On February 14, 2018, the Digital Publishing class of the Department of English's Literatures of Modernity program traveled to McKenzie House on Bond Street (just south of the Ryerson campus) to expand our knowledge of printing technology during the Victorian period.
As graduate students, the majority of our knowledge results from our encounters with the written and published word, but only rarely do we get a chance to directly engage with the material aspects of our research and discussion. In our study of the neglected writer and celebrated wood engraver Clemence Housman (1861-1955) – and our attempt to create an annotated digital edition of her novel The Were-Wolf (1896) – Professor Lorraine Janzen Kooistra sought to apply a more hands-on approach to our historical research. The visit to McKenzie House was intended to familiarize our class with the process of relief printing, moveable type and wood engraved illustrations set up together by the compositors and printers. Our tour guide Chris explained the various processes of historical printing methods, providing a myriad of examples and artifacts that brought to life what our group had only read about. This was augmented by Professor Janzen Kooistra’s book studies and material culture expertise, which brought us closer to the subject of our study.
The highlight of the “field trip,” as beloved cartoon teacher Ms. Frizzle would call it, was after the introduction, where we were encouraged to “go ahead, make mistakes, and get messy.” The hands-on experience of setting type, struggling to figure out which letters were which based on touch alone, and how to space them out properly made me (and the rest of the class) appreciate the expertise and skill that was involved in the publishing of those books on which we depend so much in our studies. Although the challenges of this historical printing method may not have modern day applications to our own processes, our course’s focus on exploring and experiencing the modern day challenges of digital publishing can be mirrored in our struggles with using HTML, navigating the COVE interface, and, of course, the publishing and editing of our own edition.
I personally gained insight into the remarkable skill that Clemence Housman embodied and the diversity of her professional abilities as both a writer and a wood engraver in a time where the limitations placed on her by society as a female made it difficult for her to achieve success. Gaining this understanding truly made me appreciate the effort this work must have taken at the time; overall this trip was a great indicator that immersion into a subject can take many forms and learning can come from multiple sources.