A Contemporary View on Curatorial History : Interview with Paul Gehl

Paul F. Gehl is the custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing at the Newberry Library, the wonderful imposing structure just west of the Goldcoast across from Washington Square Park. Most people who walk by it do not know what goes on inside, so for many it is a mystical place. However, for those that are interested in railroads, the history of printing and even geneology, the Newberry is a wonderful living repository of collections.

I cannot remember exactly when and where I met Paul, but he is one of the few people that has remained in my memory as an interesting figure whose curatorial perspective is a rarity. Paul has always been engaged with many communities that intersect the large History of Printing collection, including designers in Chicago. It is in this context that Paul has been supportive of typographic courses that I taught and hosting visits to view the rare Duke of Parma’s collections printed in the Bodoni typeface.

In an age of digitalization and polyanna ephemera, it is refreshing to visit a place that still places value on printed books and their related design, typographic and production value. Yet, the Newberry is not a static place of dusty books frozen in time, but an intellectual laboratory of scholars and researchers reinterpreting ancient artifacts with contemporary questions.

An example of this phenomena is when Paul and I collaborated on an AIGA Chicago article that focused on buildings that used to be painted with typographic advertisements and company messages called “When is the façade a fallacy?.” Paul and I walked west on Madison Street looking at storefront churches and shops that still used typographic vernacular as a way to communicate with their environment and asked where has all the typography gone from buildings?

Paul continues to engage with researchers, designers and many others about the collections at the Newberry and has shown an interest in willingness to make it an active and contemporary place where history and possible futures can meet.

Why did you choose history as a major?

Well, I got involved with history as a reaction to my older brother who was going to be a scientist. We were raised in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and I attended high school at St. Thomas Aquinas, which was run by Dominicans. I grew up with a prejudice against Thomas Aquinas and medieval history as a result and ended up studying it. I then went to John Carroll University in Cleveland , as my parents wanted us to attend Catholic schools. When I finished college, I had several offers for graduate work, but chose University of Chicago. I just wanted to break out of Catholic education.

I went to the University of Chicago to study with Braxton Ross, a medieval Latinist and a specialist in paleography, the study of scripts. In graduate school you start out to study ideas you want to work on, but are molded by the professors you meet. I also got interested in medieval rhetoric and grammar and that became an ongoing interest throughout my career. My dissertation was on an eleventh-century figure and after I came to the Newberry I was influenced by its collections of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance where I wrote a major book on the 14th century.

I then was appointed curator of the History of Printing collection at the Newberry, which thrust me into the age of printing, and right now most of my research is in the 16th century with Italy as a central interest. When you head a collection, you develop secondary or additional interests. The Newberry has the most extensive collections of Chicago design the 20th century and so I have done some publishing on that subject. I also have become interested in collecting artist’s books and have written catalogue entries and exhibit catalogues, but it is not a research interest, but a love of collecting.

At the University of Chicago, I wanted to do social history as I attended in the 1970’s. Early Renaissance archival documents gave a glimpse into the non-elites history of Italy. I stared out with that in mind, but because of coursework and mentors, I became interested in rhetorical culture, which is a much older discipline. However, the Renaissance resuscitated ancient rhetorical culture. I was interested in non-elites and how rhetoric was taught at the basic level. Interestingly, Braxton Ross was classically trained in script and book history, and thought my areas of interest at University of Chicago were not very paleographical in orientation. When I published a book 20 years later, he commented that he could see thoughts discussed back in the 1970s during my time in school.

I left University of Chicago in the middle of a job crisis. After academic departments got tenured up, there were few jobs for me. I went to work for a small religious publisher in Evanston and through them got some part time teaching opportunities in the religion department at Northwestern University. I was hired to do replacement teaching at the time and picked up courses over the year. I also got an invitation to work on a volunteer project through University of Chicago for the Newberry Library to develop an international bibliography of humanism. One day, the head of the project informed me there was an opening at the Newberry in the research and education department and why don’t I put my name forward. At the time, the head of research and education was not looking for someone with a PhD, as it was an administrative opportunity. We hit it off in the interview and was hired.

When I was a graduate student the Newberry seemed pretty sleepy, I wasn’t sure if the books or the librarians were dustier. At the time everything was crammed into this old building. When I started volunteering at the Newberry, my desk was in an open corridor and there we’re a bunch of desks lined up against the windows. When I created a call slip for a document, I was asked to write on the slip Ayer Corridor to reference a collector and trustee. I thought they meant air corridor and one day one of my call slips came back with the message Editorializing is not permitted on call slips. Once I started working as a volunteer at the Newberry, I became aware of a lot of activity that readers were not aware of. On staff, I was put in charge of writing grant reports and proposals and running adult education and being available to the visiting fellows who use the Newberry. I referred to myself as the “cruise director” for these fellows to help them get things done.

