Rare Book School has just released a 15-minute documentary called Presswork, a remarkable production that explains one of their latest projects: commissioning two eighteenth-century facsimile printing presses.

With beautiful imagery and clear, interesting interviews with those involved, the mini doc gives a brief introduction to bibliography before explaining how, about six years ago, antiquarian bookseller and RBS faculty member Roger Gaskell suggested they commission an eighteenth-century replica rolling press to print engraved books. This would allow their students a truly hands-on approach to studying the history of the book. RBS decided to build one based on a diagram from Diderot’s famous Encyclopédie (of which UVA owns a unique copy, annotated by Diderot himself). “The kind of press that Jefferson would have been familiar with from his own reading,” says Barbara Heritage, associate director and curator of collections at RBS.

A second press, the so-called common press or letterpress, is based on Ben Franklin’s design. With both types of presses available for use, students can begin to understand the differences both in the mechanics and in the finished product—“to fully understand how the book came to be,” in Gaskell’s words.

According to RBS, “Currently, no other university in the world has two eighteenth-century period presses positioned side by side, allowing faculty, students, and visitors to compare, in a hands-on research setting, the intaglio and letterpress technologies that were necessary for producing the illustrated books that Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries read.”

The opportunity to actually use these printing presses is available not just to RBS students, but to the wider University of Virginia student body, who can apply for presswork fellowships, and to the larger Charlottesville K-12 population as well. As UVA Instruction Librarian Krystal Appiah says of younger students, “Seeing the printing presses and how they operate help them understand how these big ideas that they’re learning about in their classes are actualized in the real world.”

Watch Presswork here:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) is perhaps best remembered for creating the intrepid detective Sherlock Holmes. Today, numerous clubs, such as the Baker Street Irregulars, devote themselves to understanding all things Sherlockian. Heavy-hitting collectors such as former Apple chief technology officer Glen Miranker, Dan Posnansky, and antiquarian book dealer Peter Stern scour the globe to complete their archives. Though first editions, association copies, and ephemera may be too rich for the average collector, a recently published biography on Conan Doyle is now well within reach.

In the new book, Conan Doyle's Wide World (Bloombury, $28, 328 pages), Conan Doyle's zest for life and travel is illuminated through his robust compendium of travel writing. Biographer Andrew Lycett (Conan Doyle,The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, 2007) has gathered the author's prolific descriptions of London, Europe, South America, and Australia and woven a compelling narrative of a man whose journeys infused his prose with excitement and adventure. Whether traveling by hot air balloon over the fields of Hendon, England, or describing a whaling expedition in the Arctic, Conan Doyle's writing brims with wit and humor.

The prodigious Arthur Conan Doyle website provides further proof of the sheer volume of the author's writing, serving as an online archive of his short stories, travel prose, interviews, poems, lectures, and speeches. There's even an interactive map that highlights Conan Doyle's travels across the globe, a fabulous interactive element well worth examining while reading Lycett's biography. 

Conan Doyle's Wide World reveals the crime writer's insatiable curiosity and insight into the human condition and the people, places, and things that so clearly influenced his work, providing a fascinating glimpse of Conan Doyle's work beyond Holmes. And right now when most of us are homebound, this volume is a tantalizing reminder of the great places awaiting exploration.  

Call it a happy coincidence, but a first English edition of P.G. Wodehouse’s 1931 novel, Big Money, in its rare first issue dust jacket just might make top lot at auction on May 7. Estimated at $3,000-5,000, the book is one of nearly two hundred lots from the book collection of the late William Toplis, a Wodehouse devotee who died last year, to be offered at Freeman’s in Philadelphia. It is, commented specialist Darren Wilson at Freeman’s, “a robust and expansive collection spanning the illustrious career of P.G. Wodehouse.”

Wodehouse, full name Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975), is largely known as the creator of Jeeves, a sharp-witted English valet who serves Bertie Wooster through eleven novels and thirty-five short stories. But Wodehouse was even more prolific than that, eventually publishing more than ninety novels and two hundred short stories.

