Listening to Sam D.G. Jacoby ’08, you’d think there was a tiny factory—one as enchanting as the Santa’s toy workshop—hidden in the basement of Adams House. “From the street, you can look through the windows and see these massive machines with people wearing aprons bent over them, hard at work on mysterious old-timey tasks,” Jacoby says.
The view from inside isn’t much different. The space smells like oil and metal, the walls are plastered with old printing projects, and the back room is brimming with brass photo plates, linocuts, and lead type in dozens of fonts, styles, and point-sizes. You want a wood-carved stamp for “The World According to Garp?” Sure, they’ve got that. (Somewhere.)
The place, of course, is The Bow & Arrow Press, a student-run letterpress nestled within the winding tunnels of Adams House. It is managed by volunteers, of which Jacoby is an especially devoted example, and is open to the entire Harvard community, regardless of previous experience or house affiliation. Participating in the B&A takes as little effort as simply walking in during open nights (Thursdays 7-10pm). The Press provides the paper and the Press Folk—students well-versed in the art—provide the instruction. According to Zachary C. Sifuentes, the Adams tutor in charge of the Bow & Arrow Press, “The Press is where any student’s imagination can materialize.”
Now, for the first time ever, the B&A is offering a course formalizing the instruction of this craft. Supported by the Office of the Arts and by Adams House, “Introduction to Printing & Book Arts” is a 10-week non-credit course that teaches the basics of the craft, including the physics of setting type, the mechanics of hand printers, and the challenge of pulling a pristine print. The class is the brain-child of Jacoby, and it will be taught by Michael Russem, a local printer and book designer who is the press’s first visiting artist. The class consists of a series of lectures and workshops, as well as trips to Firefly Press in Allston, a modern letterpress shop, and to Houghton Library.
Russem was initially worried that there wouldn’t be enough demand for the course. But after registration closed Sunday night and there were enough applications to fill the class three times over, his concern turned to the Press itself. Years of being under-funded have taken its toll on the B&A. “It’s a small space and some parts walk that fine line between charming and chaotic,” Russem says.
But Jacoby, Sifuentes, and other volunteers have been working hard to get the press in working order. All four of the printers should be online in the next two weeks (although the 19th century clamshell platen press is too delicate for daily use) and days were spent cleaning the front and back room of the press. It was an epic task that, by all estimates, hasn’t been attempted in 15 years. “The dust was as historic as Harvard,” Sifuentes says.
Despite his concerns, Russem is optimistic that the trial run “will not only change how students use type...but how they see the world around them.”
“If I can be respectful of the students’ other responsibilities, and still foster and encourage an understanding of and appreciation for typography and fine printing, I think the class will be a success,” Russem says.
For those who didn’t or couldn’t register for the course this semester, there will still be plenty of opportunities for students to get involved. Open Press Thursdays will still be buzzing, and Russem is organizing type-related film screenings open to the entire Harvard community. The schedule, which begins October 1 with the airing of the documentary “Helvetica,” will be posted on the Bow & Arrow Press’s website. Future courses may also be in the (hand-crafted?) cards.