be entirely lost.