June 2009 | Nicholas Basbanes

New Leadership at RBS

The University of Virginia announced last week the appointment of Michael F. Suarez, S. J. as the new director of Rare Book School, succeeding Terry Belanger, the founder this indispensable bibliographic institution in 1983, and its guiding spirit ever since. Established at Columbia University--the lion in the RBS logo is a holdover from those days--Belanger moved the entire operation to Charlottesville in 1993, bringing along with him twenty-two tons of equipment--book  material that he has described as a "bibliographical laborartory."

Never one to leave much room for chance, Belanger--who is easily one of the most thoroughly organized people I have ever met, inside the book world or out--is retiring this summer, taking his leave now, as he has publicly said, in order to assure a smooth and seamless transition of the program into the future under fresh leadership.

RBS.jpgA former Marshall scholar and a published poet to boot, Suarez, 49, currently holds a joint appointment as a professor of English at Fordham University and as Fellow and Tutor in English at Campion Hall, Oxford University. He has written extensively on book history (check his credits out here), and is a perfect choice to lead RBS into its second quarter-century. Bravo to the search committee for sifting through what had to be a daunting short list of worthy prospects for this important position, and for coming up with such an inspired choice. Suarez will assume his new duties in September, and, like Belanger, will hold the position of University Professor, a senior rank that allows its holders wide latitude to both teach and conduct research.

Though he is retiring from active leadership of Rare Book School, Belanger, a 2005 MacArthur Fellow, remains one of the legitimate giants of the book world, and is certain to remain active in many productive ways. While his physical presence will surely be missed in Charlottesville, he is turning over a brilliantly conceived operation that has top people in place, and a mandate of purpose clearly defined for his successor.

Rare Book School is an experience I hope every serious book person is able to experience at least once in a lifetime; I took my first course three two years ago--a History of Paper section taught jointly by Tim Barrett and John Bidwell--and look forward to going back at some point in the near future when time allows. I wrote a column about the experience for the September/October 2007 issue of Fine Books & Collections, and was pleased to quote one of my classmates, Mike Knies--a regular RBS pilgrim (he had participated in fourteen programs to that point), who likened his annual forays there to attending a "summer camp for book geeks."

Belanger once told me in jest that "we don't read books down here, they do that upstairs in the library." He was kidding of course, what he was saying is that what students do at Rare Book School is "look at the containers," and by that me meant every conceivable aspect of the book. Those interested in learning more, should definitely check out the variety of courses taught, and the caliber of the people who teach them. All in all, an indispensable institution.