The men’s room in the basement of the Grolier Club on East 60th Street contains this platen press. All pressing needs dealt with here.

It carries a little label which explains the machine, but not its storage location:

And here’s one in operation (a platen press, not a men’s room). The video is less than a minute and half long, so just click that arrow. If you are getting this via e-mail the YouTube video may not show, so click on the title at the top of the post to view it in your browser.

A nice symmetry can be seen in the background, behind the operator’s head.

The disk shaped part is not the platen. In the video you can see the ink rollers running over the disk in order to spread the ink evenly across the image area (this is the function of the disk) before running below to ink the type. The platen is the plate onto which the operator is putting the paper, and when it moves down it presses the paper firmly against the inked type.

More history can be found at Letterpress Commons.

I’d never heard of this till I went to the Images of Value: The Artwork Behind US Security Engraving 1830s – 1980s exhibition at The Grolier Club. Siderography is a steel-based transfer method used in the engraving of bank-notes.

The U. S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (unsurprisingly) has a definition of siderography and they also reveal to us the existence of the exciting word siderographer. The Oxford English Dictionary, trusty guide, informs us that sidero- is a prefix meaning “relating to or containing iron”.*

One of their quotes, from 1900, informs us that “This system of siderography continued in use for bank-note printing in the bank of England till 1855, when electrotype-printing was introduced.” It would seem from the Bureau of Engraving site that in America this “iron writing” still continues. The Grolier Club caption also refers to the process as the transfer process. Siderography was perfected in the early nineteenth century by Yankee inventor Jacob Perkins who developed a special soft steel that could be hardened.

The process works thus: the vignette (as the artwork for bank-notes, stock certificates etc. was called) would be engraved in reverse into a flat piece of soft steel called a die. The finished die is then hardened and put onto a transfer press. A wheel-like disk of soft steel is rolled slowly over it at high pressure so that the soft steel is forced into the recessed image on the die. This results in a raised positive impression around the edge of the wheel. This wheel is then hardened at high temperature, and is then put into the transfer press where it presses the image and text into the soft metal of the printing plate. That appears to be what’s going on in the picture at the US Bureau of Engraving site. This plate, having the image recessed into its surface must thus be being used for an intalio form of printing. The Bureau refers to it as offset printing (click on the tab “How Money Is Made” at the left of the page) so I assume we are in the realm of offset gravure.

(For gravure, see A la poupée printing.)


* They also give us the word siderographist, but not -pher, and tell us that a siderograph is “A steel engraving, esp. one produced by siderography”. Incidentally — and one wonders how one has got this far through life without having to call on this impressive word — siderodromophobia is an irrational fear of railways or railway travel. I guess if you have it you’d know it. There are several other sidero- words of course. And just to keep us hopping we are also told that the prefix sidero- also covers a small number of words meaning star shaped.

Here are the engraver’s tools:

  • A: Graver
  • B: Glass (normally either 3x or 10x power
  • C: Etching point

It’s hard to imagine such detailed work being carried out with no more than these simple tools.

History educating Youth






As the caption at The Grolier Club’s exhibition, Images of Value: The Artwork Behind US Security Engraving 1830s – 1980s, tells us “In the US tradition, human flesh work and drapery (clothing) are cut with a graver; everything else is etched — buildings, animals, scenery, trains, everything other than human figures and their clothing.” Just why, we are not told. I wonder if it had anything to do with preventing forgery — the human figure was said to be the hardest to forge.

The exhibition runs till 29 April at The Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, New York.

See also Engraving a halftone block, and Die sinker.

Hans Holbein

Literary Hub brings us this handy ready reckoner so you can figure out how many books you’ll be able to read between now and your actuarially forecasted death. I was actually quite encouraged by my result, especially as they seem to make no adjustment for the obvious fact that after you stop working you have a lot more time available for reading.




25 and female: 86 (61 years left)
Average reader: 732
Voracious reader: 3,050
Super reader: 4,880

25 and male: 82 (57 years left)
Average reader: 684
Voracious reader: 2,850
Super reader: 4,560

30 and female: 86 (56 years left)
Average reader: 672
Voracious reader: 2,800
Super reader: 4,480

30 and male: 82 (52 years left)
Average reader: 624
Voracious reader: 2,600
Super reader: 4,160

35 and female: 86 (51 years left)
Average reader: 612
Voracious reader: 2,550
Super reader: 4,080

35 and male: 82 (47 years left)
Average reader: 564
Voracious reader: 2,350
Super reader: 3,670

40 and female: 85.5 (45.5 years left)
Average reader: 546
Voracious reader: 2,275
Super reader: 3,640

40 and male: 82 (42 years left)
Average reader: 504
Voracious reader: 2,100
Super reader: 3,260

45 and female: 85.5 (40.5 years left)
Average reader: 486
Voracious reader: 2,025
Super reader: 3,240

45 and male: 82 (37 years left)
Average reader: 444
Voracious reader: 1,850
Super reader: 2,960

50 and female: 85.5 (35.5 years left)
Average reader: 426
Voracious reader: 1,775
Super reader: 2,840

