Tag Archives: motorcycles

Spelling Alphabets

Writing manuals of the 16th century were created as illustrated training books as one of the earliest forms of distance learning. They were made to instruct literate students the specific hands and practices required to be a commercial scribe or secretary. They were often designed to be advertisements for the writing master as well, and as such, beautiful books in their own right.
The 17th, 18th and 19th centuries expanded the scope and audience of writing books. Books concerned with teaching a wider audience the tools of literacy and communication became common. By the 19th century, British and American books, as well as toys, were being manufactured to address younger students. I wanted to concentrate on early writing manuals, but kept an eye out for material that fell outside of the 3R’s of standardized education. My experience with the Joseph SeavyWriter’s Assistant (more to come) had heightened my interest in the unusual, even if it wasn’t strictly a writing manual. Education expands one’s mind and horizons, just as this trip enlarged my understanding.
Every time I visit a library, I take a trip. Often it’s far away from the present into some distant past. I’m transported to another landscape, another mind, another experience. The librarians I encounter are the custodians of these worlds. I enter through the portal of the reading room. Like any traveler, I consider myself a guest, trying to abide by local custom, leaving my assumptions behind. What passes as an acceptable practice in one library is verboten in another. What is the rarest of treasures here may be a commonplace rare book elsewhere.
At the Firestone, I  called up material from the Rare Books Division, Graphic Arts collection, and the Cotsen Children’s Library. All the material is accessed through the online catalog. The person paging items brings the material to the desk, and the desk attendant (sometimes a librarian) brings the material to the desk. Princeton allows more than one item on the table at a time, making it easy to either scan material or do a comparative review.
The Cotsen Children’s Library holds a number of spelling alphabets in various forms. These are small, hand-held disks or rectangles where the letter is engraved into the surface and colored to show the letterform.
The ivory disks offset the colored letter, making me want to pick them up and hold them. There’s a satisfyingly organic connection when handling them which delighted me. In this particular set, the obverse of each disk had a 3 letter word accompanied by an illustration engraved and painted.
At the same time, I called up “Alphabet of bone letters” which is housed in “wooden box in the shape of a book with sliding lid.” These little letters and their box were fun to play with and arrange. Cotsen’s librarian, Andrea Immel comments about cut out letters and dating from typographic evidence in this post. when I spoke to her about these objects, she was quite helpful in answering questions about this type of educational realia.
Bone alphabet letter box; carved box in shape of book
Bone alphabet letters in box
Bone alphabet letters laid out
Bone alphabet letters in box
Going back in time, this German 16th century disk appears to be a teaching aid as well.
German bronze alphabet
Realia designed to teach the rudiments of the alphabet and spelling (and reading) aren’t writing manuals, but I had to spend time with these materials because they do relate to scribal practice.
On February 3 – 6, I will be presenting a bit of realia and typography at CODEX VII, a biannual book fair held in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have traced and modified letters from Giovann FrancescoCresci’swriting manual.   Entitled Percussive Roman, the typeface is 100pt. type laser engraved by Magnolia Editions on maple dowels.
These are meant to be inked one at a time, then placed on the paper, with the impression being made by a  blow from a mallet. While the typeface plays with reversed ground/figure relationships in type, the thinner, right-reading chip is part of a set of 53 characters in the Spelling Alphabet. I have added an ampersand to the set of upper and lower case letters. These are a direct outgrowth of the material I found in the Cotsen Collection.
Next post, I’ll write about the rest of the writing manuals and primers I viewed at the Firestone Library.

Riding to Research

Leaving Winterthur before 5:00, I went to eat a late lunch heading North. I didn’t know where I was staying that night. I had anticipated staying at a friend’s place, but misunderstood the location of his home. My plan was to get to Princeton in the morning and I wanted to be close enough to get there at opening time.

