RBS Releases New Presswork Documentary

What can eighteenth-century facsimile printing presses teach us about the history of printing and technology, and about the roles that printing technologies play in the production of knowledge? “Presswork,” a public-facing program established in 2018, seeks to introduce scholars, students, and members of the general public alike to hands-on printing with historical presses. The program was created by RBS in collaboration with UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, and has been funded through a grant from the Jefferson Trust, an initiative of UVA’s Alumni Association.

The following documentary describes the scope of RBS’s “Presswork” program—charting how the project began with RBS’s commissioning of a wooden rolling press, modeled and designed after diagrams published in Denis Diderot’s famous Encyclopédie (of which UVA owns a unique copy, annotated by Diderot himself). We know of no other university, whether in the U.S. or farther afield, that has two eighteenth-century period presses positioned side by side, allowing faculty, students, and visitors to compare, in a hands-on research setting, the intaglio and letterpress technologies that were necessary for producing the illustrated books that Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries read. As the documentary illustrates, these presses were essential for interpreting how early modern and Enlightenment-era printers worked, how books and prints were fashioned, and how those processes influenced the culture of learning that fostered the growth of libraries and universities.

Appealing to audiences far beyond the small circle of professional bibliographers, the presses have captivated students, who teach with them as part of a student-led learning program, and as part of a larger outreach program geared toward engaging the general public. “Presswork” provides custom teaching labs for UVA courses and visiting groups, while training UVA undergraduate and graduate students in the technologies of printing through its RBS-UVA Presswork Fellowship Program. “Presswork” also hosts events, such as open houses for the local community. The program continues to spark new conversations, projects, and research on Grounds, fostering exciting collaborations around the legacy of hands-on printing technologies. We look forward to resuming our programming when UVA reopens.