Research Highlights / Full Story

In the Beginning...

The written word always has, and continues to have, the strongest impact and presence in the rare and irreplaceable gems housed in RIT's Cary Graphic Arts Collection. The library-within-a-library is located on the second floor of The Wallace Center, and amid the carefully labeled books and boxes is a treasure trove of antiquities on the history and practice of printing, with more than 45,000 artifacts and hundreds of primary source archives—and still growing. Many pieces resemble objets d'art.

There's an eighth century scroll, a Sumerian cuneiform tablet from 2100 B.C., two leaves from a Gutenberg Bible printed ca. 1456, alphabet stones carved with depictions of the Roman alphabet—and a room filled with 19th and 20th century historic, heavy-duty printing presses and type.

The collection even owns the first Apple Newton tablet from 1993 and the first Kindle. Mixing with the old and the new is the recently acquired 19th century iron hand press, the Kelmscott/Goudy Albion, which has put a worldwide spotlight on the entire Cary Collection.

The artifacts are preserved behind locked doors, yet all visitors are welcome. Nestled under climate-controlled conditions of 68 degrees and 50 percent relative humidity, even the most ancient and revered relics can be viewed up close—and touched.

Cary Curator Steven Galbraith, who joined RIT in 2011 from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., said his primary responsibility is to balance access and preservation.

"Our oldest printed complete book is from 1470, Johannes Marchesinus' Mammotrectus super Bibliam, and the paper used was not made from wood pulp, but linen rag. If you keep it in a moderate climate, it will last for generations to come.

"So we teach visitors how to cradle a book to take stress off the binding and structure of the book. We tell them to slow down when turning a page. There's no need to wear gloves in most cases—clean, dry hands are all that's necessary."

A True Man of Letters

The collection's namesake, Melbert B. Cary, Jr. (1892-1941), imported European metal type fonts into the U.S., and as a sideline, ran a small private press, Press of the Woolly Whale. An avid collector, he assembled a library with 2,300 volumes on printing history and the graphic arts.

After his death, the collection remained in family hands until the late 1960s, when Alexander Lawson, then a professor in RIT's School of Print Media, now known as the School of Media Sciences, noticed in an obituary that Cary's wife, Mary Flagler Cary, had recently died. (Lawson later became the first Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Professor in Graphic Arts, a post he held until retirement in 1977.)

"He was eager to bring the collection to RIT, and based on the strengths of our printing and design programs, thought it would be beneficial to students and scholars," said Cary Assistant Curator Amelia Hugill-Fontanel ('02, School of Print Media).

In 1969, the Cary Collection was donated to RIT by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust. First housed in Booth Hall, the collection was relocated to The Wallace Center in 1991.

David Pankow, former curator of the Cary Collection from 1983 until his retirement in 2012, was the pivotal force in growing the collection into a nationally recognized graphic arts resource. One of Pankow's landmark acquisitions was the Bernard C. Middleton Collection of Books on Bookbinding, one of the most complete collections of its kind in the world.

Cary Graphic Design Archive

The Cary Graphic Design Archive is under the administrative care of the Cary Collection, and came to RIT in 1984 through the vision of R. Roger Remington, Vignelli Professor of Design in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences at RIT. The collection documents and preserves the work of some 40 American graphic designers from the 1920s to 1950s.

"Researchers from all over the world come to examine the collections of iconic designers as Saul Bass, Alexey Brodovitch, Will Burtin, Bradbury Thompson, and others," said Kari Horowicz, RIT fine arts and photography librarian and manager of the Graphic Design Archive. "These collections serve as catalysts for learning and scholarship for students and researchers."

The Archive frequently lends significant visual artifacts to museums, both national and international, and the collections are actively used in RIT classrooms.

"They are wonderful teaching tools because we have original artwork from the designer, sketchbooks, sculptures, architectural models, and source materials that document the designers' working lives," said Horowicz.

New Kid on the Printing Block

The newly acquired Kelmscott/Goudy Press, the Albion No. 6551, is the current star to join the Arthur M. Lowenthal Memorial Pressroom and its collection of 15 historical presses and more than 1,500 fonts of wood and metal type.

