I want to elaborate on the facilities post, particularly in regard to the idea of having a Book Arts program that teaches students how to use production presses: both high-speed letterpress and offset lithography. Why is it important to have this equipment? How is it beneficial for the students?
There are a few reasons why I think it is important to teach this equipment. The first is very practical: learning to use these presses will help students in finding a job after they graduate from school, because these presses are still used commercially (in small studios, generally). With the number of small, commercial letterpress studios still growing, more and more of these jobs will be available. And as I know from experience, being a letterpress printer at a small commercial studio is not a bad way to make a living, especially for someone just out of school. And commercial printing is an education all of its own.
Offset is a bit trickier, as small run shops are moving toward digital presses (should the program have a good digital press as well?). There are a few Book/Print programs that teach offset printing (University of the Arts and Columbia College in Chicago come immediately to mind) and the number of artists who print their own offset books is extremely small (see JAB 25). If offset is going to mean something as a medium, it needs to be used by artists and designers who fully understand its unique capabilities—it needs to be used for more than 4 color reproduction.
Which I think brings us to the more “abstract” reason for integrating this equipment into a Book Arts curriculum: that the use of this equipment enlarges the field of possibilities for artists, and for the art as a whole. It changes the terms of production—quantity and reach expand, without sacrificing the elements of finely tuned control that we expect and demand from “analog” processes. When the terms of production change, the discourse within and around a particular medium changes as well. Letterpress no longer has to be precious, and offset no longer has to be mechanical to the point of absolute transparency. What the processes could mean grows. How they mean becomes observable in a different way. The discourse groans and expands.
Of course, we are basing this whole premise on the larger idea that an educational program in the Book Arts should expand the field. Some might argue (more in the way that they teach and less in what they say) that the job of academic institutions is not to expand the field, but to maintain the (or establish a new) status quo. How can a program be continually expansive? Just by having some fancy equipment?