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Books are more than just empty
vessels that contain information.
The way they were made tells us
not only about technology and
fabrication, but it also tells
us about the users; the people
who read them. And so, in an
historical sense its an incredibly
important set of insights into
the cultural, and intellectual
history of the period that we're
studying with the students.
If you really want to understand
the kinds of things that have
shaped the human experience
they're never just of one type.
They're never just physics or
chemistry or history or literature.
They're going to be all of those
things put together and this
class has offered our students,
I think, a very tangible example
of those boundary crossings
at work.
So there are three kinds of
experiences that we've built
into the syllabus for our
students. The first is a typical
set of discussions that we have
in a history class. The second
part of the class that we built
in is the contact with the
historical material. Going to
the Rare Books Library, going
to the MIT Museum and seeing
the maps and engravings that are
several hundred years old. The
third part, if we think about
this as mens et manus, hand and
mind is the hand part. And there
what we've asked the students
to do is work in the Hobby Shop
to build a replica of an Early
Modern printing press, and also
to experiment with the
manufacture of paper.
So in order to build the press
we needed to come up with an
appropriate design. We had made
the decision it would be made
out of wood. The wood itself is
kind of interesting because we
were reclaiming a timber from an
old mill building in Clinton, MA.
So it was, whats called, long-leaf
pine. These are very large pieces
of wood: ten by fourteens in
cross-section. So the first thing
that we did was to saw it up
on the bandsaw and then surface
it on the joiner and the thickness
planer into the dimensions of
pieces that we wanted.
Most people here, find it really
exciting to not just get to learn
about something but to build it
and to make it happen. And to
get to the point where there are
problems with it and have to
problem solve.
I very much see the value of
having the students actually
work with some craftsmen's
tools. And do develop some
appreciation for what it means
to take a full beam, a log as it
were, and turn it into pieces of
wood that can be put together in
a way that is stable enough to
manage the pressure of actually
dropping a heavy weight onto a
platen so that an impression
can be made. And until they
actually try this themselves I
think its very difficult for them
to appreciate what's involved.
There are tremendous mis-
conceptions about how things are
made. And the good thing about
this is you really take them
through the whole process and
they really have an understanding
after its done of what's
involved. As opposed to what
you imagine was involved.
I think MIT students have an
interest in preserving good forms
of old technology and not just
moving forward without looking
back and what was good about the
past. And being able to engage
with history in the same way is
really powerful for students here.
More and more the students who
come here have interests beyond
the lab, beyond the virtual world
and are able to engage with some
of the deepest and most profound
questions in humanistic study.
They're not only builders, but
they're artists as well. It's
this rounded student whom I knew
would have a wonderful time with
this class and whom I would have
a fantastic time teaching, and
that's the way its played out.