It became clear to me that there was a lot to do and the Newberry became an interesting place to me. In those years in the 1980s the Newberry had a string of successful proposals to the National Endowment for the Humanities and there was a culture of serious research. We were also serving a broad public and felt to ourselves as a popularizer of research for non-experts. It was an exciting time of a unitary culture where things in the humanities could happen. We have since gone through a few changes in we conceive of ourselves. Projects based on working directly with archival materials can be done on line in ways that they were not conceivable then, and the older activities of teaching research methods have become available elsewhere. We have shifted to thinking of ourselves as a place where interesting, non-traditional research and publications can flourish. Back in the 1980s I ran a small adult education program, which has become very large with dozens of courses offered to thousands of people every year.

After 30 years, the mission of the Newberry is more diffuse and harder to define. We still do exciting things and provide a much higher level of service in the reading rooms than is usual in most libraries. For example, we have run s seminar for the last forty years for a group of undergraduate students. We work closely with them to develop their topics of interest, so they reflect our collections and we help in the interpretation of their work. One student this year started working on presidential songs in the 19th century, which was quaint and interesting, but she decided instead to work on presidential songs of the New Deal and FDR and through the 1940s, That introduced her to a wide variety of patriotic songs. This is a good example of the Newberry collections changing the research by having their own integrity and draw. Another student was interested in death and dying and the Newberry acquired the collection of Helen Sclair, who was a self taught expert on Chicago cemeteries and the funeral industry. She did an exploration of American caskets of the 1880s.

One of our most frequently consulted collections is our railroad archive and a variety of people use them: railroad buffs, economic historians, and lawyers who want to consult the papers of railroads in terms of land use and land rights. There are also social historians, who can use the archives of the Pullman Company, which was was the largest employer of African Americans; the archive has extensive information on this workforce. When I first came to the Newberry, we received a half dozen requests a month from the Railway Retirement Board for death claims. We also have the blue prints of railroad cars that people need to restore antique rail stock.

The History of Printing collection has calligraphy, type specimens, printers and publisher artifacts, private press books, and printed ephemera. Can you discuss in greater detail each facet of the collection?

That is a big question. I got involved with this area due to my paleographical training and the structure of the printed book. I proposed myself for this job in 1986 and suggested that having a medievalist looking at books from the other end of time would be helpful. This subject is larger than I ever imagined and was exhilarating to me. The second month I was here I had to give a lecture on miniature books, and I knew next to nothing about this subject. The problem of the history of the book is that it is a large area and one cannot be interested in every aspect – or an expert either. I did study the core collection secured in 1919 when the Newberry acquired the collection of Mr. Wing. At that point the library made a commitment to the history of the printing and set out to build a collection of incurables (books from the first fifty years of printing) and typefaces. Type design became the central focus of my own research and I set out to understand the meaning of printing and publishing. I was interested in script history and along the way there was an immense amount technical literature of printing as well.

As a trained historian, I collected areas that were of interest to me and already strong in the collection. For example, in 1949 Stanley Morrison, a great typographer and historian, suggested that the Newberry collect all the editions of one book title to understand how the book was interpreted typographically. This was a straightforward request. Calligraphy is easy as there are many books about it and Newberry already had the largest collection of printed books about calligraphy in the world. Calligraphy can also be difficult to buy original material, as you need to have an understanding of its history. I have been fortunate to collaborate with many individuals with my interests and be exposed to ideas and how to view our own materials in an evolving way.


What are some examples from the typographic collections are you most proud of?

The field of contemporary artist’s books is a good example as they raise all sorts of questions. This is a different genre from private/fine press books. These are artists who are doing creative things with the form of a book. Some artist’s books are mono prints, but I favor things in small print runs because they represent printed multiples. They are very labor intensive to make. I have an open door for book artists; and Chicago has a lot of visitors who are interested in the art book, so I meet a lot of people that way. When I look at an artist book, I ask what is interesting about the design or the technology and how does it work for, against or out from the Newberry collection? What most interests me are multi-lingual books where two or more languages are intertwined with one another on the same page. That has allowed me to purchase some provocative artist books.