I belong to an online motorcycle forum and have a number of imaginary internet friends, some of whom I’ve met in person. One such, is my friend Bill Morris. He lives in Central New Jersey and travels about 30 minutes to work by motorcycle as often as he can. He was serving as Executive Officer of the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Lawrenceville, NJ. I called him and asked if I could stay with he and his family for about 3 nights and I’d be arriving in 2 hours at the most as I was no more than 75 miles south. Ever the moto-gentleman, he said yes and gave me directions to come to the post and hang out till he was headed home. It took me 3.5 hours to get there!

I was leaving Delaware around 4:30 and knew that I’d hit commuter traffic. East Coast roads can be a little confusing as the signage isn’t always that large or very well placed. Turnpikes are unforgiving if you miss an entrance or exit and correcting a mistake can take you out of the way. This happened to me a couple of times on my trek north so it took much longer than I expected. Bill was patient and waited till I arrived.

Bill Morris, demon motorcyclist and great guy

We told a few stories and then he pointed me back south and we retraced my last 25 miles. Bill likes to go fast – really fast. He promised to keep his bike from flying, but I don’t think he was much under escape velocity the whole time. At that time of night, the roads are fairly empty and it felt like we were on a private racecourse.  I never once tried to catch or pass him, I just tried to keep his tail light in sight! That invigorating ride was a tonic after the frustrating experience of eastern road navigation.

After 8 or so years of reading about Bill, his service and motorcycle adventures, it was nice to meet him and his family in person. His daughters get up quite early for school and they went to bed soon after I arrived. Bill and I caught up until well after midnight. Following a person online is an odd way of acquiring friends. Do they represent themselves or a facade of the person they want you to see? Will they be as tall as they look on screen? It’s a bit of a risk meeting someone you respect online. I’ve found that the people that I connect with online have, for the most part, been even better than what I imagined. Bill is one of those guys. And it was nice to see him in his work and home environments.


Morning came sooner than I wanted, but I did get a good night’s sleep. Now for a ride up 295 in morning rush hour traffic – without getting shunted in the wrong direction. I navigated most of that well, except I had to stop and check myself getting off of 95 at 206. I got out my phone and checked the map, saw that I was on track and kept riding up the used-to-be rural road. Like many outlying urban areas, farmland gives way to estates and generously spaced-out housing developments or gated communities. More traffic than the roads were designed for, so the traffic is often congested throughout the day.

As I rode into Princeton, I had to check the phone map a couple more times but finally get myself situated and get the bike parked close to campus even though I’ll have to move it in a little while. Why don’t I have a GPS, or at least a paper map? I used to be assiduous about having local maps as I travelled across the country. They were in my tank bag, so all I had to do was study them prior to that leg of the ride and then check my progress with a quick look down. I was resistant to GPS devices when they started to be used in the early 2000’s as I felt that they don’t promote being engaged in mentally acquiring the route I’m traveling. Just follow the screen and the little man on the motorcycle, and you’ll get there without thinking. Now I’m not opposed, but I didn’t see the need to buy one on the trip.

It was a bit of an ordeal, however I made it to the campus fairly early and was ready to get to work at the Firestone Library. I was psyched by the chance to see their writing manuals and other, non-book instructional aids. I’m a sucker for 3D objects, and they had a number of them to review!


Home is where the Hurricane is parked

Tecopa, CA at sunrise looking West
Tecopa, CA at sunrise looking West

I’m breaking the mostly-chronological nature of the story to report that I’ve made it back to Oakland, CA. I returned last Thursday and am getting re-acclimated to being off the road and returning to a daily routine.

As I rode through the mountains and into Death Valley, temperatures rose, but the day was so chilly that I had to stop in Furnace Creek for warmth and food. The previous couple of days were a bit challenging. I’d left Sedona, AZ on Monday, the 9th after having lunch with a couple I know from Oakland. It was bright and chilly, and I wanted to make it down from the San Francisco Peaks mountain range before it got too late in the day. I managed to do that and rode until around 7:00 with a few stops to warm up. My gloves were no longer waterproof or wind proof and I was wearing cloth gloves as liners to keep me somewhat warmer.

