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Letters, Printing Made Impression on Curator

March 26, 1991|HERBERT J. VIDA

Mark Lee Barbour was a seventh-grader when he developed a passion for the way letters of the alphabet were formed.

"I could stare at a letter for hours," he remembers. "I guess I see letters as an art form. I'm totally awed at its beauty."

So much, in fact, that by the time he was an eighth-grader, he went into business as a calligrapher.

"I would do poems, quotations or whatever anyone wanted written in calligraphy," said Barbour, 25, who later discovered that while calligraphy was fun, it didn't offer a financially secure future.

So he turned to old printing presses and machines, which presented letters in a form different from calligraphy.

"I found myself focused in on them," he said.

It became so important that while he was a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he became the curator of the school's Shakespeare Press Museum, which contained a number of old printing devices.

The equipment included old type-casting machines and presses, all in working condition.

"All technology today is so scientific and difficult to understand," he said, "but while a type-casting machine is one of the most complicated machines of yesteryear, you can see how it works. That's the fun of old equipment."

As a young man, Barbour gained a reputation as curator at the museum and after graduation was hired as an assistant curator of the nonprofit International Museum of Graphic Communication in Buena Park.

Six months later, he was named the museum curator and a director. He was 23 years old, but Barbour had another significant role at an earlier age.

At 21, he taught printing to prisoners in the vocational-printing course at the Lompoc federal penitentiary.

"Actually, I was more apprehensive about being young and teaching than being among the inmates," said Barbour, who noted that the prison also serves as a government printing plant.

In the Orange County museum, Barbour takes care of an estimated 1,000 individual pieces of antique printing equipment in the modern 25,000-square-foot building. It is billed as the world's largest printing museum.

Barbour, a recognized authority on antique printing machines, wears a printing apron when he dispenses facts about the equipment to visiting individuals and groups.

Barbour, who taught himself to play the guitar, banjo and dulcimer, especially likes to relate that Benjamin Franklin in his early life was trained as a printer and wanted the word "printer" on his tombstone ahead of all other achievements.

A wooden press developed by Franklin is one of the working machines in the museum.

Barbour spends some of his time sleuthing about for old printing machines to incorporate in the museum and said that movie makers and television producers often use some of the old machinery in their productions.

The Placentia resident said "being a curator is a calling" and "the passion of my life."

He said the position as a curator of a working museum "is the job of my dreams. It incorporates all my interests. I could not ask for or create a better job for myself."

But that is not to say that he would pass up other opportunities.

"I work as if I will be here permanently," he said. "It would take a lot to entice me away from here. It is a calling that I am here."

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