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Summer Camp for Book Nerds: Why I Keep Returning to Rare Book School

By Nicholas A. Basbanes | HUMANITIES, November/December 2014 | Volume 35, Number 6

A week at Rare Book School on the campus of the University of Virginia starts bright and early on a Monday morning in Alderman Library with lots of protein and hot coffee, and a gentle reminder—no, make that a gentle directive—that before setting off for class, all hands are to be washed and dried in the sink conveniently located in a corner of the conference room, a routine that will be followed scrupulously in the days that follow.

Aside from the obvious, the overriding admonition being stressed is that cream cheese and fruit preserves may go great with bagels and croissants, but not so well with seventeenth-century bindings, eighteenth-century proof sheets, handmade papers from Holland, Japan, and France, or with any of the myriad other material objects from the vast teaching collections maintained here that will be minutely examined over the next five days by those in attendance.

Indeed, Michael F. Suarez, SJ, the dynamic director of what some alumni of the program affectionately call “summer camp for book nerds,” makes no bones about insisting that all other protocols for the proper handling of old volumes, miscellaneous leaves of manuscript, vintage woodcuts, copperplate engravings, lithographic prints, hand-tooled bindings, blind stamped cloth boards, marbled end-sheets—the list goes on and on and embraces everything that has gone into the making, marketing, and reception of books over the centuries—be followed as well. That includes a general prohibition on ballpoint pens for the taking of notes in any of the classrooms and “bibliographical laboratories.” For those who need a writing instrument, number 2 pencils are provided, though laptops and tablets are favored by most of the people who take these courses that are taught each summer by a veritable Dream Team of experts brought in from all points of the compass.

“These are five very full and intensive days, and we try to make sure they have plenty of energy,” Suarez quips during a break from the course he was teaching the week I was there, the fifth and final week of this year’s summer offerings, which included “The American Book in the Industrial Era, 1820–1940”; “Introduction to Paleography, 800–1500”; and “The History of the Book in China.” More than twenty-five such courses are offered throughout the summer, five during any given week, all packed into thirty hours of class, spread out over four ninety-minute sessions a day, with other “bookish” things available in the evenings, including public lectures by guest speakers, thematic exhibitions mounted from the collections, and informal wine-and-cheese get-togethers that help form bonds that endure for years to come.

Three hundred ninety-five participants enrolled this year in Charlottesville, a record high, and they represented a broad cross section of what, for want of a better description, can be called the “book world.” Students typically include special collections librarians, predictably enough, but just as motivated are postdoctoral scholars, archivists, academics, antiquarian booksellers, binders, conservators, fine-press printers, hand papermakers, private collectors, authorities from other disciplines eager to explore what for them is uncharted territory, and writers, such as myself, who wish to expand their knowledge in a specialized field.

At a time when everything digital dominates the information-delivery conversation, the great popularity that Rare Book School continues to enjoy in this cozy community of kindred spirits is a persuasive reminder that materiality still matters in some quarters. And it matters in ways that Suarez, a Jesuit priest whose curriculum vitae includes four masters degrees and a doctorate in English literature from Oxford University, believes are central to how the humanities should be taught in the years ahead, and how librarians might go about the task of serving their varied publics better.

“We start with the fact that every book is a coalescence of human intentions,” Suarez begins, a sentiment he expresses often in various iterations, and a point he makes with a degree of authority on the matter, having coedited the Oxford Companion to the Booka monumental two-volume reference work of one million words on every conceivable aspect of book history, published in 2010 with contributions from more than four hundred scholars. “We’re constantly trying to create a kind of twin ethos here, and that dual ethos is based on an authentic community of adult learning in which every individual is highly valued on the one hand, and true excellence in the classroom—scholarly excellence and professional excellence—on the other.”

Since coming aboard as director in 2009, Suarez has sharpened the focus by articulating what he makes explicitly clear are his long-range objectives. “We are trying to direct the school in such a way that it is an agent for change in the teaching of the humanities in the academy, and that more and more the hermeneutic business of the humanities isn’t just interpreting the linguistic text, but is interpreting the text in light of the books and the manuscripts that convey that text. And the best way that we can help the profession of librarianship is by showing how essential it is to have a thoroughgoing knowledge of the multiple ways that these artifacts make their meanings.”