Around 7:00 I stopped at the Tecopa school district building to check my map and see how far I still had to travel. It could have been around the next bend, or 10 miles away, I didn’t know. The building has street lights so I felt safe stopping in the parking lot to check my phone.

As I started off, the bike died. And when I tried to restart it, the battery went completely dead and I was left without power of any kind. Because this had happened three previous times on the trip, I was familiar with the symptoms and possible cure. I pulled all my gear off to get under the seat and to the battery. I checked the wires to the main fuse block and  the fuse itself. All was in order, so I then checked the battery. It was hot to the touch. Not warm or neutral as it should be, but hot. This meant that the battery was fried from too much voltage returning to it after the alternator created electricity.

The Honda Hurricane has a regulator/rectifier that manages input and output of power through the system. I knew now that I’d have to find a new battery and the bike was not going anywhere that night. My chill was not so great as to be worrisome, but I was weary and mildly concerned as to my location in regards to the Tecopa motel I was scheduled to stay at. Still in my riding gear, I started down the dark road in hopes of finding the motel close by. After walking into the dark, I retraced my steps. I had to have faith in my mantra: “I wonder what nice people I’ll meet today.”

No car had come by in 10 minutes and I didn’t know how long it might be for the next one. I was tired and didn’t think it wise to leave the light. If someone was going to pick me up, it would be better to stand under the street light and be visible.

I said I’d start walking if a car didn’t come by in 20 minutes. Around 17 minutes into it, two cars passed me traveling in the opposite direction. I waved my cap slowly like a train signalman to get their attention. They pulled into the parking lot and were happy to take me to the motel. Brad drove his wife and friend back home just around the corner. His friend was in the second car and didn’t know the area in the dark.

When Brad picked me up we had a nice discussion and got along so I asked if he hired out as a taxi. He said he’d take me the 30 miles to O’Reilly’s and get a replacement battery the next day. True to his word, we met up in the morning and the four of us wandered northeast to Parhump, NV to replace the burned up battery.

I was happy that the new battery fit and worked properly, so I relaxed a little and sat in the hot tubs supplied as part of the motel fee. My neck hurt quite a bit from crouching down behind the windshield so I splurged and got a massage after a hot tub soak. This made me much more relaxed.

After a slow night of relaxation and further dips, I got up at 4:00 a.m. for a final soak. I wrote some and organized myself for the penultimate day’s ride through Death Valley. I wrote a few postcards and headed to the Post Office at 8:00 a.m. to send them on their way on Wednesday, Veteran’s Day.

Tecopa Post Office
Tecopa Post Office
Death Valley, CA
Death Valley, CA

Death Valley is beautiful and when it’s chilly rather than boiling hot, it’s a refreshing (if cold) experience. I was set to meet a buddy at Big Pine, CA at noon. I made it to Lone Pine, some 40 miles south, around 12:15. We connected and rather than travel north, I was able to rest and warm up while he ate and headed south. The roads were icy on Hwy 50 and that meant all passes across the Sierra were icy. The only thing to do was travel south to cut across Hwy 178 past Lake Isabella. Those canyons are quite beautiful, but cold on this wintery day. We managed to hit the last canyon after the sun was low enough to  be hidden by the mountains. But it wasn’t yet dark, so the temperature hadn’t plunged to freezing yet.

We gassed up and headed north on Hwy 99 out of Bakersfield and rode for almost another hour before stopping for Mexican food. The meal was welcome and put a little heat in us, so that we could continue on to Elk Grove where Rob lives. We made it there by 10:30. I’d started at 8:00 that morning and was thoroughly exhausted by the 660 mile ride that day.

Thursday I got up and had a great breakfast, then rolled into my shop in Oakland around 1:00 p.m. 98 days from when i left.

Return to Oakland after 98 days on the road
Return to Oakland after 98 days on the road

There are still many more stories to tell about the books and people I met along the way. And now that I’m back, I can organize my thoughts and continue the narrative.

