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St. Clair-Superior Collector Truly A Man Of Letters

Robert Donona unrolls a spool of historic fonts on microfilm.
Mary Fecteau
Ideastream Public Media
Robert Donona unrolls a spool of historic fonts on microfilm.

Like many people who use Cleveland’s downtown library, Robert Donona reserves materials a lot. So much so, the librarians know him by name.

But it’s not the latest bestsellers and DVDs he’s putting on hold.

It’s old, obscure stuff.

On today’s visit, his subject is a 150-year-old newspaper. He sits down at a computer on the library’s third floor and eases the crumbling yellow pages onto a scanner bed. He hits the button to start scanning.

The newspaper is full of old ads and articles. But what he’s after is the letters and numbers themselves. The typefaces.


The font collector

Donona, of St. Clair-Superior, is a font collector. An amateur typographer. He has been at it for more than 30 years — though his passion for letters and numbers dates back even before that.

Robert Donona creates a font based on letters he's scanned at Cleveland Public Library. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]

"When I was 4 years old, my great-grandmother bought me a box of used toys," remembers Donona, of the Hough neighborhood. "And in these toys were a bunch of plastic letters and numbers. And out of the toys I played with those letters and numbers more than I did with the rest of the toys."

That led to collecting all kinds of printed materials through his childhood.

"And sometimes I used to hate it when my great-grandmother used to throw them out when she did housecleaning," he says with a laugh.

What fascinated him so much, he says, was the beauty of the characters themselves. As a child, he was diagnosed with both a vision disorder and a nervous condition, but he says letters and numbers were always clear to him. And gazing at them made him feel happy. Calm.

The Need for Visual Variety

Over the past 30 years, Donona says he’s collected and digitized about 500 fonts. Today, he says he sees his work as a kind of ongoing battle against visual monotony.

"Man cannot live off bread and water alone, right? Well, same way in type," Donona says. "You can't make it off of Times Roman or Helvetica or Arial, you got to have a variety. Otherwise advertising or visual communication would be boring, wouldn’t it?"

To demonstrate his point, Donona pulls about a half dozen big, poster-sized sheets from his bag. They’re full of the fonts he’s collected over the years. Double columns of font names typed in the corresponding typeface. A lot of them, he made up the names for. Like 'Glorigene Cursive,' the sort of thing you might see on the front of a wedding invitation: delicate lines, with little curlicues at the base of the R’s and K’s.

"Glorigene Cursive, yeah, that was a relative," he says. "So that’s why I named it that."

Then there’s 'Scientific Lab,' a 1970s vision of the future, with stunted letters and big round dots over the i’s.

A printout shows fonts Robert Donona has collected. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]

His work isn’t just a matter of mechanically scanning in different characters. Sometimes, he ends up with a few missing letters. In those cases, he improvises.

"Like, a capital 'E' you take the bottom arm make a capital 'F.' Turn it over or omit the middle arm, there’s your capital 'L.' Take the arm off that there's a capital 'I.' Take two capital I's and put a bridge between them and there’s your 'H.'"

You might think with all this work, Donona would be looking to make money from his fonts. But for him, this a passion project. He gives his typefaces out for free to those who ask, and uses some of his favorites to make greeting cards for friends and relatives, but otherwise, the fonts exist only for their own sake — as beautiful, interesting echoes of the past, and guards against the tyranny of Times New Roman.

Note: Thanks to Chatham Ewing, digital library strategist for Cleveland Public Library, for conducting a preliminary interview for this story.

A sample sheet shows Scientific Lab, a font Robert Donona collected and named. [Robert Donona]

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.