A quick note today to congratulate writer Eve M. Kahn, whose 2019 book, Forever Seeing New Beauties: The Forgotten Impressionist Mary Rogers Williams (1857-1907), published by Wesleyan University Press, has won the 2019 Sarton Women's Book Award for nonfiction. Kahn has been contributing to Fine Books & Collections for the past couple of years—in 2018, she wrote for us about another forgotten female artist, photographer Lillian Baynes Griffin (1871-1916), rediscovered while working on her Williams biography. She also notably wrote both a profile of collector and philanthropist David M. Rubenstein for our current issue and an article about the Dobkin Family Collection of Feminism.

To read more about Kahn and the trove of letters that set her on the trail of Williams, check out “Rescuing American Impressionist Mary Rogers Williams from Obscurity,” by Allison C. Meier—another Fine Books writer!—in Art & Object magazine.

In 1935, the publishing company, Little, Brown commissioned N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) to create the dust jacket art for a novel called The Hurricane. It was the tail end of the “golden age of illustration,” and Wyeth, one of America’s greatest illustrators, having created nearly 4,000 illustrations for books and magazines during a four-decade-long career, produced this dynamic oil on canvas depicting a harrowing storm.

Unearthed from deep storage—or perhaps plucked from an executive’s wall?—the Hachette Book Group, which acquired Little, Brown in 2006, is selling the painting via a Sotheby’s auction that runs online April 24-May 1. Actually, it would be more correct to say that they are making a second attempt; Hachette tried to auction this artwork back in 2016, but there were no takers at the $70,000-90,000 level. The estimate has now been adjusted to $40,000-60,000.

Wyeth’s Hurricane depicts the plot of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s 1936 novel The Hurricane, set on a South Seas island and told from the perspective of Dr. Kersaint, a French medic. According to Sotheby’s, “In this work, Wyeth captures the dramatic moment when a hurricane wreaks havoc on the island … He frames the scene with curving tree branches, which simultaneously draw attention to the center of the composition and allude to the undeniable power of nature, a theme that is present throughout the novel.”

The book made a splash, with the New York Times calling it “a grand yarn” and comparing it to Joseph Conrad. The paper also reproduced Wyeth’s art alongside its review.

Incidentally, if Nordhoff and Hall’s names ring a bell, it’s because they are best known as the authors of Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), one of a trilogy of novels they wrote based on the infamous mutiny against William Bligh, commanding officer on the Bounty in 1789, which also became the basis for movie and musical adaptations through the twentieth century. The Hurricane also became a movie, directed by John Ford in 1937.

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Devin Fitzgerald, Curator for Rare Books and the History of Printing at the UCLA Library Special Collections in California.

What is your role at your institution?

I am the curator for Rare Books and the History of Printing at UCLA Library Special collections. This title means that I am responsible for connecting our collections of printed books with communities of users, as well as developing new communities around unexplored or unappreciated corners of our holdings. I spend lots of time teaching, and finding people to talk to, while also trying to listen to the stories our materials tell.

I’m also partly responsible for collection development, which I take to mean that I am charged with addressing silences in our collection. We like to think of this as ‘canon-busting,’ which means we’re broadly engaged in helping to highlight the value of materials that have been excluded or undervalued by developing plans for new acquisitions and conversations.

How did you get started in special collections?

It’s hard to pinpoint a certain moment when I became involved in Special Collections. When I was young, I spent lots of time in the Lebanon (NH) public library battling dyslexia with tutors. When letters finally started resolving themselves into words, sometime during third grade, I turned into an obsessive reader. Those earlier experiences meant that I always viewed libraries as places to solve the problems that interested me – and by the time I was in graduate school for Chinese history – I was an avid user of old books.

Despite my time in libraries, I never really imagined myself working in a library. That’s because even though I was in a PhD program, I thought that I needed to go to library school to get into a library. As a first-gen student who had spent time living on a mattress in a friend’s garage attic, the price tag attached to an MLIS, made that option unrealistic. So, library work remained a distant dream.