50 and male: 82 (32 years left)
Average reader: 384
Voracious reader: 1,600
Super reader: 2,560

55 and female: 86 (31 years left)
Average reader: 372
Voracious reader: 1,550
Super reader: 2,480

55 and male: 83 (28 years left)
Average reader: 336
Voracious reader: 1,400
Super reader: 2,240

60 and female: 86 (26 years left)
Average reader: 312
Voracious reader: 1,300
Super reader: 2,080

60 and male: 83 (23 years left)
Average reader: 276
Voracious reader: 1,150
Super reader: 1,840

65 and female: 87 (22 years left)
Average reader: 264
Voracious reader: 1,100
Super reader: 1,760

65 and male: 84 (19 years left)
Average reader: 228
Voracious reader: 950
Super reader: 1,520

70 and female: 87.5 (17.5 years left)
Average reader: 210
Voracious reader: 875
Super reader: 1,400

70 and male: 85 (15 years left)
Average reader: 180
Voracious reader: 750
Super reader: 1,200

75 and female: 89 (14 years left)
Average reader: 168
Voracious reader: 700
Super reader: 1,120

75 and male: 87 (12 years left)
Average reader: 144
Voracious reader: 600
Super reader: 960

80 and female: 90 (10 years left)
Average reader: 120
Voracious reader: 500
Super reader: 800

80 and male: 89 (9 years left)
Average reader: 108
Voracious reader: 450
Super reader: 720

Saucy for the 16th century I guess. Atlas Obscura has the story. If you wear floor-length dresses the temptation for the height-challenged to wear platform shoes must be irresistible. How did men get to enhance their height?

The flap books discussed appear in an exhibition at the New York Public Library’s 5th & 42nd main building, Love in Venice.

See also Book plus, where there’s link to yet more flap examples shown by Atlas Obscura.

We are getting all too used to hearing dire news about libraries, especially perhaps from the UK. Public funding of libraries, which used to be seen as a necessary public duty, now falls victim to austerity measures here there and everywhere. Odd to look back on the 20th century as a beacon of liberalism, but as more and more clouds gather, this may turn out to be a necessary mental adjustment despite all those wars hot and cold. I suspect that part of the “justification” for under-funding library service is provided by an easy, unexamined assumption that in a world of e-books, libraries just aren’t as necessary as they once were. No doubt it’s too late now for legislators to reverse course in recognition of the slow-down in e-book adoption.

Ellen Dolan, the director of the Shrewsbury Public Library in Shewsbury, Massachusetts and her reference librarian Walker Evans hold a couple of the gardening tools the library has been lending out along with its traditional book collection.

Librarians, you’ll be glad to know, are not taking this development lying down. One response seems to be to set off down the road of lending more kinds of stuff — not just boring old books, but a beach chair on which to sit while you read that book. The Wall Street Journal of 18 March describes this phenomenon in an article entitled Need Pruning Shears or a Ukulele?.

I guess this is OK, though is converting your public library into a free Rent-a-Center likely to endear you to public officials looking for yet more reasons to cut budgets without (heaven forfend) increasing local taxes? Manhattan may be a particularly benighted region, but I must say I’ve not noticed such non-book items on offer on recent visits to our library. We still conform more to the picture offered by Slate in April 2014 in The Future of the Library: “walk into a typical American public library and you’ll probably identify about three current core services: storing an underused circulating collection of paper books, ensuring community-wide access to Facebook on desktop computers, and sheltering homeless people.” But maybe beach chairs and gardening tools are not in high demand in our borough.

The idea from Southold of installing a little library branch inside a laundromat seems to have potential. Of course little sub-branches here and there just lead to the problem of limited choice. If you find a book you want to read while your clothes rotate in the dryer, great, if not, not. Maybe the library’s e-book collection provides the answer to this restriction.

Another — glaringly obvious — way to go is to publish some books yourself and sell them in the gift shop which is a necessary feature of any self-respecting library these days. We all know that publishing is a phenomenally profitable enterprise! So let’s get a piece of the pie. Library gift shops already sell pencils and Moleskines, and books they have to buy from publishers, so why not cut out that middleman and make your own books? Now that you can manage to make money on ludicrously low print runs, there would appear to be minimal risk in banging out a classic or two, or even having your librarians write a book tailored to their local juvenile audience. But take care: don’t let your enthusiasm run away with you, and certainly don’t increase your print run in order to be able to publish at an attractive retail price.

Here are stories of three libraries embarking on their own publishing programs. New York Public Library as recounted by The Guardian and by Book Businessthe British Library at Publishing Perspectives; and from the same source Williamson County Public Library. The catalog of the incunabula exhibition at the Cambridge University Library was published by the Library itself.

See also Libraries as publishers from 5 December 2014.

(Via The Digital Reader)

If you find this infographic hard to read you can see it better at Fair Use Week.

