Interactive workshop brings the history of printing the Bible to life for students
Two lines of people stretch down the hall outside the Trollhaugen Room in St. Olaf College’s Buntrock Commons. Conversation rings out as students, faculty, and guests mingle amongst one another. People flit between the lines to get more cider or another cookie from the snack bar. There’s a feeling of excitement and curiosity in the air.
“It’s not everyday that you have an opportunity to do this,” says Vania Liang ‘24.
The lines gradually advance. More and more people appear holding small cards or posters at their side, shaking them dry while being careful to not touch the wet ink. The sound of conversation in the hall is punctuated periodically with the squeak of iron, the pressing of a lever, or the subtle rolling of ink over typeface. It’s the evening of December 6, 2023, and a crowd has gathered to print like it’s 1500. Or 1910.
The opportunity comes as part of “Printing the Bible: An Interactive Letterpress Workshop.” At the front of the lines, everyone can print their own holiday card or poster using a scale replica of a wooden screw press from early modern Europe, or an authentic 19th-century iron “clamshell” press that was used at St. Olaf between the 1890s and 1930s. In the adjoining room, artifacts of printing history from St. Olaf College are on display alongside ancient Bibles in a variety of languages, with everything coming from the St. Olaf College Archives and the Rølvaag Library Special Collections.
“There hasn’t been an event like this before on campus,” says Paige Ewert ’26. “It’s really unique, and I’m really glad we did this.”
The opportunity was not only unique, but educational as well, says Isaac Hillesland ’27. “I learned more about the history of the process and how it actually works,” he says.
The event was organized and coordinated by Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Noam Sienna and Distinctive Collections Engagement Librarian Jillian Sparks. “The idea was a collaborative process,” Sienna says. “Both Jillian and I are involved in printing and letterpress as scholars and artists, so this is a great way to combine our passions and interests with an educational opportunity for students.”
The vision for the December 6 event developed gradually. “We got the BookBeetle screw press a year or two ago to create a hands-on experience for students coming to study book history so that they can learn not just by looking at materials, but through making them too,” Sparks says.
“We got the BookBeetle screw press a year or two ago to create a hands-on experience for students coming to study book history so that they can learn not just by looking at materials, but through making them too.”Distinctive Collections Engagement Librarian Jillian Sparks
Sienna saw an opportunity to bring the material he’s teaching in class to life for students.
“I thought that would be a great way to engage students in thinking about the history of printing and translating the Bible, from Gutenberg and Luther to the present day. Then we discovered that the Library also had another printing press and cases of metal type that had once been used in a print shop on campus about a hundred years ago,” Sienna says. “So then we dove into recovering and restoring that collection to usability, and we’re super excited to print with it!”
“I thought that would be a great way to engage students in thinking about the history of printing and translating the Bible, from Gutenberg and Luther to the present day.”Religion Faculty Member Noam Sienna
The two presses are different, but that’s part of the allure. “It’s a nice opportunity to have a wooden style press and then we get that post-Industrial Revolution, iron press to contrast with it,” Sparks says.
Just as important as the printing method is the printed content. Students printed holiday cards using the iron press, and a poster with the wooden press. “We’re printing a poster with a biblical verse in six languages: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, English, and Dakota. Each of these languages represents an important part of biblical history and scholarship,” Sienna says.
The event began with a short presentation by Sienna and Sparks about the history of letterpress printing. Afterwards, the large crowd in attendance was free to line up for printing, wait and mingle, or stroll through the rare and historic Bibles on display from Special Collections.
“Because we’re at St. Olaf, we have these nice early editions of Luther’s translation of the Bible to share,” Sparks says, “and that’s a nice connection to the history of the college.”
The large student crowd in attendance was enthusiastic about every element of the evening, from the rare Bibles to the starting presentation.
“It’s been really cool,” says Emily Klein ‘24. “I loved seeing all the ancient books and the artistry in them. Learning about the work it takes to create a font and all the typefaces was so interesting, and learning where all the labor goes for all the moving parts involved in this is really cool.”
“I loved seeing all the ancient books and the artistry in them. Learning about the work it takes to create a font and all the typefaces was so interesting, and learning where all the labor goes for all the moving parts involved in this is really cool.”Emily Klein ’24
“I learned about the evolution of printing, the parts of the process, and how printing changed written communication,” says Charles Cole ‘25.
“I think it’s really fun. Book printing can be seen as something that only people with presses are able to do, so it’s nice to be able to do it casually,” says Em Haas ‘25.
Spark says it was fun to see how successful the event was. “We wanted to give the community a chance to see what materials they have access to and how they can engage with history,” she says.