By Tim Page, Washington Post Staff Writer
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- This handsome, antiquated city has long been a casual bibliophile's delight, with overstuffed and well-priced secondhand bookstores scattered throughout its compact downtown.
But the dozens of scholars who descended on a steaming Charlottesville over the past three weeks were hardly "casual" in their devotion to the printed word. Instead, they were here to attend courses like "Printing, Publishing and Consuming Texts in Britain and Its Empire: 1770-1919," "Japanese Printmaking: 1615-1868" and "History of European and American Papermaking" -- courses offered by the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, where the summer semester ended last night.
"The first thing you should know is that our typical student is not a student," Terry Belanger, the director of the Rare Book School, said during a morning break between the all-day classes. "The average age of our participants is about 40, and most of them have a long and serious involvement with books -- whether as librarians, conservators, booksellers, collectors, academics or some combination of the above. This is continuing education, and we offer no academic credit. People come to us because they want to learn -- period -- and they come from all over."
"After all, where are you going to find a course in medieval bookbinding in North Dakota?"
Belanger founded the Rare Book School at Columbia University in 1983; it has been in residence at the University of Virginia since 1992. The emphasis is on books themselves, rather than on their intellectual substance. And so the talk is not of James Joyce's inspired wordplay or Virginia Woolf's contributions to feminist theory, but rather to the ink, typeface, paper and bindings used to contain and convey their ideas. The Rare Book School offers studies in a medium, not its messages.
For example, the school's library has 400 copies of "Lucille," an epic 19th-century poem published by the much-maligned Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (writing under the pseudonym "Owen Meredith") -- all of which are infinitely more likely to be examined than to be read. Five seemingly identical copies of Willa Cather's last novel, "Sapphira and the Slave Girl" (1940) share a shelf; only the specialist will be able to tell the first edition from the fourth, or the advance version that was sent out to a handful of book reviewers (now quite valuable) from the popular book club edition (which was manufactured by the thousands).
"We have a lot of junk here," Belanger said with a sense of satisfaction as he led a visitor into the cool recesses of the basement of the University of Virginia's Alderman Library. "We have a lot of treasures, too, but for our purposes, the junk may be more valuable. Bad copies of good books -- that's my motto."
He brought out a 1586 edition of "Holinshed's Chronicles" -- a vast, encyclopedic history by Raphael Holinshed that provided source material for Edmund Spenser's "Faerie Queen" and for several of Shakespeare's tragedies. "This comes from one of the world's great antiquarian bookshops, and they just gave it to us. Why? Well, for a couple of reasons. First, because they like us and want to support what we do and, second, because it is in simply terrible condition. Look -- the pages are rotting away, the cover is disintegrating, everything is falling apart." He smiled. "It's perfect."
"This may just be the worst copy of 'Holinshed' in the world," Belanger continued. "Oh, it might be worth $200 to some collector, but a copy in any sort of decent condition is worth $20,000. I believe in hands-on instruction as much as possible and it is a tremendous luxury to have a copy of 'Holinshed' with interiors that can be examined, handled, even taken apart by our participants."
He laughed. "Nobody would sacrifice a perfect copy for that!"
According to John Buchtel, curator of collections for the Rare Book School, the history of books can be divided into three distinct periods. "First, there was the manuscript era, with unique books by monks, scribes and scholars," he explained. "In the 15th century came Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press, which was operated by hand for the next 400 years or so. And then, in the 19th century, you have the beginning of the machine age, which allowed for infinitely greater press runs."
Even then, creating a book was a great deal of work. Belanger estimates that a mid-Victorian typesetter could prepare only about 15 pages of material in a day. "If you take something like 'David Copperfield,' 900 pages long -- well, you can do the math, but it would have taken a couple of months anyway, if only one person had been working on it."
"Plus, Dickens's handwriting was a bitch, so it might have taken longer."
After the type was set, it was still necessary to choose an appropriate paper, to fold the sheets to create a readable narrative, to stitch the book together and select a binding. Belanger finds substantial differences in the qualities of goat, calf and sheepskins, the three principal animal hides used in bookbinding. Sheep is the least expensive, and Belanger notes that it takes "staining, mottling, artificial graining, dyeing, tooling and stamping well," while remaining "less durable than either calf or goat."
