Courses in the History and Art of The Book

The Book Lab maintains a list of current and past courses offered at Indiana University, Bloomington on topics relevant to the History of the Book and Book Arts.

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Featured Courses

Ad Fontes / Back to the Sources


Books are one of the most ordinary and familiar objects in our lives. We see them everywhere without ever really looking at them. We tend to think of books as simple containers of words and of works that can be accessed in a variety of formats: in print or in e-book, in disembodied PDF scans, or in fragmented GoogleBooks search results. Yet the book as object represents a realm of continual technological and artistic experimentation. Even today, the material existence of books runs the gamut from highly centralized and commercialized machine production to idiosyncratic handwritten memento. Books are sites of constant play between tradition and innovation, and over their long history, books have much to tell us beyond the words they transmit, especially about ourselves and our place in the natural world.

This course proposes an experiment: what happens when we look at books that we cannot read? If we can no longer access books through their content, we can instead study books as cultural artifacts, and when we do, aspects of their materials and form which have always seemed natural suddenly raise intriguing questions. Why is a page rectangular? Why are print letterforms different from handwritten cursive letterforms? These lead us to other questions about the book and the natural world: what can bookworms tell us about early print culture? What role do wasps play in the fabrication of medieval ink?

Our main focus in Ad Fontes will be looking deeply at early books, and we will be using computers to help us observe and analyze what we find: to store our data, to identify patterns in our data, to map our data onto geographical spaces, and to complete a collaborative creative project: generating new digital fonts based on historic typefaces. This course introduces students to the interpretation of primary and secondary sources; to the creation and pursuit of research questions; and to the study of rare and archival materials in collections at IUB. Class time will be spent in lecture, hands-on lab activities, group discussion, collaborative research, and individual reflection.

The Book Lab


Throughout its long history, the book as a form combines useable and beautiful. As an easy container of words, the book (or codex) made stories both durable and portable. Books could outlast speeches; they could be put in a pocket, traded, exchanged, and taken on trips. Books were, of course, hand-crafted before they were mass-produced. But whether hand-made, printed, or digitized, books had first to be designed: calligraphers, designers of fonts and typefaces worked with rubricators, decorators, or illustrators to figure out the best, most beautiful or attractive way to package the stories, or histories, or poems they published. And books came in different sizes and shapes, miniature or gigantic, pop-up or flat, all organized for different purposes.

In this class students will be introduced to varying features of book design, with attention to specific examples. Some of this work will be inductive, assisting students in asking questions about features of books that they take for granted: What is the benefit of an index and what makes for a better or worse one? When did the “table of contents” become a thing? How much illustration is too much? What’s the most attractive font for a buff-colored page? How might inventive page layout (in, say, children’s pop-up books) fundamentally change the reader’s experience in a way that can’t be duplicated in digital form? How does block printing work? What do we know of the history of ink, for printing and in manuscript? Why did fore-edge painting go out of style? What’s the difference between a book designed for show and one designed to be easily movable? 

Throughout will pay attention to the book as a physical object and a package for pictures and words. We will learn about the history of how books have been designed, and we will think together about what makes for a beautiful, desirable book.  Some of our work will be on the history of book design, examining old books held in IUB’s Lilly Library, such as William Caxton’s 1485 first edition of stories of medieval King Arthur, or the elaborately decorated edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales created in the 19th century by the independently-owned Kelmscott Press. Our experiments will engage books of different kinds: chapbooks and chapter books; miniature books and giant books; picture books and comic books. For their final project, students will implement their new knowledge of book design and book history to design a book of their own.