Known also by the acronym RBS, Rare Book School was founded in 1983 within Columbia University’s School of Library Service by Terry Belanger, at that time assistant dean of the school, and in 2005 the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in recognition of his ongoing efforts as a “protector of one of humankind’s greatest inventions.” The program he designed at Columbia made extensive use of books, prints, and printing equipment he had been gathering since 1972 under the aegis of what he called the Book Arts Press—in essence a bibliographical laboratory for instructing special collections librarians and antiquarian booksellers—which became the core collection of Rare Book School.

The circumstance that led Belanger to move RBS and its twenty-ton mélange of unique teaching tools from New York City to Charlottesville in 1992 is itself evidence of the continued marginalization that the study of books as artifacts, and librarianship in general, had been undergoing at the time. In 1989, the University of Chicago Graduate Library School stopped admitting new students and closed for good, followed the next year by news that the Columbia School of Library Science would also be ceasing operations. In making that announcement, the university’s provost declared that the school founded a century earlier by Melvil Dewey was a “valuable but not vital” component of Columbia’s overall educational mission, prompting Belanger to find a new home for RBS at the University of Virginia as a nonprofit affiliate, and to set up shop in a spacious suite of rooms in the basement of Alderman Library.

To some sensibilities, the exile from Manhattan seemed to bode ill for the Rare Book School, but the school has thrived in Charlottesville, so much so that there are waiting lists now for most courses, and the curriculum is constantly expanding. The endowment has grown steadily as well, helped in part by a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, awarded in 2006, that raised $1 million, and an $835,000 bequest from Mary Ann O’Brian Malkin, a noted New York bibliophile and philanthropist. Just as telling has been the establishment of similar but much smaller efforts elsewhere, notably in France, England, Australia, and New Zealand, and on the West Coast within the University of California–Los Angeles.

As a measure of its own continuing vitality, RBS now offers selected weeklong programs outside Virginia, in Baltimore in conjunction with the Walters Art Museum; in Washington, DC, with the Folger Library and the Freer-Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian Institution; in New Haven, Connecticut, with Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; in Philadelphia, with the University of Pennsylvania; and in New York City, in conjunction with the Grolier Club and the Morgan Library & Museum. “We’re going to continue to have more venues so that we can reach more people,” according to Suarez, “and we will expand our course offerings to make them more congruent with the needs of the communities that we serve.”

The ultimate goal of the program, he continues, is to instill in its students an interpretive power—what he calls a “360-degree perspective”—that they didn’t have before. “When these people went to university they learned how to interpret the language of the text, but not to understand the book as a commodity, and as having a place in history. We want to understand the book in history, and oftentimes we even want to understand the book as an agent of history, and the only way to do that is to take the materiality seriously, and to look not only at the language, but to look at the material embodiments of the book, too.”

For the record, I have spent time at Rare Book School on several occasions over the past two decades, twice to give lectures, twice to conduct interviews for work I was doing, and twice to take courses. My first presentation was a special thrill, given in 1997 at a lectern in the Dome Room of the Rotunda, which was built in the 1820s according to plans drawn by Thomas Jefferson, America’s great bibliophile president and founder of the University of Virginia. The magisterial structure—originally the university library—stands at the crest of the historic Lawn, also designed by Jefferson, and flanked on either side by student rooms which are available to Rare Book School attendees during the summer.

The course I took in 2007—and how I came to take it—is pertinent to the caliber of the instructors who teach at Rare Book School, and to the many motivations people have for attending. At the time, I was a year into researching a cultural history of paper and papermaking, and eager to expand my knowledge. Who better to enlighten me, I thought, than MacArthur Fellow Timothy D. Barrett, research scientist at the University of Iowa and an international authority on the history and techniques of hand papermaking, and John Bidwell, Astor Curator of Printed Books and Bindings at the Morgan Library & Museum, and author of numerous monographs, most recently American Paper Mills, 1690–1832? The title of their RBS course, taught jointly, and offered in alternate years: “History of European and American Papermaking.”