The trip was quite successful and has energized me with both research questions and artistic ideas. I will be going back out on the road in the Spring next year to go to libraries I didn’t visit this trip. Weather dictated that I miss Boston and Rochester, so they’ll be a particular focus on my next trip and I got sick in NYC and had to cancel trips to Philadelphia area libraries.

Because I found many more things to look at than time allowed, I’ll be revising a number of libraries from the first visit. Therefore, Motoscribendi will continue.

I’ll be doing research on how to prepare and present the database. I’ve learned a few things that should help make it a more open and useful tool than I first envisioned. That work will continue and I welcome input as to how best to do it.


Coffee in Berkeley just days before leaving
Coffee in Berkeley just days before leaving Photo C. Stinehour

The Motoscribendi tour rolls out in a few hours. I packed all my clothes and camping gear, now the hard part comes: Getting the traveling writing kit together – pens, inks, paper, etc.

Packing the bike
Packing up to leave. Photo M. Smith

The t-shirts are done as you can see and have already been shipped out, so that’s been a relief to have accomplished. Thanks to Meg Smith, other fulfillment will be done while I’m gone. And she and her boyfriend are taking their bikes to escort me to Sacramento on Delta roads and twisties just to get things going.

Where am I going?

I’ve come to the conclusion that an itinerary will help – even if I change things up along the way. The list below is my first attempt at routing.

August 6th – Saturday 8th: Oakland/Santa Fe, NM
August 10th – Tuesday 11th: Santa Fe/Austin
August 12 – 18 Austin, TX
August 18 – 21 Houston
August 22 – 23 Houston/Iowa City
August 24 – 25 Iowa City, IA
August 26 Iowa City/Chicago
August 27 – September 2 Chicago, IL
Sept. 2 Chicago/Ann Arbor, MI
Sept. 3 – 4 Ann Arbor & Detroit, MI
Sept. 5 – 6 Detroit/Charlottesville
Sept. 6 – 7 Charlottesville, VA
Sept. 8 – 9 Richmond, VA
Sept. 10 Richmond/Washington, D.C.
Sept 11 – 15 Washington, DC
Sept. 16 Washington, DC/Princeton
Sept. 17 -18 Princeton, NJ
Sept. 19 Princeton/NYC
Sept. 20 – 26 NYC
Sept 27 NYC/New Haven
Sept 28 – 29 New Haven, CT
Sept. 30 New Haven/Worcester
Oct. 1 – 3 Worcester, MA
Oct. 4 Worcester/Cambridge
Oct. 5 – 8 Cambridge, MA
Oct. 9 -10 Hanover, NH
Oct 11 Hanover/Scranton, PA
Oct. 12 Scranton/Philadelphia
Oct 13 – 14 Philadelphia, PA
Oct. 14 Philadelphia/Cleveland
Oct. 15 – 17 GBW, Cleveland, OH
Oct. 23 – 24 APHA Rochester, NY
Oct. 25 – 31 Return to CA, no fixed itinerary

Remember, this is a motorcycle tour of libraries that have writing manuals and copybooks, and to keep that in mind, here’s a few more items to look at.

Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library
Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library Photo NGY
Horfei @ Harry Ransom Center Photo NY
Horfei @ Harry Ransom Center Photo NGY

I’ll see you in a few days with a report.

Many Thanks!

Many Thanks!
Many Thanks

Thanks to all who contributed  to Motoscribendi!

The final count was $6,579 and this will allow me to print and make all the Perks (they will begin going out next week) and then allow me at least 45 days on the road. While 45 days isn’t a long time to travel 12,000 miles and visit almost 20 libraries (yes, the number has increased since I started this!) I will still spend a few days at each institution and gather information, look at the books and work with librarians to develop the Census.

Below are some shots Jennie Hinchcliff took at a presentation I made at the Letterform Archive.