The Newberry has a deep reputation in printing. In Chicago there are only a few institutional collectors and we all know one another. When an artist visits Chicago we notify one another and sometimes meet the artists together. For non-English material, it is harder. I keep extensive files of artists that I hear or read about and track them periodically. We have about 600 artist books from 1970 forward. It is not a large collection but I like to think that it offers an interesting overview of what it going on in the field.

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What role did Chicago play in the history of printing and typographic development?

We are thinking about this question a lot right now, since the American Printing History Association has started a new Chicago chapter and the Newberry will host the annual conference. One possible theme would be letterforms from the Midwest. Boston and New York has fine art and literary publishing traditions but Chicago was always more a center for commercial printing.

What characterized Chicago as a unique place for printing and design was the small design community where everyone knew one another. People were collaborative with one another based on a shared interest in modernist industrial education and arts and crafts movements. In terms of typography in Chicago, many individuals started in Chicago and moved to the coasts like Frederic Goudy and Will Bradley. In the post war period the most important native designer was Bob Middleton of the Ludlow Typograph Co.

The New Bauhaus in Chicago was a good example of how this worked. There was already an enormous printing industry here when the Bauhaus Boys (as they were called by Chicagoans) arrived in 1937. The locals co-opted Bauhaus ideas and from then on that tradition informed the more artistic end of printing and book arts in Chicago .That vitality between commercialism and art is what makes Chicago interesting even today. In the fine arts press movements, there were also other regional centers such as Madison and Iowa City led by charismatic individuals.


How did the Printed Ephemera collection begin?

Printed ephemera is defined as printing that was not intended to last. It is also called “small printing” and is usually associated with pamphlets and advertisements of all sorts. In England there is a research center for the study of printed ephemera at the University of Reading. They have a collection of materials going back to the 17th century arranged by subject. Our collection was started by a previous Newberry curator, Jim Wells, who was interested in the small printing of the Victorian period such as lottery tickets and watch papers (adverts that went inside the case of a fob watch), birth and baptismal certificates. Most people who collect ephemera, collect on a subject such as ice cream or ocean liners, or else they choose a genre (advertising blotters, calendars, etc.). We try to get all genres and organize by printer or by the designer.

There is a growing consensus that we need to standardize the taxonomy of collections. This has evolved as more and more collections are cataloged and made available online. The broader the collection, of course, the more “miscellaneous” categories you will have. Our current handicap is that, when we categorize by printers, the subject tends to get lost. Now with digital technologies you can index along many terms. Archivists are taking the lead in creating these databases. There is still a problem of authority of terms, especially with foreign languages. And some people just don’t get the point of collecting ephemera. Some of my colleagues joke that I am the “curator of junk mail.”


What was your motivation for “Humanism For Sale” — a scholarly history book with an American university press in mind?

It is an ongoing experience. We put it online in 2009 and started out as a scholarly monograph about marketing books in sixteenth-century Italy. I submitted the manuscript to university press publishers after ten years of research and writing. They claimed to enjoy it, but declined to publish it, saying it was just too specialized. I decided to self-publish online using off-the-shelf software. The Institute for the Future of the Book had a WordPress-based theme called CommentPress that we used to migrate the content. I think my book is the largest ever put up in that program — 120,000 words — and it allows readers to make comments section by section.

Currently my seven chapters—divided into 150 posts– have garnered about 400 comments. This online migration also allowed for more visual examples than could have ever been printed in a book. Professors are picking up this book and this fall they are using it in three classes. One was on the history of the book, where I got some interesting comments from undergraduate students. A grad seminar on historiography of the renaissance had students who know a great deal about this period and they had several thoughtful comments for me. And in a graduate seminar in German literature , they read a single chapter on illustrated poetry books and they had critical perspectives for me to expand upon.

I look at Humanism For Sale every day because I need to keep up with comments. Unlike a book that you publish and wonder how it is accepted, this is a much more dynamic object. As I do additional reading on the subject, I revisit the manuscript and I have the luxury of going online and can refer readers to links and do a miniature review of someone else’s perspective on my book. There are editioning issues, as you do not want to change the base text too much due to reference issues. If I do change something, I make a note in the “margins” –the comment fields– and I can put miniature essays there as well. It has become a cumulative object; and it is being made available through the Newberry.

