Last Thursday, I went with my English class to the Wolverine Press, and I must admit, I was apprehensive about our little field trip. I couldn’t really understand how a printing press had any relevance to my life today. We have digital everything now — how would visiting a printing press serve me any benefit in my writing or education? It seemed like an ancient and tedious way to do a task that could be achieved quickly through digital printing. The purpose of my class trip, as my instructor Megan Levad, the assistant director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, said, was to analyze “how different mediums and technologies can affect the reception of poems and stories.” and I frankly wasn’t convinced it mattered or that this trip would help me find an answer to that question.

Well, as it often goes, I was thoroughly surprised by the impact that this new experience had on me. We met with Fritz Swanson, the director of the Press, who walked us to the Buhr Building for our tour. Our initial reactions to the printing press were confusion and frustration, because we couldn’t come to terms with why we were there. Swanson began by asking us basic questions to try to gauge our knowledge of printing press history. He asked us who created the first printing press. Our muffled whispers quickly turned to silence as only a couple of us could respond, “Umm, someone from Germany … ”

Swanson caught on to our lack of knowledge pretty quickly, informing us that Johannes Gutenberg was credited with the invention. He began his tour by explaining some history, considering we knew close to nothing about it. Gutenberg’s goal while creating the printing press was to produce books in mass quantity, so that reading was not just a privilege for the literate, but an experience for many people to engage in. At first, printing books was looked down upon by the upper classes because books that were hand-inked were viewed as more luxurious. With the printing press, people were able to gain more information quickly and enhance their education. Swanson explained to us that the development of the printing press marked society’s shift from reading texts like the Bible to the creation of many different forms of literature.

It’s ridiculous that the majority of University literature students aren’t thoroughly educated on the importance of this invention, which was responsible for creating the variety of texts that we study. Without Gutenberg’s creation of a more efficient way to print, information would not have traveled as quickly as it did, which would have limited the development of other texts. Also, without the printing press, the process of circulating new ideas would have been considerably hindered.

The University uses the printing press primarily for the MFA students in the School of Art and Design, but also for smaller projects across campus. Swanson explained that as a university, we are very lucky to not only be able to educate students on this history, but actually provide the resources to use the printing press.

“So how is this easier or faster than our normal way of printing?”

“It isn’t,” Swanson bluntly replied.

It is the knowledge that we gain from this hands-on experience that helps us to analyze our different mediums of communication, and our receptions to those variations.

So why is it that our initial reaction as a class was to dismiss the relevance of something that is no longer used in society? The invention of the printing press marked a significant shift in the way literature was received and studied, and without it, we would be nowhere near where we are now in our study of literature. The printing press initiated the movement of mass communication across mass audiences, which significantly changed the way information was received and transferred.

I guess I just didn’t realize the value of the printing press until I marked where we would be without it. I walked out of the Wolverine Press with a refreshed view of the impact of innovation, a greater appreciation for the press, and most importantly, Swanson’s souvenir to us: a print of a blue wolverine on bright maize paper, serving as a reminder of just how far we have come in the world of literature, all thanks to some guy from Germany.

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