The real turning point came in 2015, when I was accepted into Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography, a fellowship that was designed to train academics in material approaches to the book. Since it came with three courses at the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, I made the rather idiosyncratic choice to pursue something as far away from East Asian studies as humanly possible: western descriptive bibliography. I took descriptive bibliography – and hated/loved every minute of it. As is often the case with me, the more idiotic something makes me feel, the more interested I become. I decided to start collating everything. After finally graduating to become a lab instructor, I realized that I had accidentally emerged as someone with a unique portfolio of skills in East Asian and Western bibliography.

While interdisciplinarity sounds good in practice, it had one unintended consequence: people didn’t really know what to do with me anymore. I failed on the job market for a couple of years. I tried to stay afloat by selling books. I snapped up every chance to do anything with collections. I worked as an adjunct and scrapped pennies. People were incredibly generous with me – and I was fortunate that my partner had a job that let me slowly remake myself into a library person. In the end, my extensive support network kept me sane, and I managed, with help from many people, to get hired by UCLA.

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

I’m finishing my PhD at Harvard. My advisors, Dr. Mark Elliott, Dr. Michael Szonyi, and Dr. Ann Blair have all been exceedingly patient with my writing and intellectual development.

I am also a first-generation student, who benefitted from lovely mentors as an undergraduate at UMass-Amherst, including Sharon Domier, Al Cohen, and Peter Gregory.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

I have two books in my office that I absolutely refuse to return.

The first is a wild late Qing (the last dynasty in China, 1644-1911) collection of examples of stele inscriptions. The book was compiled by Niu Yunzhen (d. 1758) – and it’s a splendid example of mixed printing techniques. Niu collected rubbings of excavated texts. He had these rubbings shrunk down and engraved on boards. Rubbings were taken from the boards and cut and pasted into a xylographically printed book, which served as a guide to ancient inscriptions and epigraphy. I use the book to discuss Chinese printing whenever I can get the chance. Rubbing (also called ink squeezing) is a technique that didn’t exist in the west, and the pasted in inscriptions really show the sophistication of some Chinese printers.

The other book I have in my office is a stunning copy of the famous bilingual Arabic-Latin Gospels, published by the Medici press in 1591. I love this book for lots of reasons. It demonstrates a real achievement in European printing in Arabic, something that surprises many people. It also has fantastic woodcuts. But what I really like about the UCLA copy is its marginalia. Someone in the seventeenth century went through the book and collated it against an Arabic language manuscript copy of the Gospels.

What do you personally collect?

I collect several different sorts of things. Since I struggled greatly during my primary education, I have a soft-spot for ratty school-books, both Western and East Asian. I particularly like things that show students behaving badly – either by defacing their books or by using them in unintended ways.

In addition to these tattered books, I have a small collection of objects related to the history of printing. I have about 10 Chinese and Japanese woodblocks, piles of paper specimens, and a few flongs.

Finally, I also try to get anything by LA Latinx book artists. Right now, that’s mostly just zines – but I’m thinking about getting more serious about this area.

What do you like to do outside of work?

Outside of work, I am involved with HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), which my partner encouraged me to try out. Just recently, I became the highest ranked Rare Book Librarian-Longsword fencer in California…I also spend lots of time moving, at a gym, at yoga, or dancing while I clean. 

For real fun, I am always practicing different languages (always two or three at once, always poorly). Right now, I’m working on Persian, since we have a large collection of Persian manuscripts at UCLA. I have also agreed to give a paper in Spanish next November. While I read Spanish, trying to remember how to speak the language is giving me my daily bellyful of humility and burning shame.

What excites you about special collections librarianship?

It’s hard to say what thing excites me most in special collections librarianship – it’s more about the constant feeling of wonder I get when I see all the things. If I do my job well, I am confronting my ignorance on a daily basis, and I’m working to process the experience of ignorance into collections of materials and pedagogical experiences that foster inclusive thinking. Working in the UCLA collection is like working in a lab for the humanities – and I’m always trying to make things explode – hearts, minds, ideas (Hopefully not books)… I think maybe it’s actually that destructive-productive process that I value most, because it helps people come to terms with histories in ways that foster humility and critical reasoning. If people leave the library with bigger hearts, wider eyes, and feeling a bit amused at their lack of knowledge, I’m content.

Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?

It’s hard to think about the future right now. In a month or two, many of us who are fortunate enough to have jobs will be returning to decimated budgets, and likely several months without much contact with patrons. One way I’ve been working through this reality is by attempting to balance the specific demands of my institution (UCLA) with my commitment to communities of people who care about books.

To make this slightly less abstract, I’m part of lots of different organizations – BSA, RBS, APHA, RBMS, UCLA – and I’m partly responsible for making sure people in these groups have access to the materials and ideas that they to encounter in order to be productive/happy (or sane). Since we’re all digital now, the borders between groups and responsibilities have gotten murkier –  not that I’ve ever cared much who is a member of X institution. So, for me, this is a moment to productively break down the borders between institutions. I hope that many academic institutions use this moment to let people know that academic libraries, like public libraries, are here to foster communities of knowledge and respond to what people need.

Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?

UCLA has great collections of Ethiopic materials, Armenian books, and we’re famous for having an Aldine or two and a few Islamic manuscripts.

Those collections aside, I am immensely proud of two new collections that I’ve brought in this year.

One of my major areas of collecting has been in Manila imprints from the seventeenth and eighteenth century. When I arrived, UCLA did not own a single book printed in the Spanish Colonial Philippines – now we have about 20. I wanted to start collecting these materials as a way to demonstrate our commitment to including collections related to the histories of Filipino-Americans before their arrival in California.

The second collection that I’ve built focuses on Chinese books used and read in early California (1854-1900). If readers have 10 minutes to spare, I just recorded a video on this collection for a conference.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

Well, our centennial exhibition was being installed in March. I was also in the middle of writing labels for an exhibition on “Teaching with Rare Materials,” which we were hoping would showcase our diverse holdings and our commitments to using donor support to make direct impacts in the classroom.  

Last month, Netflix debuted Self Made, a new mini series “inspired by” the life of Madam C.J. Walker, an African American woman who became a millionaire in the post-Civil War era—she was born in Louisiana just two years after the war ended and slavery was abolished. The Guinness Book of World Records refers to her as the first female self-made millionaire in America.

Walker, played in the show by Octavia Spencer, made her money developing and selling haircare products and cosmetics and running a beauty salon for black women. She was also an author of sorts, which I recalled as I watched episode one, during which she is seen reading Booker T. Washington’s The Negro in Business (1906).

I remembered the book called Text Book of the Madam C.J. Walker Schools of Beauty Culture (published in Indianapolis, ca. 1928) because it had featured in a story we ran about Antiques Roadshow in the spring 2014 issue. Antiquarian bookseller Ken Sanders was pictured giving an appraisal of the blue cloth-bound first edition ($10,000+) during a Kansas City, Missouri event. (You can watch that appraisal below.) The entrepreneurial Walker had, in the 1910s, expanded her business to include a beauty school, but she died in 1919, long before the Text Book bearing her name was published.  

As we learn from Sanders and the woman who brought it to the Roadshow, herself a beautician, the book was the “very first book published for hair-styling and fashion for African American women.”

For more information about Walker and her great-great-granddaughter, A'Lelia Bundles, whose book brought Self Made to the screen, check out this PBS News Hour segment.

Here are a few of the upcoming online auctions that I'll be watching:

Doyle's sale of Rare Books, Autographs & Maps ends on Wednesday, April 22. This 173-lot sale features items from Mary K. Young's collection of Beatrix Potter and E.H. Shepard, including a Potter picture letter with eight original ink drawings to accompany portions of Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat"; an ink and watercolor drawing on card of two rabbits sledding; and Shepard's original drawing for The House at Pooh Corner, "Suppose a tree fell down when we were underneath it." These three lots are each estimated at $40,000-60,000. A framed set of Potter's miniature autograph letters signed by Benjamin Bunny, Peter Rabbit, Josephine Rabbit, and Mr. McGregor, with an additional postcard signed by Potter—all addressed to Jack Ripley—is estimated at $30,000–40,000. There will be many more lots of great interest to the Potter and Shepard collector, as well.