Motoscribendi smacky prints
Motoscribendi smacky prints
Bookcase at the Letterform Archive
Bookcase at the Letterform Archive
Pointing out a manuscript exemplar at the Letterform Archive
Pointing out a manuscript exemplar at the Letterform Archive
Van de Velde & copy
Van de Velde & copy
Pairings from bamboo pens cut by Ward Dunham
Parings from bamboo pens cut by Ward Dunham

I owe a ton of thanks to a number of people who encouraged me as well as helped organize the project. Next week I’ll get things organized enough to do a proper thank you as I have been scrambling to get all the artwork completed, sent to printers: T-shirt, sticker and offset printers.

I will be on the road by Wednesday night, August 5th. And I’ll probably leave at 8:00 pm and make all of 100 miles before I stop! I’ll continue the blog from the road.

Motoscribendi: 1 Man, 1 Motorcycle & 14 Libraries launched on Indiegogo

My Indiegogo Motoscribendi campaign is now up. I’ve made a video describing the kinds of things I’ll be looking at. I volunteered at this week’s conference of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). Hosted in Oakland and on the campus of UC Berkeley’s libraries, hundreds of librarians came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities of libraries in the digital era. It was a good time meeting up with a few old friends and meeting new colleagues from around the country.

When I wasn’t helping out, I was in my shop working on the video and cutting a woodblock logo for the project.

In process woodblock of Motoscribendi logo
In process woodblock of Motoscribendi logo

The excitement of cutting letters in wood continues to grab me. Taking a letterform and rendering it in relief in wood is physically demanding and challenging. The resultant printed image transforms the scribal experience.

I’ll have more images of writing books and my own woodcuts posted in a day or two.

A Long Distance Ride To Writing Manuals

Sometimes a motorcycle ride is just a ride. And at other times, it’s a dramatic escape from the shackles of entropy. This particular ride started with an escape and developed into a dream.
Once I closed my business after 12 years in operation, my time became my own again. I could take a trip and get on with things that I’d set aside for years. Like long distance motorcycle trips and studying writing manuals. My niece was getting married in Llano, TX and I planned to ride there and visit the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) at the University of Texas in Austin after the wedding.
The motorcycle for this little excursion is a 1987 Honda Hurricane 1000F, commonly known as a sport touring bike. My knees may disagree with its suitability for long hours in the saddle, but it was a good mount as regards power.
Packed and ready to go
I spent somewhat longer in replacing the alternator damper than I planned to. It is an arcanely designed part that spins the starter and also spins the alternator to keep the battery charged. It was buried deep within the engine cases and is known to be a difficult installation. Some things bring their own challenges and this one offered me a growth opportunity.
The wedding was on Saturday, April 11, and I’d hoped to get on the road early in the week. The mechanical challenge ate up my time but I persevered until Wednesday, April 8, 2015 when at 5:00 p.m. the bike started and ran. Rob, one of my riding buddies,  talked me out of trying to shove some items in my new saddle bags and get going that night.
I messed around until 1:00 a.m. and got up at 4:30 to leave. I was on the road a little after 5:00 a.m. heading east out of Oakland and into the morning dawn. Still dark as I rode along 580 towards I5. Traffic was backed up in the other direction but my side was pretty empty and I began to feel the excitement of the start of a trip. While I5 isn’t the most inspiring road, it was fairly empty and the cloud cover kept the temperature ideal. East of Bakersfield, Dave, my imaginary internet buddy, guided me to Barstow and south on 247 towards I10. This little road has twists, turns, elevation and climate change. Lucerne Valley is pleasant and the Morongo Valley is a little gem.
Headed towards Lucern Valley. The twisty road up the mountain is Hwy 18 which takes you to Big Bear Lake
Headed towards Lucern Valley. The twisty road up the mountain is Hwy 18 which takes you to Big Bear Lake
Old gas station and pump
Old gas station and pump
Back when cigarettes were cool
Back when cigarettes were cool
Sixteen hours after starting, I stopped in Gila Bend, AZ to stealth camp in an RV park behind a truck stop. Setting up this tent in the dark with my stiff back, knees and fingers was a bit of a comedy as I couldn’t really see what I was doing and had only used this tent twice before. Adventure!
Friday, April 10th before the workday traffic began I was back on the road and on I10 headed towards Texas. Arizona and New Mexico flew by as I meditated on my life and this trip. I was looking forward to making it by Saturday afternoon for my niece’s wedding. I had 960 miles to go and I might have made it but bailed out after the heat, hail and rain I rode through in West Texas. I got a hotel in Ozona, roughly 850 miles from the day’s starting point.
Saturday morning’s ride into Llano through the Hill Country was very pleasant with clouds and dramatic light playing across the bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush. It was one of those atmospheric tricks that happened for much of this 3 day trip that suggested that all was well in the world. The wind and sun caressed my skin in a way that felt like i was in a movie.
Hmm. I knew I was on I 10 for a long time, but I didn’t remember crossing the Atlantic

