“I must admit to some surprise that my teaching career at R.I.T. is worthy of an oral history, particularly after twenty-five years of retirement.”
So began the email I received from Alexander Lawson two months prior to his passing. As a printing instructor at Wells College in Aurora, New York (2000–2008) I had the pleasure of teaching typography to students through the means of hand-set type & letterpress printing. As my pedagogical model I often looked to the work of former Rochester Institute of Technology professor Alexander Lawson, who wrote so clearly & eloquently on the history & character of type. While living in New York State I was fortunate enough to spend an abundant amount of time with the typefounder & printer Michael Bixler who spoke so warmly of his old teacher. My long standing interest in oral history suggested that the best way to supplement my understanding of Prof. Lawson’s writing & teaching was to interview him in person.
By the time I collected my research, I had received a promise of financial support from the American Printing History Association. Sadly Prof Lawson passed away on Monday, 6 May 2002, the day before I was to meet him. A subsequent phone conversation with Mrs. Lawson made it clear to me that “Al was disappointed he couldn’t do more but answer a few questions via email.” Acknowledging all the research I had already accumulated, she granted me their collective permission to do whatever I wished with my research & his writings so long as it served his memory well. As disappointed as I was, the whole matter was quietly filed away for “another day.”
During the summer of 2002, I logged a third tour of duty working at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. Based on my association with his former student Mike Bixler, I was granted the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for the “Introduction to the History of Typography” course taught by Archie Provan, Lawson’s colleague at the R.I.T.’s School of Printing. I spent a lot of time digging through RBS’s teaching collection with Archie, listening to his stories, and “talking type.” He’d just retired from teaching, and told me that he cleaned out his office and had some material for me. A few weeks later I took possession of ten metal slide boxes and eight file boxes containing all sorts of typographic material: unpublished articles, journals, student papers, teaching outlines and hand-written notes by the likes of Provan, Lawson, and Hermann Zapf. Perhaps these were the dregs that did not make it into the Cary Collection, I do not know, but I used this material in my typography classes until the day I retired from Wells in 2008.
Based on Mrs. Lawson’s tacit permission, I created this website, a weblog-style archive of Lawson’s writings, much like sites dedicated to Rob Roy Kelly, Dr. Robert L. Leslie, and Ismar David, to name a few. (Check the Links for more such sites.) [In late June 2011, the editor finally made contact with both of Prof. Lawson’s sons, who gave their collective blessing, if not outright permission to continue work on this virtual archive.] It is a work in progress I hope to supplement with a full-fledged biography, a detailed bibliography, tributes, photographs, and anything else that will honor and draw attention to this man who inspired so many.
So thank you for reading. Please do check back from time to time and review the Archivist’s Notes to learn what has been updated and when. And if you are technologically inclined, please subscribe to the RSS feed.
As ever, I humbly remain,
Yours in lead, ink, paper & pixel