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Don't be a museum piece

Jul 1, 2011 12:00 AM


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Midway Village is one of thousands of living history museums scattered throughout the United States. It has a museum full of indoor exhibits, but the main draw is its outdoor collection of restored pioneer-era buildings. Midway Village features 26 historical structures, including a general store, hardware store, blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, town hall, police station, plumbing shop, bank, hotel, hospital, fire station, church, barber shop, law office, two barns, four farm houses and, yes, a print shop.

This summer, while on vacation, I took a guided tour of Midway Village from a costumed guide who was brimming with facts, figures and anecdotes about the village buildings, its former inhabitants and a plethora of related trivia. I don't think our guide stopped talking once, not even to draw a breath.

We toured all the buildings that were open that day, pausing at each to learn fascinating and useless facts: how plumbing came to the frontier; what subjects were taught in one-room schoolhouses; why blacksmith shops have dirt floors; why horseshoeing has never been automated; and even an early cure for venereal disease that became explosive if left sitting around. Do tell.

Just the facts

At the end of the tour, we stopped in the print shop. For the first time, the guide stumbled. He didn't stop, but he stammered a bit.

“The moveable printing press was invented in … in … England, yes, England I think.” I waited, eager to hear some print factoid heretofore unknown to me. It didn't come. Our guide was merely confused.

“Germany,” I said. “By Johannes Gutenberg, in the mid-fifteenth century.” I didn't bother to tell him that the press was not moveable, though the type was (nor that the Chinese invented moveable type long before Gutenberg).

“That's it, Germany! Gutenberg!” exclaimed our host, obviously relieved to have his facts straight.

Wait just one cotton-pickin' minute, here! Wasn't it just a decade ago that A&E Network named Gutenberg's story “biography of the millennium” and Time magazine named his press “the invention of the millennium”?

Fast-forward to this summer, when a historian can't even remember Gutenberg's country, let alone his name.

As we toured the print shop in the historic village, my companions all turned to me, expecting me to know the details of the equipment and the processes. Everyone was politely interested as I spoke, nodding and smiling in the same way they did when touring the farmhouses.

The onus is on us

Printing is no longer amazing. It's cool, perhaps to a few, useful — oh yes — but as for amazing, that mantle has been taken up by more contemporary inventions.

For many, buying print has become somewhat akin to taking a trip to the hardware store for screws or bolts. It is something to be done when necessary but avoided if possible.

The museum I visited displayed samples of single-page newspapers, broadsides and financial documents, all archaic items from days gone by. Neither the tourists nor the guide seemed to relate these quaint artifacts to the printed products they use in their daily lives today.

Yes, Gutenberg is dead. So are Mergenthaler, Senefelder and even (gasp!) Ben Franklin. The wonderful news is that print itself is alive and well, even though few people realize it.

If we build it, they will no longer just come. I'm not sure that they ever did. Instead, we must tell people about the wonders of print. We must educate everyone around us about the value of print, and we must make sure that everyone understands that there are many cases where print is not only the best choice, but the only logical choice.

Those of us who believe in print will continue to thrive. Those who don't will soon find their equipment and their businesses ready for the local historical museum.

Steve Johnson is president of Copresco (Carol Stream, IL), a pioneer in digital printing technology and print on demand.

Contact him via www.copresco.com.