On my most recent visit, I was allowed to attend classes in all five courses being offered that week, and, once again, each was taught by an acknowledged authority. They included “Reference Sources for Researching Rare Books,” taught by Joel Silver, director of the Lilly Library at Indiana University, and “American Publishers’ Bookbindings, 1800–1900,” taught by Todd Pattison, senior book conservator at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Massachusetts. A highlight of “The Printed Book in the West since 1800,” taught by Eric Holzenberg, director of the Grolier Club, was a visit to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the university and the opportunity to view up close such gems as the “Kelmscott Chaucer,” the beautiful edition of Chaucer’s works printed by William Morris, with illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones.

In another classroom, David Whitesell, curator of special collections in the Small Library and formerly the rare book cataloger for the Houghton Library at Harvard, taught “Introduction to the Principles of Bibliographical Description,” a course in which students apply methods of determining format and collation, and of describing type, paper, illustrations, binding, and the circumstances of publication, with labs and “museum” sessions in the afternoons working with materials from the collections.

Faculty for other courses ran the gamut. All come with impeccable credentials, and include such names as Mark Dimunation, Chief of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Library of Congress; Albert Derolez, formerly Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at the Library of the State University of Ghent; and Jan Storm van Leeuwen, retired Keeper of the Binding Collection at the Dutch Royal Library in The Hague.

The compact structure of RBS courses, scheduled for the most part in the summer, makes possible the participation of so much high-octane talent, which would otherwise be occupied in their principal pursuits, a circumstance that also makes possible the attendance of students who are holding down day jobs elsewhere. Some, like Vic Zoschak Jr., owner in Alameda, California, of Tavistock Books, keep returning year after year, sometimes taking more than one course a summer, and in his case, even the same course twice, the reason for the duplication of “Identification of Photo Print Processes” to pick up where he had left off the first time around in 2009 when he suffered a heart attack halfway through the week, and was admitted for treatment in the University of Virginia Medical Center. This year Zoschak took his twentieth course since 1998, almost a decade after he first entertained a dream to begin selling books as a second career, having spent more than twenty years as a search-and-rescue pilot for the U. S. Coast Guard. “Rare Book School is a godsend for antiquarian booksellers,” he tells me. “This business is all about what you know, and who you know. The knowledge you gain here, and the people you meet—I’ve found the experience addictive.”

Simon Grote, an assistant professor of history at Wellesley College, took Suarez’s course, “Teaching the History of the Book,” courtesy of a fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has provided close to $1.7 million to RBS since 2012 to help established scholars become better skilled in the nuances of critical bibliography. “I have been writing a book in which I try to explain the early eighteenth-century explosion of interest in theoretical discussion of beauty and art—what we now call ‘aesthetic theories’—in much of Europe,” Grote explains. “Under the influence of friends in other fields—particularly sociologists, literary scholars, and historians of science and technology—I have begun to recognize the importance of other contexts: individual and group psychologies, institutional structures, and parameters of genre. Michael is therefore offering me what I feel I need: a way of seeing the history of publishing as another context important for interpreting the physical objects—including books—that carried the texts I am trying to understand.”

Jay Gaidmore, director of special collections at the College of William & Mary, declared Pattison’s course on American bindings to be flat-out the best workshop-seminar that he has ever taken anywhere. “I know more now about illustration processes and book bindings than I did before. That will help me determine whether or not a book that is not necessarily old or rare deserves to be in special collections. We get offers of book donations like this all the time, and until now we just decided on whether to accept it based on how many other libraries have a copy, or if it fit into one of our subject areas. There are so many other qualities for me to look for now.”

Rebecca Romney, manager for Bauman Rare Books of its upscale gallery in Las Vegas, and known to viewers of the History Channel’s popular program The Pawn Stars as the go-to expert when the hosts need advice on the value of a book, was the lone antiquarian dealer in Suarez’s class, which is aimed largely at librarians and academics who teach courses dealing with the history of books and printing. “A lot of what I do as a bookseller is to educate people about rare books,” she says. “RBS is an amazing resource for me to learn from the top experts in their fields.”

