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Exploring Early American Printing Tools

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This is a guest post by Alyssa Molina, an intern with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Internship Program

Photograph of the interactive learning cart in the exhibition. Photo credit: Alyssa Molina.

As an intern this semester at the Library of Congress, I have engaged in incredible conversations about our nation’s past with hundreds of people from all over the world by staffing an interactive learning cart used inside the First Among Many: The Bay Psalm Book and Early Moments in American Printing exhibition. The learning cart helped visitors connect more meaningfully to the artifacts and history presented in this exhibition by exploring 18th century printing tools and processes.

I encouraged visitors to look closely, touch, and ask questions about various reproductions of printer’s tools displayed on the printing cart. Many visitors wondered how printers would have used the pair of large leather-covered wooden tools shown in the photo. These are ink balls, used to spread ink on the type once it was ready for the printing press. At the center of the cart, a square wooden case represents the much larger wooden cases used by Colonial American printers.

What I enjoyed most about working with the printing cart was listening to how visitors connected with the printing tools. One sixth grader recognized the wooden case that organized the pieces of type because her grandmother has a similar case used for storing tiny spools of thread. A man from Germany  recognized the case of type, and then explained that he had worked at a printing shop when he was a teenager making business cards and other prints. His adult children were surprised to hear this story about their father. Drawing from personal experiences encourages visitors to look at the Library’s exhibits with a deeper appreciation and to connect with real artifacts.

Printing Press mural in Evolution of the Book series

I know that printing tools are not always accessible to teachers, but this experience provided me with some teaching ideas for introducing new and old methods of printing to students. To extend the lesson:

  • Develop a virtual gallery walk showcasing some items from the exhibition.
  • Pair students to analyze murals showcasing the evolution of the book using the Library’s primary source analysis tool and report to the group.
  • Encourage students interacting with the materials to speculate about what different printing tools might have been used for.

How have you been able to incorporate artifacts from a museum visit into your instruction?

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