Other lots include a February 1797 George Washington letter written as he prepared to return to Mount Vernon (previously in the Forbes Collection), which is estimated at $25,000–35,000; and a copy of the four-volume 1808 Bible printed at Philadelphia by Jane Aitken ($5,000–8,000).

Heritage Auctions will sell Historical Manuscripts on Wednesday, in 659 lots. A 1950 Albert Einstein letter to his friend Michele Besso has been assigned an opening bid of $35,000. A set of nearly 100 unfiltered notes written by JFK to his aides while he was campaigning for president in the spring of 1960 and had lost his voice will start at $20,000. A short note from George Washington to Benjamin Lincoln has a set reserve of $17,500.

On Thursday, April 23, Doyle holds a 174-lot sale titled Autograph Seeker: The Estate of Gary Combs. A 1799 John Adams letter to Secretary of War James McHenry is estimated at $5,000–8,000 and is expected to lead the way.

Also on Thursday, Americana from the George E. Steinmetz Collection (with additions) at PBA Galleries. This sale is entirely no-reserve, with timed closings. Lots of Book Club of California publications and many from the Dawson's Book Shop Baja California Travels Series.

Rounding out Thursday's sales, Books and Works on Paper at Forum Auctions, in 291 lots. A copy of the "Memorial Edition" of the works of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1893) and the Trianon Press edition of Blake's Songs of Innocence (1955) share the top estimate of £600–800. At £500–700 are three photograph albums from the family of Benjamin Britten and three volumes of eighteenth-century almanacs.

Christophe Plantin, born 500 years ago this May, was one of the most important printer-publishers of his time. To honor the occasion, Antwerp’s Plantin-Moretus Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has planned a series of festive projects and exhibitions to run through 2020.

Designers and makers of every stripe will be interested in the 14,000 woodcuts the museum has made available online and in high-resolution. Plantin’s printing house was known for its illustrated publications, such as the 1583 Biblio sacra, and these drawings run the gamut from sea creatures and angels to flowers and decorative initials.

For locals, one of the museum’s innovative outreach programs involves featuring Plantin-inspired imagery in shop windows. Sixteen nearby establishments chose an appropriate image for their windows or doors--from a giant pumpkin illustration on a restaurant’s display window to an ornamental tailpiece found in various seventeenth-century religious publications featuring on the door of a leather goods shop.

Like nearly every other aspect of modern life today, what can migrate online is doing so at a rapid clip, and at first blush, it might seem that the announcement of San Francisco-based Letterform Archive opening its virtual doors to the public was a decision made over the course of a few days. But in fact, the nonprofit museum and library dedicated to the history of typography and graphic design has been preparing this leap to digitization for the past four years. 

In consultation with 42-line founder E. M. Ginger, who specializes in digitizing and preserving rare materials such as those in Letterform's collection, nearly 1,500 items of the 60,000-piece archive have been meticulously prepared for the online world so far. That means everything from a fifteenth-century Book of Hours to early style manuals printed for Apple are now available for careful examination from the comfort of one's home.

The goal from the outset was simple and ambitious: to make the entirety of Letterform Archive's trove available to the public online for free. Online Archive was launched in beta format in 2018 and was accessible only to members at the time. Now, researchers, scholars, and the general public can examine books, artworks, and other materials with unprecedented precision. 

Since opening its brick-and-mortar doors to the public five years ago, over 27,000 people have visited Letterform Archive from 30 countries. This announcement of the online archive comes at a time when many of us are housebound, providing a much-welcome service in the era of social distancing.   

“This project is a labor of love for everyone on our team, with many generous volunteers, and we hope it provides a source of inspiration and delight to all who love letters and design," said Saunders. "At a time when good news is in short supply and so many resources have gone dark, we hope to light a creative spark.”

Find design inspiration here.