Tours & Programming

Update as of September 2020:

Please refer to the section on the Robertson Davies Library in Massey College’s COVID-19 Protocol before emailing.

Thank you for your interest in visiting the Bibliography Room of the Robertson Davies Library, Massey College. Tour groups are limited to a maximum of nine persons at a time (including instructor). Each tour lasts about 50 minutes.

If you would like a demonstration of printing on one of our 19th century cast-iron platen presses, and hands-on printing experience for the students, each tour costs $100. Please make the cheque payable to the Robertson Davies Library, Massey College. Visits to the Room without a hands-on printing demonstration are free of charge.

You may request up to two consecutive tours on the same afternoon, between the hours of 1:30 and 4:30PM. Let us know which style of tour you would like, and which times would work for you. Participants should arrive slightly early for their tour. Latecomers will be admitted, but are a bit disruptive, so we do appreciate if everyone arrives promptly.

Visitors should gather outside the Massey front gate; one of us will meet your group & take you to the Bibliography Room. At the end of the visit we’ll lead your group back to the gate.

Photography is welcome!

Email College Printer Joel Vaughan for scheduling and inquiries.
Bibliography room

Available Tours

Typesetting and Printing on a Platen Press

Students will learn the fundamentals of letterpress typesetting and printing on a platen press. A class of ten students will be divided into two groups of five. Group one will learn how to set lead type into a composition stick, see how it is compiled into standing type in a galley, and from there moved into the bed of a press and locked in a chase to be inked and printed. Students here will learn about the technological development of wood type, and the advantages (and disadvantages) of working with routed wood instead of cast lead. 

Group two will learn about the make-up of a standard hand-operated platen press. Students in this group will each have a chance to ink type that has been locked into the bed, affix paper to register-pins on the tympan, and pull a single impression. Their print will be left in the Bibliography Room for two days to set, after which the instructor is welcome to pick them up for return to participants.

This tour can be customized according to the needs and interests of the participants. If desired, instructors can run specified sessions on:

  • Victorian book illustrations
  • Papermaking, folding, and collating
  • Printing on a Vandercook steel Proofing Press

Each session will take approximately thirty minutes before switching off, resulting in a tour duration of one hour. Larger class sizes may run a class-session in the Colin Friesen Room (provided it is available) for overflow.

Folding Formulas, Kettle-stitch Binding onto Tapes

Students will be guided through the binding of a text-block onto tapes, beginning from loose, unfolded signatures. Each signature will be printed so as to require a different standard folding formula, but terminate at the same size as its differently-folded companions. In this way, students will become familiar with the difference between (1) folio, (2) quarto, (3) octavo, and (4) duodecimo formulas.

On the recto of each provided unfolded sheet, the pages will be labelled with sample text which identifies the required folding formula to reach the required size. On the verso of each provided unfolded sheet, the same text will be blocked out into type-sized characters and letterpress furniture, to show how that same text would have to have been set and locked into the bed of a letterpress press in order to accomplish the graphic design displayed in the final result.

After students have completed their folds and kettle-stitched their signatures into a single text block, they should not only have an understanding of the preliminary calculations required for printers to plan, design, and typeset a book in preparation for binding, but also gain a sense of the physical, material limitations imposed on printers and binders working with pre-digital technology.

The Bibliographic Autopsy

In this workshop, each student will be provided with a hardcover “cased-in” codex. These texts will be sourced from the University College Book Sale’s discard bin, a plentiful source of “dead” books. The student’s task will be to take his/her book apart layer by layer, removing the case from the text-block, disbinding the signatures from one another, and reconstructing the original sheet that each signature was initially printed on before it was bound and sliced. While working, students will be required to fill in the details of their book on a provided handout, identifying the folding formula, the materials used, and the “cause of death”.

This workshop requires students to look “under the hood” of the modern codex, identifying aspects of the technology that are hidden from casual sight, yet crucial to its operation. The successful student should have a sense of how books work, where they come from, and the physical means by which they store and deliver information.

Text and Materiality Workshop

Students are led through a series of stations covering topics in book production and letterpress printing including calligraphy, bookbinding, paper-making, typesetting, and operating a press. Equipment from the Robertson Davies Library press collections (including molds and deckles, type cases, lead type, ornament blocks, ink, rollers, and a flatbed Adana press) are used in hands-on demonstrations. Students are also able to interact with letterpress-printed objects produced in the Massey College Bibliography Room, such as bookmarks with the ornament blocks used in their production, as well as the Library’s copy of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit with its accompanying copperplate.

Hand Presses and the “Lowly Printer”

In this brief workshop, we will take a historical look at the transition from wooden to iron hand presses, with a quick survey of the variety of press designs. Then we’ll introduce press terminology, maintenance, and the basics of adjustment and set-up. The workshop will take place in the Bib Room, where the presses themselves will be our visual aid.

William Blake’s “Infernal Method”

With reference to items from the Pratt Library’s G. E. Bentley Blake Collection (primarily the Marriage of Heaven and Hell proof and Joseph Viscomi’s facsimile edition of Songs of Innocence and of Experience), students will be guided step-by-step through Blake’s idiosyncratic method of creating and printing from “relief-etched” copper plates. Emphasis will be placed on how the process drew and differed from (1) standard relief prints pulled from movable type, and (2) conventional engraving/etching, of which Blake was a professional practitioner. Students will be encouraged to explore the few advantages and many disadvantages introduced by the Infernal Method, and conjecture as to what effect it might have had on Blake’s vision of poetry and printmaking.

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