A remarkable new website for the Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection has just been launched, built on research and work by David Shields.
First, an abbreviated history of the collection: Rob Roy Kelly, throughout his many years of dedication to the study of wood type, amassed an invaluable collection of wood printing material. In 1966, when Kelly could no longer maintain his massive collection, it was sold to the head librarian of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Later that year it was again sold to the University of Texas at Austin, where it now remains (for the full story, see the official history). David Shields, who is currently the main caretaker of the RRK collection, has spent considerable amounts of time researching the history of the wood type industry in America, focusing specifically on information related to the collection.
David summed up the newly launched site to me via e-mail as “a history of the collection, a list of Kelly’s publications, as well as a portfolio of specimen pages for all of the types in the collection with updated history of each of the types cross-referenced with all manufacturer names and final Hamilton production numbers” … In other words, this resource presents the kind of information that type historians wish existed for every type collection.
Those that are interested can browse the site themselves, but I figured I’d point out some of the more notable elements here…
The specimen pages with detailed, updated, and cross-referenced information about each typeface present a vast improvement in the quality of collected information about any of the often-elusive histories of these designs than has ever been available before in one place. This is no doubt one of the largest aspects of David’s research so far.
Two industry-wide timelines are also invaluable resources: one summarizing the history of American wood type manufacturers, and another exhaustive listing of wood type specimen catalog publications. The manufacturers timeline is available in an interactive web-based format, and the catalog listing is presented in a standard text list (complete with bibliography), but the most informative presentation of both sets of information is as printable, high-resolution timelines, both included in a PDF document.
Given the obscurity of so much of the history of wood type, there is surely the possibility of information missing from both timelines (if you know of anything, I’m sure David would love to hear about it), but I can’t express how remarkable it is to see a collection of information like this with such a broad contextual scope. It’s the only presentation to date showing such succinct snapshots of the entire industry.
Another element of the site worth noting is the section discussing various methods of wood type production. The descriptions and comparisons of end-cut, die-cut, and veneer type don’t go into too much detail about the technical processes involved, but they do present a considerable amount of the history associated with each method.
Finally: One of, if not, the most notable aspects of this resource, is the fact that it was published digitally, online, and made freely available for all to access. Research materials and information are so often limited by physical location and various administrative access restrictions. There are certainly good reasons for this — indeed, certain parts of the RRK collection will probably never be available online — but I think that by making a substantial chunk of his research so accessible, David can only inform a larger number of people, and perhaps, in turn, inspire them to address things he hasn’t yet been able to.
When founding Woodtyper, I dedicated the journal to Rob Roy Kelly with the stated mission of “attempt[ing], in my own way, to at least begin to pick up where he left off”. However, if any one person in the world could be named as the upholder of Rob Roy Kelly’s legacy right now, it would undoubtedly be David Shields.