The interesting experience in doing this book is that University publishers told me they could not sell 500 copies of the book worldwide. Maybe there are 150 people out there who are interested and I know almost all of them. This was a sad perspective on publishing. Most of the people that have registered as readers of my online book do know me. They make up about 75 of the 150 people that I know. Some people do find it through basic web searches. I am always amazed looking online for a subject I ams till working on, and the third or fourth reference is my book. That pleases me to no end since it means the work is easy to find if you query on specific terms in my book. I also get the most unusual readers and some fo them are extremely well informed. For example, I am in conversation with a woman who teaches Latin in Australia and is re writing a traditional Latin grammar for home schooling. The model is based on one of the Renaissance-period books I have written about. Now, we would have never met if this were a traditional book –and she might never have seen the book either if it were just sitting on a shelf. This is a wonderful irony. What we considered popular culture in the 1970s was mass culture. Today we live in a world of mass and minority cultures. With online publishing we can reach, even create niche cultures. With online publishing you can reach audiences that large university presses are not plugged in to.


With the digitalization of typography and the reverse digitalization of analog books, how do these trends affect the role and process of conservation?

This a big problem and one that is bigger than any individual or single library. There are several major libraries that have taken on this issue of preservation of digital objects as well as physical objects that have become digital objects. I am interested in this area, but for the most part, other institutions are tackling the problem. However, it is a problem for curators at a local level like me. There are many intermediate objects such as floppy disks that we receive in the context of archives and personal paper; and we have to search for a reader to read the floppy. How long will a CD last? At the Newberry we recently formed a digital policy committee for our own internal documents that will extend to new acquisitions and develop a protocol on what we digitize for further use. None of these media are currently as “permanent” as a printed book that has been around for 500 years.


Why do certain books survive?

It is the luck of the draw for many books. There is some recent literature that the bigger the book and more imposing it is the better the survival rate. Small books therefore do not survive well. 25% of what was printed in the 16th century does not survive, even with collectors madly trying to find the stuff for the past three hundred years. How do you rationalize a books existence? I am always excited when we secure an archive and find that someone saved their dance cards from high school or college that have the name of the printer and would have been lost otherwise. (This is the ephemera collector in me speaking!) Databases will help us to index all sorts of objects with metadata about the physical object to tell a fuller story about it. There are problems of language and terminology but I am optimistic that library people and archivists will figure it out. The bigger crisis is the risk that people more generally lose interest in historical materials and that we as a society do not have the social will to preserve and organize these objects.

John Warnock, the former CEO of Adobe created Octovo to scan in specific famous books to be viewed on a CD-ROM. How successful are these efforts in saving and marketing specific typographic or book histories?

That particular project was interesting as they were very high resolution –beautiful things really– but somehow the project never really took off. They came in at the moment when CDs were in transition and not long-term. Many of the people who might have been interested in the CDs really wanted to see the original instead. So it did not have a big enough audience. I am not sure I have any final feelings about Octovo, but was of momentary interest. Facsimiles are useful for some purposes, but even paper facsimiles are not really popular. We do acquire some of these in some collections. A facsimile is an artifact too.


What is the role of a curator of humanities that is increasingly dealing with digital documentation and transmission?

That is a major issue that the Newberry has been addressing based on the digital asset plan we have drafted to create a variety of online databases accessible to the public. We did this in a rather piecemeal fashion until the plan was created for a more systematic way. For example, the Newberry digitized hundreds of photographs that the Chicago Burlington Quincy Railroad commissioned in the 1940s from some prominent WPA photographers. The technology is not the problem for such projects, but we do always have to ask who is the audience and does that audience justify the expense of doing it. How do you balance one project with another? Every possible project has a unique set of issues. I would like to digitize a comprehensive iconography of the printing press starting in the 16th century, but I am not sure where the audience would come from. Our calligraphic collections have a more specific audience, but others have digitized many of the most important examples. So would our collection add something that these other online collections would not?

Being a curator used to be about collecting. Now it is also interpreting for others the meaning of these collections. Increasingly, people find the Newberry online, so we need to do much more interpretive work at a distance; and it would be great to reproduce online the kind of community of curators we already have on site to assist researchers. Ideally there are many different arrangements of a collection. We have collections that had a certain internal logic when they were acquired, but now scholars looking at these collections have different questions to ask. That affects the internal logic so the same materials mean something different today. The ideal is to have curators who have interests that are contemporary and can express relationships between things in a new way and respond to people who view these collections anew. I like that kind of creative phenomena, for example a book artist who came to me to find Turkish marbled paper samples that she wanted to digitize and do something different with. That’s really neat; she wants to do something with them that is quite different than their original intention.

There is nothing radically new in what curators do, but we need to be open to new ways to interpret the objects that we have in our collections for people who approach them for their own purposes. This is what attracts me to do those bilingual purchases since there is fluidity in language yet you fix it through printing at a point in time. The best objects of this sort are ones that will suggest future meanings.

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