But I knew better, weather will turn on ya in a mile and make you wish you’d stayed home.

Family, old friends, new acquaintances, this is what weddings are for – and this one didn’t disappoint. I felt renewed and connected as I hadn’t in quite a while. Yes, it was worth the somewhat uncomfortable ride. And even the discomfort enriched the experience.
At The Hideaway in Llano, TX
At The Hideaway in Llano, TX
IMG_6538 1
Bluebonnets, bulletholes and dirtbikes – a typical Texas scene
On Tuesday I headed to the HRC on the UT campus. This was the scene of phase two of my calligraphic and history of the book education. In 1982, I worked in the conservation lab and then moved to the rare book reading room as a page. I wanted to look at a few of the writing manuals that I studied back then. I forgot that the HRC has one of the stellar collections of writing manuals in the United States. In conversation with the rare books librarian, Rich Oram, I was reminded of the breadth and scope of this collection that was sold to UT in 1962 by the Italian book dealer Carla Marzoli.
Horfei Copybook @ Harry Ransom Center
Horfei Copybook @ Harry Ransom Center
Horfei Copybook @ Harry Ransom Center. This book was trimmed and the pages were mounted in a larger textblock – much like a scrapbook
Call slip record
Call slip record
Unfortunately, the cataloger of that time chose not to note in a field which books came from the Marzoli purchase. It is not too difficult to read the printed catalog that was used to sell the collection. However, in this day of digital research, having a data field to cross reference all the information available would have been useful. The presumption that finding things online will be faster and easier than the old analog method of checking a card catalog isn’t always the case. We’re a long way from the utopian world of comprehensive digital access to rare books and special collections material.
Cresci @ Harry Ransom Center
There’s some difficulty in discovering where writing manuals are collected when using WorldCat. It will give you a fair description of known copies in libraries, if they were cataloged individually. Cataloging standards have changed over time and the entries in WorldCat are limited to libraries. When searching for Il Perfetto by Giovanni Fracesco Cresci printed in 1570, the Metropolitan Museum’s copy housed in their Drawings and Prints collection doesn’t appear in WorldCat since this copy was cataloged as a work of art on paper, not as a library item. I was able to look at the two copies of Il Perfetto while at the HRC. But only the 1579 edition is cataloged in their records. The second copy is bound in a 19th C. compendium of writing manuals that were cut apart and pasted into one of seven volumes of writing manuals compiled by Henry Benjamin Hanbury Beaufoy, a wealthy vinegar magnate. That catalog entry states that the collection focuses on English, Dutch and German writing books. Cresci’s books were published in Milan.
Cresci - mounted into Beaufoy @ Harry Ransom Center
Cresci – mounted into Beaufoy @ Harry Ransom Center
My trip back to California was fairly uneventful and quite pleasant. Weather was mostly perfect and I traveled off I10 up through New Mexico from Deming to Holbrook, AZ on NM180. They’ve had rain and it was green and truly spring-like in the mountains.
New Mexico sky
New Mexico sky
Modified Cherokee for hauling dogs
Modified Cherokee for hauling dogs
New Mexico post office
New Mexico post office
As I rode without a deadline, enjoying the scenery and wind and speed, my mind drifted to the writing manuals. One of the big attractions to riding a motorcycle long-distance is that it is a moving meditation. I can free-associate and let a part of my mind wander while still attending to the road and scenery. When I ride for more than five hours in a go, the continuos attention to the road settles me into a reflective mood that I don’t get very often. The prolonged continuance of this state becomes a laboratory for my mind. I shift into this creative zone where ideas that don’t come freely begin to emerge.  I can reflect on them, review them and revise them like sketches on a pad.
This is what I was doing for the five days I took to travel 2150 miles back to Oakland. In the middle of the ride, I spent a day in Flagstaff doing nothing more than walking around and resting and writing. My body didn’t need the rest as much as my mind needed to calm down from the excitement of my thoughts.
The idea that captured my imagination was a clarification of something I’ve been playing with the past few months after closing my business. I’ve wanted to combine the two passions of my life. Riding, studying writing manuals, visiting libraries and book arts friends and telling stories.
This was the genesis of the ride I’m about to take.

