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Johanna Drucker: The Memory Life of Material Things

By Joanie Harmon
Johanna Drucker, UCLA Distinguished Professor of Information Studies and Martin and Bernard Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies

Scholar of bibliography and author of “Inventing the Alphabet” showcases her talents as an essayist and painter on Substack. 

Johanna Drucker’s work deftly combines her two worlds as a top-flight academic researcher on the history and art of the book, and a creator of her own artistic tomes. In addition to these arcane realms of knowledge, the UCLA Distinguished Professor of Information Studies is very much rooted in the digital arena and has recently created her own free Substack blog, using the platform to share her reviews of books and art. 

Most notable are Drucker’s essays, ranging from a poignant account of dealing with her late father’s wardrobe to a wry observation of her own painstaking “Post-it Accounting” system, accompanied by her watercolors of objects that, according to Drucker, have their own “material life.”

Professor Drucker’s most recent book, “Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters From Antiquity to the Present,” unpacks the oft-misunderstood history of the world’s alphabets. Likewise, her Substack essays showcase her gift for revealing humanity in both the rarified academic study of the printed word and the mundane routines of personal record.

Drucker, who is also the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, shares her experiences as a writer and creator of her own art books, her journey to sharing her knowledge on a purely digital platform, and how today’s screen-obsessed generation can lose themselves in the time-honored craft of printing. 

What led you to posting on Substack?

Johanna Drucker: It is basically a platform for blogging and newsletters. A colleague had recommended it to me about a year ago, but I thought it was all subscription based and charged a fee, and I didn't want to charge people a fee for anything I was doing. I wanted a readership, but I’m a State (public) employee, so I feel like I should not be generating a revenue off my activities in that regard. 

Anyway, a friend recommended it, and then our former colleague, Jean-François Blanchette, got in touch with me this summer, and said: “You know, you really need to work on your media profile. You have so much content, and you could be putting things out in ways that you're not.” Substack allows me to write in a voice that connects with a variety of audiences. When I launched my site, I posted a personal essay, a book review, and a review of an exhibition with the idea of building a broad constituency. I will continue in this way, attending to visual art and literary work along with personal pieces.  

But with Jean-François’s assistance, I put together a program for me to start building up various platforms. His encouragement really prompted me. Now I’m working on getting some YouTube video pieces started as well. In August, I had an event at the bookstore of Hauser & Wirth, a prestigious gallery downtown. It went super well and focused on the alphabet book. 

I thought I could put together a series of very short YouTube videos that would share some of the information in that book in a very accessible kind of conversational way, and use some of the primary materials that I have that are antiquarian books or facsimiles of them. I want to  model my presentations on some of the things I benefited from during the pandemic, because I listened to all kinds of lectures and lecture series by people who were just fantastic. 

For instance, Lee Berger is a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. He did a fantastic set of very modestly filmed lectures in the vault at the university, where they have 75 percent of the hominid fossilized remains. He’s a paleoanthropologist who helped to discover some of these distinct species. He would simply sit there with a camera on him, and then he had a little cam that looked at the velvet box in which he had these two million, five hundred thousand year old fossils. It was super effective, and I came to appreciate the generosity of people who shared their knowledge in a conversational way.

One thing that is so fascinating about your work is that you are very firmly planted with one foot in academia and one foot in the art world, beyond information studies and archives. You write about Post-it Notes, the voter’s packet that comes in the mail before an election – what is the significance of these ordinary objects?

Drucker: I’m interested in writing for a very different audience, not an academic audience. The piece [on Substack] about my father's shirts–there was so much response to that. The writing is easy for me. When I'm running in the morning I get the ideas articulated. 

I’m having so much fun doing those paintings. I was out in the studio this afternoon because I had a little break, and I'm painting a picture now of the very first novel I ever wrote [when] I was twelve years old, [in] this little yellow notebook … to put on to Substack in a few weeks. 

It's sort of like, the material life of things. You know how things in our lives just have this incredible resonance across all kinds of memories or activities. Something will come in the mail, and it triggers something, from years back. So, I'm just having really a lot of fun with that.

You led the Horn Press on campus for years – how did that provide an experience with that material life of things, for your students?

Drucker: Some of the equipment was mine—the press and type. But some of the type belongs to the UCLA Department of Information Studies, along with other accessory materials. Rob Montoya got a grant from Mellon and he’s going to build a new teaching lab, which will be great. I have a whole lot of materials I’ll bequeath to him, because I’ve built up a teaching collection over the years that shows things like stone lithography, engraving and etching, silkscreens, and offset [printing]. This way students can learn about production techniques. He’ll be building that studio out at some point in the future. It’s super that Rob is continuing this. 