The renowned press, manufactured by Hopkinson & Cope in 1891, sold for $233,000 on Dec. 6 at Christie's auction house. The purchase was made possible by the generous support of Brooks Bower, RIT trustee, chief executive officer of Papercone Corp., and alumnus of RIT's School of Printing Management and Sciences, now known as the School of Media Sciences.

"This press was always on our radar because we wanted it to be used as a working press, not have it sit idle," said Galbraith. "We knew it would make a remarkable addition to our collection especially because it would be a homecoming—it was once owned by Melbert B. Cary, Jr., from 1932 to 1941."

Unfortunately antique printing presses don't come with an operating manual and a set of instructions for assembly. Weighing in at approximately 3,000 pounds, the muscular looking antiquity arrived in early January "in pieces" and, under the supervision of Hugill-Fontanel, is being partially refurbished before assembly.

"We've received a huge response from printing experts across the country and Europe who are offering advice with the restoration, and are anticipating a fall reception to christen its installation here at RIT," she said.

The press was manufactured overseas in the Hammersmith district of London, and during the time frame from 1891 to 1898, produced 53 books, totaling some 18,000 copies. "Its claim to fame is that it was used by the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, designer William Morris, to print Chaucer's works," said Hugill-Fontanel.

"It has family here. We have a striking copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer in our collection—considered one of the most beautiful books ever made. And we have an oil painting by Robert A. Thom—part of our Kimberly Clark Graphic Communictions Through the Ages Series, ca. 1968-71 —where you can see Morris working with his staff at this same Albion press."

Curiouser and Curiouser

The Cary curators acknowledge there are some unusual items included in the historical collection.

"Think of comic books like Archie, The Lone Ranger, Nancy and Sluggo, and Uncle $crooge," said Galbraith with a laugh. "RIT alumnus Stephen Neil Cooper, owner of Sybille Gallery in Manhattan, donated his synchronized collection of 202 comic books that were on candy store racks and newsstands in April 1956.

"The comics provide a comprehensive window into graphic design and printing technology as well as an anthropological study of popular culture in mid-20th century America—where we look at how superheroes defy, follow, and create societal norms."

One of the collection's most curious pieces, said Hugill-Fontanel, is a plaster cast of type designer Frederic W. Goudy's hand, affectionately called "the paw" by staff.

"One professor at RIT believed 'the paw' was cursed, so anyone who touched it would get bad luck. It's still on most visitors' list of things to see in the Cary Collection."

The Arc of Learning

One of the library's central obligations is to be a hub for students and scholars—a crossroads for students and scholars to utilize everything old in an effort to create something new.

Galbraith cites working with RIT graphic design students who were designing text for iPad and tablet computers. He found one student struggling because she was wondering whether to use page numbers in the design.

"We had this great conversation about the artifacts we had on view because in the early 1500s books didn't have page numbers," explained Galbraith. "And she looked at me with this great sense of relief to learn that page numbers are only about 500 years old. It made a huge difference in how she approached her design."

Hugill-Fontanel reminds students that printing is the antecedent to terminology used everyday in the fields of typesetting and graphic design.

"Leading, a printing term where you actually have a piece of lead that goes in between the lines of type in a paragraph, is called line spacing in Microsoft Word."

And there's the familiar term, "Mind your p's and q's."

"With printing, everything is backward," explained Hugill-Fontanel. "You have to have wrong-reading type in order to print right-reading letters on a page. So a p backwards looks just like a q—it's very easy to mix them up when you are typesetting."

Each Technology Learns from the Past

Galbraith says the collection is like "a humanist island in the middle of this technology sea," but can certainly coexist within the digital age.

"That's one of the lessons when looking at the history of printing," he said. "In Europe when Gutenberg attempts printing and printing becomes a dominant way of disseminating information, it doesn't destroy manuscript (written by hand) production; it changes it. Like when television first came out, we wondered what would happen to radio. Both survived.

"There is something wonderfully physical about taking a rare book off the shelf, holding it in your hands and thumbing through the pages, marveling at the printing process, the innovative design, or special binding. Print will always have a lasting place in our world."

Hugill-Fontanel agrees, and says the collection is a fusion of the future and the past.

"The RIT Cary Collection is really on par with some renowned libraries in the country. I'd like to think Melbert and Mary Flagler Cary would be pleased with how it's grown. There's incredible history at our doorstep, and it's a privilege to be a part of it."