Finding Libraries with Writing Manuals

What is a Writing Manual?

Writing manuals teach a student how to form letters and write a particular style of writing or hand. Often, a writing manual discussed ink recipes, paper selection, how to cut a quill into a pen and how to hold it. They came into widespread use in the first quarter of the 16th century as a way to teach students how to be scribes. The first writing book to be published was written by Ludovico degli Arrighi’s La Operina and was printed from a text cut in wood.

Books with text cut in wood had been available prior to the invention of moveable type, but those books were meant to be read for the text only. With metal type, there was no way to illustrate how to form letters, and Arrighi had his text engraved in wood and printed from these blocks of text. Writing manuals quickly became Renaissance best sellers. Writing manuals were popular books because they showed how to write specific styles and they were designed to be beautiful books.

Because the text was cut in wood (later engraved in copper), the blocks were saved for later printing and often printed by different printers. Their useful life could extend beyond a century. This gave rise to a dizzying number of variants and titles.

Giovanni Batista Palatino composed and published Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivener  in 1540. As you can see from the title, the advertiser’s favorite “New and Improved” marketing technique was born. Julie L. Melby at Princeton’s Graphic Arts collection does a fine job of writing about these books in Palatino’s Tools of Writing.

The Bancroft Library’s copy Compendio del gran volvme dell’art del bene & leggiadramente scriuere tutte le forti di lettere e caratteri… from 1588, shows a previous owner’s attempt at writing out the text in the margin.

1588 Palatino @Bancroft Library. Student has copied part of the text in the lower margin.

Where are these books located & how do I find them?

The heavyweights in the history of writing have written about these books for a century. People like Stanley Morison, Alfred Fairbank, James Wardrop and Nicholas Barker dove deep into this subject. These guys were interested in how handwriting influenced type design and how these books were made and printed because they were primarily illustrated books about letterforms. Illustrated in wood or metal, the text might be all cut (therefore illustrated, not typeset) or an admixture of typographic and xylographic (woodcut) or copperplate. If you’re really interested in this, you can get lost in the subject and never even see one of the actual books. There is so much literature in both books and journals that you could spend a year reading and know only a little.

Because I have spent a lot of time looking at these books all over the US, I’m familiar with their location and know where the major collections are. Making a census of books by location will assist scholars in their research. Without this type of finding aid, it is difficult to know what is in an institution since items are not cataloged in a way that they can be found online.

I invite readers to suggest institutions with writing manuals and copybooks that I may have missed.

Map it!

I am drawing a map that will give you a view of where I’ll be headed – and loosely, when. Then you can follow along, and if I discover more institutions along the way I can visit them. The trip will begin in the Bay Area and head in a counter-clockwise direction around the US and into Canada.