Not surprisingly, the Rare Book School's corner of the Alderman Library is filled with books about books, including a massive Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible: 1525-1961, published in London by the British and Foreign Bible Society and in the United States by the American Bible Society.
A 1631 edition was dubbed the "Wicked Bible," due to an unfortunate typographical error in Exodus 20:14 that has the Seventh Commandment reading: "Thou shalt commit adultery." "The printers are said to have been fined 300 pounds for the offence," reads an explanatory note. "As the edition of 1,000 copies was ordered to be suppressed, specimens are very rare. . . . "
Another reference work, John Carter's A.B.C. for Book Collectors, offers a splendid introduction to professional terminology. It delineates the bookseller distinctions between an inexpensive "reading copy" of a volume (it is likely in poor shape) and a "working copy" (even worse). The A.B.C. has moments of real wit, such as this definition of something it calls "deckle-fetishism": "The over-zealous, undiscriminating (and often very expensive) passion for uncut edges in books that were intended to have their edges cut."
Many of the participants in the school this year knew one another. Heather Horechny is a cataloguer at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where her specialty is modern books and playbills. She took a course called "Implementing Encoded Archival Description," which, she hopes, will help her to describe more easily and accurately the library's holdings online.
Julia Dupuis Blakely was also at the Folger until recently, where she was active in cataloguing the library's very earliest books and manuscripts -- "up to 1640," she said with a smile. She has recently moved on to the Society of the Cincinnati on Massachusetts Avenue, where she has been appointed acquisitions librarian. "We want to be the leading library for military history," she said.
It is a point of pride for Belanger that his faculty members return summer after summer. "Some of our teachers have been here since the beginning," he said. "We certainly can't pay very much, so they must come because they believe they have something to share and because they think what we are doing is important."
"You must realize that this is a very small field, as compared to, say, stamp collecting or gardening," he continued. "There are at least 100,000 dead-serious stamp collectors in this country, as there are at least that many different subscribers for the three weekly papers devoted to stamp collecting. But there is only one monthly magazine for book collectors -- Firsts, it is called -- and it only reaches three or four thousand people. For a while, it had a rival, another monthly called Biblio, but they couldn't make a go of it and it folded.
"Here's another example. There are 550 law schools in this country. That means there are at least 550 faculty members who specialize in trade contracts, because every law school offers that course. But there are exactly three professional jobs for specialists in historical children's literature -- at the University of Minnesota, at Princeton and at the University of Southern Mississippi. Anybody who lands one of those positions isn't likely to give it up any time soon."
Belanger, 60, found himself in library studies almost by chance. "I had begun my doctorate at Columbia University in 1963, during the biggest teacher shortage the country has ever known," he recalled. "By the time I graduated with my doctorate in 18th-century English literature, the job market looked very different, for we were at the beginning of the greatest teacher glut the country has ever known. And while I was trying to decide what to do with myself, a teacher at the Columbia Library School had a heart attack and it was decided that I could reasonably take over his class within three weeks.
"In any event, I went. And I stayed. And the Library School was very influential in setting up a more formal education for training rare book librarians and antiquarian booksellers than had existed before. By the 1980s, if you were interested in rare books, you wanted to go to Columbia. And it seemed reasonable to open up the training to other people, so we started the Rare Book School."
But the Columbia Library School shut down in 1992, necessitating a change of venue. By then, the Rare Book School had a sufficient international reputation so that there was no doubt it would continue. The only question was where. Ultimately, the University of Virginia, which already boasted a superb collection of manuscripts and rarities, brought Belanger to Charlottesville, where he teaches university courses in the fall semester and concentrates on the Rare Book School the rest of the year.
Currently, the RBS offers courses in January, March, May, June, July
and August -- "a total of eight weeks," Belanger said. "We offer very
specific courses for very specific needs, and we're the only people who do
it. But that doesn't mean we can let down our standards. We have a saying
-- 'The fact that yours is better than anyone else's is not a guarantee
that it's any good.'"
send Traister e-mail concerning this page at
You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Return to Daniel Traister's
Return to Daniel Traister's Home Page.