June 2009 | Ian J. Kahn

RBMS 2009: Seas of Change: Navigating the Cultural and Institutional Contexts of Special Collections

What follows is a quick(ish) overview of our first trip to the annual "Preconference" event held by the Rare Book and Manuscript Section (RBMS) of the American Library Association (ALA). It was a very interesting week. The event was extremely well run, especially given the numbers involved (368 attendees, 450 total with speakers and booksellers).

I drove down Saturday with Thing 1 and 2, leveraging the drive with some educational bonus stops. We spent Sunday in Philly, visiting Declaration House, the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin's printing press and, best of all, a good long tour of The Rosenbach Museum. We left Philly and headed down to Annapolis for a night with my in-laws.
Monday found us in Washington, DC. I met with a client early in the morning (and sold the entire box I brought down for review) and then we were off to the museums. The boys had a great time at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the Air and Space Museum. We did a bit of vehicular site seeing on the way out of town and headed to Charlottesville to settle in for the week.

Tuesday started with a wonderful seminar by Dan Gregory and sponsored by the Southeast Chapter of the ABAA. He tried very hard to instill in attendees the usefulness and value of taking pictures of books and how to do so with a minimum of errors. Lorne Bair co-ordinated this seminar and the following tour of the Small Special Collections. Set-up for the next day's "Bookseller Showcase" began at 4pm and before we knew it, we were done and ready for the main event.

We decided some time ago to stay on UVA campus. With the four of us (Suzanne flew in Thursday morning), the dorms offered a rather nice, very inexpensive (and air-conditioned) option. We had an entire quad to ourselves, everyone their own bed and a private bath. One of the great surprises was the water pressure in the Peters building...stunningly good. All UVA based events were only a building or two away. It turned out to be a very nice choice and we were all very pleased with it.

The Bookseller's Showcase ran from 9am to 730pm...a very long day. The boys were remarkable all day. T1 was very pleased with himself. He picked out a wonderful "Bloomsday" tshirt at the Rosenbach with a sketch of Joyce on the front and "Read" "Joyce" in his glasses. It looked very good under his blazer. T2 was, if possible, even more pleased with himself, as this was the first time he was able to wear his "real" bowtie (black with skull and cross bones)...even his older brother admitted that he looked very cool. They spent the day at the edge of the booth playing with their DSs and politely answering questions posted by bemused librarians.

This was a great event for us. We sold some good things, which was nice...but really it was all about meeting and learning about Special Collections librarians. We are still young and foolish enough that we know far less than we should and this was a great way to meet a lot of great librarians in one convenient (and lovely) site. I had signed up for the entire seminar, in part as there were some interesting seminar/speaker/events and in part as it offered a longer time with this interesting group of bibliophiles.

There were some really fun/interesting moments. Marvin Taylor (NYU's Fales Library) was so pleased to discover I had a copy of Your House is Mine that he held not one but two impromptu walkthroughs of each print, offering context and background on the pieces and the artist(s). He uses the book in courses at NYU. I love the book...Marvin loves it even more and it was such a treat to turn the pages and listen.

Also at the Showcase, a person entered and very politely told me that they were really just looking, as they were only seeking early Italian travel books and I wouldn't have anything for her. When I told her I had a nice copy of the very scarce "The Italian Sketchbook", her first response was "no you don't". This was and especially fun sale because, in addition to putting a scarce book in the hands of the "right" owner, the *only* reason I had brought the book (of exceedingly narrow appeal) is that it had "fit" a void in one of my cases and had been added for that specific purpose. Sometimes things just work out as they should.

The Preconference itself was very interesting and well run (details here). Of particular interest was an afternoon session of 3 seminars, each with three very young Spec. Coll. librarians presenting papers. As one who spends a lot of time thinking about and working with young collectors, it was great having an opportunity to listen to a few such professionals.

Another highlight, personally, was listening to Sarah Thomas wrap up the event. She is, for those who might not know, is the American Spec. Coll. librarian (last of Cornell) who is now the head of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, a double first (first American, first woman to head the Library). She was brilliant and funny and it was a great end to the formal Preconference.

Saturday night capped the week with a wonderful, if somber, event: Terry Belanger's Farewell event. Terry founded the Rare Book School (based at UVA) and, after 26 years as Director, is stepping down. There was a tribute, where many who know and love Terry spoke followed by a very nice reception. The tribute was wrapped up by RBS's newly anointed Director, Michael Suarez (ex of Fordham and Oxford). It was one of the best written, best presented and funniest toasts I have heard in a long time. I regret I did not record it (Jesuits are just better at such things than most *g*). RBS is, it appears, in very good hands. This is good, as both Suzanne and I will be back in C'ville soon for RBS classes and we look forward to taking many more in years to come.

We drove back in a more more direct fashion. We had planned to take two days, but after getting up to Philly early and touring Independence Hall and the exceptional Mutter Museum, we found that we were really ready to sleep in our own bed and made it home just before midnight on Sunday. It was a very long, intense and very interesting week. The boys were wonderful. We met a lot of great people and really look forward to next year.