Rare Book School Course [Review]

By Annie Johnson
November 2015

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Review of “G-10. Introduction to the Principles of Bibliographical Description,” a course at Rare Book School

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 johnson alderman libraryRare Book School is located in the basement of the University of Virgina’s Alderman Library. Photo: author.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 At the end of July, I drove from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to Charlottesville, Virginia, to attend Rare Book School (RBS). RBS was founded by book historian Terry Belanger at Columbia University in 1983. It moved to the University of Virginia in 1992. RBS has recently expanded, and they now offer courses at satellite campuses across the United States.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I first heard about RBS from one of my advisers, Robert A. Gross, who encouraged me to attend when he learned that I wanted to pursue a career in libraries. I hold a PhD in history from the University of Southern California, but since 2014, I have been working in Linderman Library at Lehigh University as a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Postdoctoral Fellow. After assisting with a number of Special Collections projects at Lehigh, I realized that while I have a strong background in the history of the book, I needed to learn more about the book as a physical object.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In addition, as part of my postdoc I had begun work on a bibliographical project. I am creating a digital database of all the books published by the New York firm D. Appleton & Co. before 1900. I knew that a week in Charlottesville would inform this work. So, I applied for and received a Bibliographical Society of America-Rare Book School Scholarship to take “Introduction to the Principles of Bibliographical Description” (DesBib). The class really helped me think through what types of information I want to include in my project. For example, thanks to what I learned at RBS, each entry now features a description of the book’s binding cloth. Cloth was frequently used by nineteenth-century publishers in England and America as a relatively inexpensive way to bind books. With many different options for colors and grains, cloth binding helped visually communicate a book’s subject to readers.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Taught by David Whitesell, Curator of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, DesBib is one of Rare Book School’s most well-known classes. Whitesell was assisted by a group of talented bibliographers who acted as our lab instructors. The thirty students taking DesBib were a mix of academics, librarians, booksellers, and collectors. Some were well established in their respective careers, while others were just starting out (like me). This diversity was one of the things I loved best about RBS. Over the course of the week, I had many great conversations with my fellow students about their jobs and how RBS fits into what they do. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that I ended up learning just as much from them as I did from the class itself.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 johnson typefaces From the Rare Book School collection: Examples of different typefaces. Photo: author.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Unlike many other RBS courses, students in DesBib spend the majority of their time working one-on-one with printed books. The goal of the class is to learn how to produce a detailed physical description of a book in order to better understand its unique history. Every day we were given six books (mostly from the early modern period) as homework. We then had to describe how each book was made by establishing its format and collation. We had several tools to help us. We relied on miniature flashlights to detect chainlines (impressions left from the paper mould) and watermarks (designs left from wires on the paper mould). For nineteenth-century books, whose format was sometimes impossible to determine, we used tape measures to accurately record size. But our most important tool was Fredson Bowers’ Principles of Bibliographical Description. Bowers was a Professor of English at the University of Virginia, and his 1949 book helped to standardize the field of descriptive bibliography. Principles is held in high regard by Whitesell and others at RBS, and whenever we got stuck on a tricky book, we were encouraged to ask ourselves: WWBD? (What would Bowers do?) Once we completed the homework, we reviewed and compared our work in daily lab sessions.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 When we weren’t working with books, we were listening to David Whitesell lecture about paper, type, and binding, or seeing some of the things we had read and talked about in the DesBib “museums.” The museums were wonderful and showcased the amazing RBS collection. Where else can you examine a corrected stereotype plate (a printed plate cast in a papier mâché mold), gawk at beautiful marbled endpapers (leaves added to the front and back of a book by a binder and pasted to the inside cover), and sort through what must be the world’s most comprehensive collection of binding cloths?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Other highlights from the week included attending Sarah Werner’s lecture, “How to Destroy Special Collections with Social Media in Three Easy Steps,” learning how to do our own printing on the RBS common press, and taking part in Bookseller Night. That evening, we all rode the trolley downtown, where we went from antiquarian book shop to antiquarian book shop, buying books and talking to the owners. We were very excited when we learned that one of the booksellers had actually worked with Fredson Bowers himself.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Perhaps my biggest misconception about Rare Book School was that I assumed it would be a week away from all things digital. But the digital was very much a part of the conversation, both in DesBib and in the school at large. Over the course of my five days in Charlottesville, I became convinced of what I already thought to be true: a digital surrogate is a good starting point for students and scholars, but it is not a replacement for the original. It’s important that libraries digitize their collections (as Sarah Werner persuasively argued in her talk), but they also should not make the mistake of thinking that by doing so they can get rid of their print. A book has many stories to tell, and not all of those stories can be understood simply by reading the words on its pages.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 When I first told friends and colleagues I was taking DesBib, they warned me that the class was going to be rigorous. I came expecting to be challenged, but I wasn’t quite prepared to be working on homework until 10:00 p.m. most nights. By the end of the week, I was exhausted, but also exhilarated. I can’t wait to return.

Rare Book School Course [Review]

Annie Johnson

CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow – Lehigh University

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