August 2013 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Letter from Rare Book School

When someone asks a crowd, 'how many of you know Aldus Manutius?' and nearly every hand pops up, you know you're in the right place. And by right place, I mean you are among your book-loving peers--the librarians, archivists, booksellers, collectors, professors, students, conservators, and the rest of us who are interested in studying the culture and history of the book. That question was posed by collector G. Scott Clemons during last Wednesday night's Rare Book School Forum at the Small Special Collections Library. Clemons--who was here not only as a guest speaker but as a student in the descriptive bibliography course--gave a rousing and convincing talk on "How Aldus Manutius Saved Western Civilization," discussing how the printer's "portable books" at the turn of the sixteenth century preserved Greek classics that might otherwise have disappeared.

That was one highlight of my week at Rare Book School. But there are others. It feels impossible to cram a thoughtful synopsis into a blog post, and yet, I'll try. First and foremost, a few words on the course I took: Provenance: Tracing Owners and Collections with David Pearson. Each day from 8:30-5:00, we studied the rudiments of palaeography, bookplates, personalized bindings, heraldry, and other forms of ownership marking. Several sessions allowed us the opportunity for hands-on exercises with sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century books from the Rare Book School collections and the Small special collections. I believe there was a unanimous feeling among my classmates that this course is particularly wonderful in scope and content, and that David Pearson, director of culture, heritage, and libraries at the City of London Corporation and most recently the author of Books as History, is a thoroughly engaging teacher. 

Booksellers' night on Thursday was a fun event, so nicely arranged by RBS staff and local booksellers. I visited four shops, and I purchased four books, all very good reading copies of modern books that had either been on my long mental list of books to buy someday or books that I had not heard of; pleasant surprises, in any case. Umberto Eco's book-length essay, Postscript to The Name of the Rose, is one such treasure, mined at Heartwood Used and Antiquarian Books.

I was glad to meet so many book world colleagues, some of whom I had previously connected with by email or social media, and some of whom were entirely new, friendly faces.

Having not attended RBS since 2004, I was surprised by some additions -- including great new spaces -- and awed by the precision of the weekly schedule. It's clear that much thought and effort go into planning every RBS session, and the staff is phenomenal. I can't say enough good things about my week at RBS, so I will leave it at this: if you have never been, make your plans for next year. You will not regret it.