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DP: Where projects come to life

May 15, 2018 Sandra Bit, ATA News Staff
Printing/distribution assistant Jithin Chacko (left) and printing technician Craig Israel review a publication produced by one of the large-scale digital colour printers that are kept busy in the ATA’s Document Production department.

ATA’s Document Production department a hub of activity

Going by numbers alone, it’s clear that Document Production is a hopping place. While it may be largely unknown outside of Barnett House, this department within the Alberta Teachers’ Association processes thousands of work orders and millions of copies each year.

Records that date back decades suggest that this stream of “impressions” — copies of paper cranked out by machines — is the story of Document Production (known internally as DP), but DP manager Joan Steinbrenner has a different view.

“This department is really about people,” she says. “We have a group of very talented and dedicated specialists in editing, design, printing and distribution who employ their craft at a very high level in support of the Association’s mission.”

So just where did this humble, creative and hard-working group come from?

The story of Document Production is really the story of the Association itself. It is a department that was cobbled together somewhat haphazardly over a period of 50 years by bringing together an assortment of staff from disparate areas of the organization. Like Barnett House itself, the structure of DP has changed over the years in response to shifts in staffing, the Association’s needs and new technology.

Once upon a time in the 1950s, before the current Barnett House had been built and when the ATA was younger and smaller, the preparation of documents such as letters, memos, envelopes, monographs and the ATA Magazine was handled mostly by secretaries who did the editing, formatting and copying themselves on electric typewriters and Gestetner duplicating machines (except for the ATA Magazine, which was printed externally).

In those days, a centralized service of editing, design, printing and distribution did not exist, and was not needed. The number and variety of documents the ATA produced was small, limited to internal needs and the ATA Magazine until specialist councils and the ATA News were established in the mid-1960s. The introduction of specialist council publications and the News created a need for more editing and design work, which led to the hiring of editors and graphic designers, the latter called artists in those days.

Design work in particular was quite labour intensive, even well into the 1990s, and restricted mostly to black and white due to the prohibitive expense of colour printing. Former designer Joseph Smith, who started at the ATA in 1978, remembers many late nights spent manually assembling the ATA News and the magazine to meet the external printer’s deadlines.

Current ATA graphic designer Yuet Chan, who started at the ATA in 1992, also recalls how much work went into producing each issue.

“Until the late 1990s we needed to specify font sizes for titles, body text and line length for the typesetters to generate rolls of galleys … we used X-Acto knives to cut, and wax to paste the galleys onto layout grids. We sized the photographs and sent them to our darkroom technician to make PMTs (photo-mechanical transfers) or negatives. It was a very labour-intensive process. Those were the days.”

Technological advances

By the 1980s and 1990s word processing and desktop publishing machines that used floppy disks were replacing electric typewriters and offering faster, more efficient ways of editing, formatting and tracking text. The early 1980s also saw the addition of two typesetter machines and trained typesetter operators. These new machines allowed the department to produce a greater number and variety of documents.

Prompted in part by the new technology and in part by new executive secretaries who had their own visions for how the ATA’s workforce should be organized, the idea emerged in the early ‘80s of creating Central Word Services, the precursor to today’s Document Production.

In 1982, long-time staffer Marian Allison was given the role of “paperflow manager” and until her retirement in 1989 she oversaw Central Word Services and set the initial standards and protocols for many processes that are still in place today, such as maintaining consistent visual identity and document standards and school mailing procedures. Back then, a staff of two did much of the work and additional staff was added on an ad-hoc basis.

In the 1990s, job titles were updated, and the artists became graphic designers. Around 2003, when the ATA also modernized the names of its department and program areas, Central Word Services became Document Production, and it expanded from a word processing centre to encompass editing, design, printing and, a little later, web services.

The printing side of Document Production’s work has also undergone many changes over the years. The ATA has had a print shop at Barnett House since 1961, the year the current location was built. From the 1960s to the 1990s the print shop’s array of technology included an offset printing press; machines for copying, cutting, collating and binding; an addressograph; and a darkroom for processing film and producing plates for the printing press.

It was a noisy, smelly place, and a busy one, printing, copying, collating and binding every kind of document the ATA produced — except for the ATA Magazine and the ATA News — including letters, envelopes, memo pads, business cards, ARA minutes and monographs.

“People would literally scribble ideas on napkins and bring it here and the DP staff would transform that into a beautiful printed poster or a professional looking report. I was just amazed by the talent,” recalled Sheila Rolfe, who worked as a production assistant from the mid-to late ’90s.

Going digital

In the late 90s, the emergence of new design software like PageMaker and QuarkXPress, new digital printing technology and the decreasing cost of colour printing played a big role in shaping today’s Document Production department. Once the cost of colour printing became less prohibitive and design went digital, many more options for creative and colourful documents became possible. This had the effect of expanding the creative possibilities and also the workload for all DP staff.

“When I came on in 2007, we were just entering the era of colour printing being not as expensive,” recalls former DP manager Renee Hughes.

“Once everyone had [access to] colour copiers, everyone wanted to be more creative and have fancier documents with lots of colour. We went from the old mindset of keeping track of every colour page and printing mostly in black and white to printing in full colour. We had to change, to keep up with the times.”

The advent of digital film and printing meant that the darkroom was no longer needed to process film or produce printing press plates, so, like the offset printer and typesetters, it too was phased out.

Paper needs also changed, and the dusty second-floor space that once housed dozens of varieties of paper stock, spare computer parts, a dumbwaiter and the distribution manager’s office, made way for offices to house the editors, graphic designers, assistants and supervisors who occupy it today.

One final major addition to DP’s bag of tricks was the development of the ATA website and the transferring of responsibility for it from IT to DP. Initially developed by editor Harlan James and an IT staff member in 1996, the website and its content became DP’s sole responsibility in 2010.

Today DP provides an array of publishing services for all the ATA’s program areas, locals and subgroups, and occasionally external entities such as the Alberta Retired Teachers’ Association or Alberta Teachers’  Retirement Fund. It is essentially the ATA’s private publishing house.

The creativity of the graphic designers and assistants features prominently on many of the Association’s publications and campaigns, while the editors’ attention to detail ensures that print material adheres to the Association’s style, Steinbrenner says.

Print shop staff print thousands of documents on state-of-the-art equipment and distribution staff respond to thousands of requests each year, she adds.

“Document Production is a humble group of people with much to contribute, and I am amazed at their ability to pull together during tight production timelines to support the Association’s work,” Steinbrenner says.

“Each team member has a strong sense of responsibility and is content to work behind the scenes with little recognition, yet they are key to making the Association work.”

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