Because all of the paper artifacts are “realia”—according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “objects and material from everyday life used as teaching aids”—they show the effects of prior use, be they folds, tears, water stains, worm holes, annotations, shaken bindings. In the instance of the seventeenth-century codices Suarez passed around on day three of his course, each volume had singes around the edges of the pages and burn marks on the extremities of the leather bindings. “These belonged to a collector in New Zealand, and they were badly damaged in a fire,” Suarez tells me after class. “Instead of throwing them away, he gave them to me as teaching tools, and they are invaluable.”

In addition to his directorship of RBS, Suarez is a university professor who teaches eighteenth-century poetry in the English department, and serves as honorary curator of the Small Special Collections Library. He is also editor in chief of Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, a publishing initiative from Oxford University Press that is establishing an interlinked series of authoritative editions of major works from the humanities. “We are taking hundreds of print editions and turning them into bona fide digital editions, fully searchable, so that people can now search individual editions, but also whole corpora of scholarly editions, not searching one text at a time, but searching hundreds of texts at a time.”

He makes that point as a way of emphasizing that “digital is not the enemy,” noting also that he has introduced courses at RBS to support that conviction. “One of the first things that I did when I came here was recruit faculty and help them design a course called ‘Digitizing the Historical Record,’ and another called ‘Born Digital Materials.’ But most of all I want people who care about printed books, as I do passionately, to have a place at the table in the digital domain. I think that the people who work on printed books have a great deal to learn from the way the digital is moving forward, but I also think that we have something to contribute to that conversation as well. So it’s going to be ‘both-and,’ not ‘either-or.’ We should never be in a posture of either-or. Doing so makes us less intelligent, whereas being capacious and hospitable, even though change may be painful, being hospitable to change makes us more intelligent over time.”

Born and raised in New York City, Suarez began to think about becoming a Jesuit while attending Xavier High School on West 16th Street in Manhattan, and went into the novitiate at the age of twenty-two after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Bucknell University in 1982. He was ordained in 1994, and has worked as a chaplain at Riker’s Island in New York, at a home for unwed teenage mothers in the Bronx, and in the Dominican Republic; he now serves as a pastoral associate at Holy Comforter Roman Catholic Church in downtown Charlottesville.

At the time of his appointment to succeed Belanger at RBS, Suarez was J. A. Kavanaugh Professor of English Literature at Fordham University and Fellow and Tutor in English at Campion Hall, Oxford University. “I had a very exciting and very comfortable life, and I thought I would never leave,” he says. “I’m a native New Yorker, and I’m a New York Jesuit, and here’s this Jesuit university in New York where I had an ideal position, and also at Oxford, where I had received all my training—whatever I may know I learned in the Bodleian Library—and then came the possibility of helping Rare Book School into a future that would help sustain its mission over the long run, and help it to reach more people, and different publics. That seemed to me worth leaving my already exciting but comfortable position to take on.”

He did not dispute my suggestion that RBS is a perfect “mid-career” fit for him, but considers the idea of longevity in one place more a matter of semantics than of any future prospects he might harbor for himself. “One of the things about Jesuits is we never retire,” he reminds me. “I saw Rare Book School as being a great instrument for the humanities . . . for helping us recover, preserve, and promulgate our heritage. Terry Belanger created something that has true genius. It’s incumbent upon me to take that to the next generation, and try to see the directions in which it needs to go in terms of education and advocacy, and outreach for the book. I saw Rare Book School as a chance to do good.”

About the Author

Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author most recently of On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand Year History, the recipient in 2008 of an NEH research fellowship, and a finalist this year for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.

Funding Information

In 2006, the Rare Book School was awarded a $333,000 challenge grant to help establish an endowment and support its programs. In 2004, Michael F. Suarez received an NEH fellowship grant of $40,000 to support his research on English satire from 1650 to 1750.