Leaving the locals till last, I’ll give you a quick highlight: Huntington Library, Harry Ransom Center, UTAustin, Library of Congress, Folger Shakespreare Library, Scranton, Philadelphia, Princeton, New York Public Library, Columbia University, Yale, American Antiquarian Society, Harvard, Toronto, Chicago, Iowa City, and home to the target-rich environment of the Bay Area.

Amphiareo, 1580. Letterform Archive. First horizontal writing book.
Amphiareo, 1580. Letterform Archive.
First horizontal writing book.

Locally, the Bancroft Library at UCBerkeley has a number of items, San Francisco Public Library, Stanford and the Letterform Archive. You’ll be hearing about this new institution as my friend Rob Saunders has turned his private collection of material about letterforms into a nonprofit organization that offers digital images of the collection as well as on-site study for type designers, calligraphers, lettering artists and historians.

I’ve got a few things to prepare for my Indiegogo launch on June 19, and will be back in a day or two with more.

Here’s a few woodblock items I’ve done and printed letterpress.

Woodblock, on press with print pulled away from block.
Woodblock, on press with print pulled away from block.
Woodblock alphabet, cut in reverse. Printed letterpress.
Woodblock alphabet, cut in reverse. Printed letterpress.
Woodblock printed letterpress
Woodblock printed letterpress

Motoscribendi: Libraries, Historic Calligraphy Manuals, Book People and Motorcycles

Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library
Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library


My name is Nicholas Yeager, I’m a scholar, librarian, motorcyclist and scribe.

You know what the first three are, but what’s a scribe? Every time you write something with a pen, you are inscribing the paper (or other substrate) with your handwriting. A scribe may be called lettering artist or calligrapher these days but there was a time when the only way to record information was by writing it down. And the people that did that were called scribes.

Motoscribendi will chronicle my travels – yes, by motorcycle – to major collections of old writing manuals, copybooks and lettering instruction manuals at libraries across North America. These visits will enable me to develop a catalog of representative writing manuals that will help people locate these scattered resources. (Despite a resurgence in type design and lettering art, there’s still no centralized way to find them.)  The trip will also help me produce a modern writing manual that pays homage to this type of book.

A Little History

If Gutenberg were trying to destroy the scribal industry by inventing printing back in the 15th century, he blew it. Because one of the unintended consequences of printing was to establish a permanent place for calligraphers and scribes. Printing didn’t eliminate scribes, it created even more need for scribes to record legal, commercial, theological and medical correspondence. And printing allowed writing masters a method of recording their exact lettering instructions to teach students far from their writing schools.

How to hold the quill pen
How to hold the quill pen

My Story

Thirty-nine years ago I began to study calligraphy and the history of the book. With Patti Downing, I began a manuscript study group at the Newberry Library in Chicago. We studied various hands and book design, early printing and the large collection of writing manuals that are housed at the Newberry.

My interest in these books stayed with me and I continued to study them at the Harry Ransom Center, Columbia University’s Rare Book Room and as a librarian at New York Public Library.

Horfei's Roman Capital A
Horfei’s Roman Capital A at the Harry Ransom Center

Along with this I practiced calligraphy and graphic design, wrote about and edited calligraphic and book art publications and studied descriptive bibliography and the history of printing. I teach calligraphy and lettering and make pieces for shows and for sale.

Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library
Juan Yciar 1564 Bancroft Library

While I moved around the country, I rode motorcycles for most of that  time, having begun riding when I was 13. My love of long-distance motorcycling didn’t have an opportunity to develop until I was in my 40s and has since been a major component of my life. I have traveled to library trade shows, exhibitions and workshops on my motorcycle. Riding lets me discover what lies between the major cities I travel to – and to be fully present in all those places. It gives me the same feeling of immersion and discovery I get from studying a writing manual. In both cases, a lot of the most interesting stuff is hidden in the finest details. It needs to be experienced up close and in person.

Stroke sequence

My trip will start in mid July. I hope you’ll come along  especially if you’re new to these books and their history. I’ll discuss their design, printing and collecting history as well as my talks with historians, librarians, printers and other book arts practitioners across North America.