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A visit to Letterform Archive, San Francisco

An interview with Emma Conway about her visit to the typography archive

Friday, 30 June 2023
Image of people in corridor on left and in book stacks on right

Last month, Emma Conway, the National Library's in-house Graphic Designer, visited Letterform Archive in San Francisco. Read below to find out how she got on.

Letterform Archive was founded by Rob Saunders, a collector of lettering and typography for over 40 years. As Saunders' collection grew, the need for more space became apparent, and the idea of an archive developed from there. The first iteration of the Archive opened its doors to visitors in San Francisco in February 2015, offering hands-on access to a curated collection of over 100,000 items related to lettering, typography, calligraphy, graphic design, and more. So far, the Archive has welcomed over 10,000 visitors from 30 countries, including students, practitioners, and typography fanatics from every creative background.1

Many people have an interest in typography, from designers and researchers, to the general public. Letterform Archive’s Instagram page has over 200,000 followers, with amazing engagement across all of their posts.

During her visit to San Francisco last month, Emma, our in-house designer, met with the team and explored behind the scenes. We asked her to share the main takeaways from the trip.


Workshop room with big windows

How many people work there, and what kind of work do they do?

There is a staff of over 25 people, with roles such as Exhibitions Manager, Digitisation Librarian, and Marketing Manager.


What was the most interesting piece you came across?

I was fortunate enough to be shown around by a few members of staff and was given a behind-the-scenes tour of their main collections room (thank you April, Eve, Menaja, Jada and Paola). They explained how they had recently reorganised the collections, separating the type specimens and categorising the reference books by country. One particular piece they showed me was an issue of  The Black Panther newspaper of which they had over 100 copies dating back to the 1960s. As these newspapers were very controversial at the time, you could see the hurried alignment of the prints, reflecting the urgency of the publication.


What was your reason for visiting Letterform Archive?

I'd heard about the Letterform Archive while researching international libraries and was following some of their activities on Instagram. It struck me that it would be a great place to gain insights and inspiration related to typography, design, and archiving. As the in-house designer at the National Library of Ireland, my interest in archiving and cataloguing has grown, and I was keen to see their approach firsthand. I was also interested in understanding the Archive's focus and the criteria for submissions.

Image of book on shelf

Irish Type Design by Dermot McGuinne spotted on shelf at the Letterform Archive

Did you find any Irish pieces in the Archive?

As soon as I walked in, I spotted the book Irish Type Design by Dermot McGuinne. I jokingly asked if they had placed it at the top for my visit. This book is of great importance in the history of Irish type design and references many books that we have in our library's collections, such as The Elements of the Irish Language by H. Mac Curtin: ca. 1680-1755.

I also found more contemporary Irish items, such as books from Red Fox Press, a printmaking studio based in Achill Island. Established in 2005 by Belgian printmakers Francis Van Maele and Korean artist Antic-Ham (Hyemee Kim), the studio creates limited edition books based on various themes, including some that explore the visual styles of American diners.

Image of atype specimen from letterform archive

Type specimen and Red Fox Press booklet

Apart from managing the collections, what else do they do at theArchive?

Letterform Archive also hosts exhibitions, workshops, and talks on an ongoing basis. Their current exhibition "Subscription to Mischief: Graffiti Zines of the 1990" focuses on the history of graffiti. The exhibition "highlights original works by prominent and lesser-known writers of the '90s, featuring pieces, throw-ups, and hand-styles displayed through letters, flick trade photos, and magazine submissions."2 It's an intriguing exhibition, as graffiti is not typically seen on museum or gallery walls.


What areas of work in the National Library of Ireland were of greatest interest?

The team in Letterform Archive were interested to hear about our dedicated conservation department. Since their archive is relatively small and typography-focused, they don't have a dedicated conservation team. They were also curious to learn about my personal interest and engagement with the typography and letterforms I discover at the library. I shared that I have taken up redrawing some of the letters that I come across, which enhances my understanding of the history of type and the exquisite letterings that can be found in the NLI’s collections.


Are there any collaborations in the pipeline with Letterform Archive?

Future collaborations involving workshops and talks were discussed, with ideas based around the Irish collections at the NLI that are influenced by typography, mirroring the collections at the Archive.

Also, as a thank-you gift for accommodating my visit, I presented the archivists with some Irish materials that I thought would be of interest to them. These included Director Dr Audrey Whitty's book on San Francisco artist The Albert Bender Collection of Asian Art in the National Museum of Ireland, three books from Irish typographer Clare Bell, The Irish Hand by Timothy O'Neill, and a Poetry Ireland Pamphlet from 1965 printed by the Dolmen Press. I wanted to provide insight into Ireland's connection to San Francisco, the history of printing and type design, as well as a more modern typographic book by Clare Bell.

I am looking forward to exploring potential collaborations with Letterform Archive in the near future and discovering the exciting projects we can envision together.


For more information see:

Letterform Archive
Red Fox Press
Clare Bell
National Library Catalogue
The Albert Bender Collection of Asian Art

Image of Emma Conway with staff from LFA

Staff from the Letterform Archive: April Harper, Eve Scarborough, Menaja Ganesh, Jada Haynes, Emma Conway (NLI) and Paola Zanol.

  • 1 a b More information here: https://letterformarchive.org/about/
  • 2 a b https://letterformarchive.org/news/subscription-to-mischief-graffiti-zines-of-the-1990s-exhibition/