The Horn Press was actually established by Andrew Horn, who was the first professor of our [department] when it was a [separate] school. When the library school was founded, Andrew Horn decided he wanted students to have a hands-on experience of printing as part of their education, and so, he built the press, and acquired a lot of equipment. And then Sid Berger and others helped build it out. 

But when I got here, all that equipment had been moved to the gate house out at the Clark Library because when the [Library] School got turned into a department, it was moved over to what is now the GSEIS Building, and the building couldn't handle the weight of the presses. They were beautiful cast-iron hand presses, and the type is very heavy as well, so that stuff just went into storage. 

When I arrived, I was told about it, so I went out and brought a whole bunch of the type back from the Clark, into the room I had in the Broad (Art Center) building, because I had been given a room there as my own studio when I came. So, I had my personal press, my type, and a bunch of other material. I printed books of my own, but I used the space for teaching as well. When I set that studio up and started using it with the students, [they] said, “Let's call it the Horn Press in honor of Andy Horn.”

There was still some equipment at the the gatehouse, [which was] deemed seismically unfit. A couple of years after my arrival, I was suddenly told I had two weeks notice [to move it out]. For some reason, they thought it was my responsibility to deal with these beautiful old hand presses and some of the other stuff there. So with a couple of other volunteers, I went out there and we cleaned up the presses. We got them moved and installed one in Powell [Library], and one in the [the Charles E. Young Research Library] as exhibits. I ran a class where [MLIS students] developed interpretive exhibits around the presses. Working with the library staff, the class did the whole creative, intellectual, logistical side of building exhibits for those antique presses. 

The presses are not disabled, but they are hand presses, and hand presses are dangerous and fragile. They're made of cast iron and held together with pressure from a pin at the top, and when you pull the lever, that apparatus compresses, and it's got a spring and springs back. But if you let go too fast, the whole thing can spring apart and that giant platen can fall off, and break someone's foot. They are also very hard to print on. The little press that I had is easy to print on and it's basically the press of choice, for most current printers, a Vandercook flatbed proofing press. 

The students absolutely loved letterpress. But as I was beginning to make my plans for retirement, and talking to various people in the department and to my chair in Design Media Arts, no one was willing to take time to think about planning for the future of the press. I just felt like I needed to make sure that my equipment went to a good home. 

A letterpress fits in nicely with the California Rare Book School, and will make a great enhancement for that program.

Drucker: I used to do demos for them. Susan Allen (retired CalRBS director), who's also a letterpress printer, would come over and use the Horn Press equipment, and show people things. Again, students loved it. They go in there and start hand-setting type, and they get lost. I think it's hard for people who've grown up with all of this kind of social media and electronic media to find that place of absorption. 

Kids love it, though you can't really use lead type with children because it's so toxic. But my friend Joseph Beery, who was here for APHA (American Print History Association), was one of the people with whom I developed the Virginia Arts of the Book Center. He’s now built these little wooden tabletop presses. He does digitally 3-D printed wood type, and then gives this to kids, and they go bonkers with it, they just love it. It’s not toxic, and they can set type, and have fun and print little broadsides. You can teach kids to carve linoleum blocks if you do it carefully enough. 

As you said, young people that grew up in this generation with nothing but social media, are entranced when given something to do with their hands that is creative – when was that moment for you?

Drucker: I learned letterpress the year I was 19 and I was at the California College of Arts and Crafts. A woman there named Betsy Davids, who was the creative writing English professor in the art school, decided to buy a press and teach a creative writing and printmaking class, and I thought I died and gone to heaven. She's still my friend. I printed my first book the year after that. 

I did some painting as a kid. We had an aquarium and I painted the fishes, added their Latin names, that kind of stuff. But mainly, I was always a writer. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and so to me the idea of printing a book was really significant. I felt writing wasn't legitimate unless it was in a book. In the 1970s, if you wanted something printed, you had to have a lot of money, get published, or learn to print. And so, I learned to print.

For a excerpt from “Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters From Antiquity to the Present,” read UCLA Ed&IS Magazine on Issu.

Visit YouTube for an interview with Professor Drucker on “Inventing the Alphabet,” for the podcast, “Scientific Sense” by Gill Eapen.