Will’s will

I’d never really given any thought to the question of the bequeathing of copyrights. But obviously authors can choose anybody — human body or corporate body — to be the recipient of a post-mortem copyright assignment. And that can cause problems: as this piece from Angela Hoy at WritersWeekly explains, recipients can often be reluctant to receive such gifts. (Link via The Digital Reader.) I guess there’s a big difference in your enthusiasm if you get given a book selling millions a year as against one struggling to offload twenty copies annually — and inheriting the rights to a boring book may carry with them an obligation to keep it available. When you write your will consider the possibility that your long-cherished Bildungsroman may in fact turn out to be a loser rather than a Wilhelm Meister, and cut your legatee some slack so that they don’t have to feel that they are legally bound to “do their best” by your lucubrations. And if you decide to pass on the copyright to your alma mater or some other institution like the local dog’s home, do consult them first.

Piracy is obviously “a bad thing”. Just because some heedless enthusiast once asserted “information wants to be free” doesn’t mean that information producers want the same thing. However nice it is to run around shouting liberal slogans, we do live in a world where the rule of law still hangs on. The invention of the e-book has made piracy rather easier, or certainly affordable.

As the AAP wrote in their monthly newsletter for August 2015:

Technology has changed the ways in which books, journals and other published copyrighted literary works are created, shared and purchased. Copyright law, however, is technology-neutral, meaning that copyright protections are meant to apply equally to eBooks and printed books. AAP’s recent amicus brief supporting the International Trade Commission’s (ITC) authority to address unfair trade practices involving infringing copies of such works, regardless of whether they are imported in hard copy or as eBooks, aims to defend this central principle of copyright.

Our support of the ITC’s trade authority with respect to infringing works in digital formats aligns with our top priorities for modernizing copyright, which include ensuring that publishers and other rights holders have effective tools to combat online infringements. Every year, the U.S. government publishes a Notorious Markets List [2015 is the most recent available reporthighlighting the online (and offline) markets outside the U.S. that post mass-quantities of infringing copies of books, movies, music and other creative works that undercut the royalties paid to authors, filmmakers and musicians.

Now here’s The Creative Penn on how we should embrace the pirate: better read free than unread. This is the same thought that Neil Gaiman was expressing in his 2011 video (which can be found in the link in the first line of this post). Maybe this is the spirit behind The Digital Reader‘s comment on Digimarc’s report on piracy of e-books, which they estimate at $315,000,000 in 2016. Maybe he’s being ironic in dismissing this number as “nothing to worry about”, though he does link to the Creative Penn piece, so I suspect that the remark is addressed to the narrow issue of piracy’s effects on the individual self-published author. Now it may well be that any individual’s share in the heap of pirate-pinched revenue is small, and that encouraging reading by giving away a few free downloads of a novel has the desired effect of increasing readership, but not all publishing is like that. It may well happen that a pirated copy of your novel will indeed lead to further sales as the pirate recommends the work all around. Now of course, not all books are e-books, whatever the enthusiasts might like to think. Print piracy is and remains a large problem. Given the nature of the technology it tends differentially to affect big books like textbooks and reference books. If an Oxford Chinese-English dictionary, say, is pirated in China that is purely and simply a lost sale. It’s not like the pirates go around telling their chums that there’s now this amazing thing called a Chinese-English dictionary, which suddenly releases demand for this hitherto unimaginable production. The best it’ll do is encourage more illegal downloads.

So while it may be just fine for most self publishers to blithely ignore piracy, it’s not something the whole industry can really afford to do. I don’t think 10% (if that’s what it is) is really something any company can afford to ignore. Any publisher would make fairly significant offerings to Gaiman’s gods if that would secure them an annual revenue increase of 10%.

Everyman a publisher nowadays. We don’t only have to look out for authors publishing their own stuff, and libraries and agents too, but bookstores can easily get in on the act, especially those with Espresso Book Machines.


Shelf Awareness brings us the news. “Just before Inauguration Day, January 20, Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass., printed a book containing the farewell speeches delivered by President Obama and Michelle Obama just before his term ended, the Boston Globe reported.

Called Barack Obama & Michelle Obama: Farewell Speeches, the 72-page book was printed on Paige M. Gutenborg, the store’s Espresso Book Machine. The material is in the public domain.

Marketing manager Alex Meriwether told the paper that the book was produced by the staff, with the cover designed by the bookstore manager. ‘It’s a fulfilling experience reading it as well as listening to it.'”

I dare say the Obamas are making enough on their pair of Crown books not to have any concern about this publication of public domain material, other than to welcome it. All publicity is good publicity.

Much of bookstore “publishing” consists of printing a book written by one of their customers, so more a matter of self-publishing rather than bookstore publishing. But it needn’t be restricted to that and to books which publishers have authorized for printing locally on the Espresso, as the Boston Globe story shows. For people who can’t bear to read an e-book this may be the avenue to pursue. If there’s a suitable file on-line for any public domain work you can potentially get a bookshop to print out a paperback book for you (for a fee of course). This seems to me an extremely liberating situation. It’s also a return to the early days of the book business where there weren’t businesses called publisher: there were printers and booksellers.