August 24, 2012

Rare Book School: summer camp for book lovers


A student at the Rare Book School uses a flashlight to determine how the book was constructed.

Earlier this week the New York Times ran an article about an event for book nerds that, frankly, sounds like a lot of fun. Rare Book School is held several times during the year at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (as of 1992; before that, the program was based at Columbia University). This summer’s session has attracted about 300 librarians, scholars, collectors, and other bibliophiles for what the Times’ Jennifer Schuessler describes as “an atmosphere that combines the intensity of the seminar room, the nerdiness of a ‘Star Trek’ convention and the camaraderie of a summer camp where people come back year after year.”

One of the courses at RBS is Advanced Descriptive Bibliography, in which students attempt to recreate the process of how a particular book was put together, poring over the tomes with tape measures and specialized lights to detect watermarks and other clues that can trace the pages back to a particular time and place. Other offerings include History of the Book, 200-2000, Special Collections Librarianship, and Introduction to the History of Bookbinding—all courses I somehow managed to miss as an undergraduate.

Students at RBS get the chance to work with some really magnificent texts. Georgetown University’s head of special collections, John Buchtel, teaches History of the Book and brought out a variety of rare items for students to marvel over, including loose leaf from a Gutenberg Bible and a 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle. And the more closely they examine the books and learn about their “archaeology,” as the school’s director Michael Suarez puts it, the more intoxicating it becomes. As student Meredith Neuman explains, “Before I came here, I had been picking up knowledge piecemeal in libraries … Once you start looking at books this way, it can be kind of addictive.”


Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.