Letters Home from Camp Book Nerd: A Week at Rare Book School

Special and heartfelt thanks to the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America’s Southeast Chapter, whose generous support allowed me to attend Rare Book School this summer.

Rare book rager, 00011rbsblogsummer camp for book nerds,” bookseller grad school, antiquarian Acapulco, call it what you will, Rare Book School is heaven for lovers of the word in all its varied forms. So much of my RBS experience truly was like a sleepover camp, full of skits, songs, and inside jokes, which share equal space in my notes with terms, dates, and figures. From Mark and John’s Rare Book Schoolhouse Rock spoofs to dinner, drinks, and roaming about grounds with new friends, RBS is certainly more than the sum of knowledge gained. I’ll do my best here to draw a rough sketch of my RBS experience, focusing on the “write home moments” from camp.


The lovely grounds of the University of Virginia

Founded in 1983 by Terry Belanger, for whom it earned a MacArthur genius grant, Rare Book School (RBS) is an institute for the study of books located at the University of Virginia. This may sound simple, but RBS offers over 60 courses spanning the fields of bookbinding, collection management, bibliography, history, illustration and printing processes, manuscripts, typography and book design, and references and resources. Whether you’re interested in “The Art of the Book in Edo & Meiji Japan, 1615–1912” or “Digitizing the Cultural Record,” or any number of other subjects, if you’re ready for serious fun, RBS is ready to teach you a thing or two.


The Men, the Myths, the Legends (Photograph courtesy of my lovely classmate & RBS Admissions Officer Shannon Wilson)

Or, maybe like me, you’re looking for something a little more introductory, like “The History of the Book, 200–2000,” a survey of books covering 1800 years, from cuneiform tablet to tablet computer. No matter what course you take, you’ll be studying under the foremost experts in the field, and History of the Book is no exception. My instructors were John Buchtel, Head of Special Collections at Georgetown University, and Mark Dimunation, who has been Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress since the first time I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1998!). By the way, that’s a first printing of Jane Eyre John is handling in the picture to the right.



One of the required texts of my course, all of which paired well with lots of coffee.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, just a bit, because a great part of RBS is the required reading list for each course. (By the way, all of the advance reading lists are available for free, online, for every course, along with many of the installments in RBS’ lecture series!) Spanning slim, well illustrated books just on one aspect, like illuminated manuscripts, to entire (albeit titled “short”) histories of the printed word, the readings covered a lot of ground. Though definitely challenging (read: they involved a lot of frantic googling), each book was immensely rewarding and pleasurable, too. Because the history of the book involves quite a bit of other history, including religious, political, scientific history, etc., I learned more than I bargained for (thanks, public school!). My favorite book was Elizabeth L. Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early 0009rbsblogModern Europe, which was a dizzying and powerful cultural history of the printed word and a seminal text on the subject. I was saddened to find, while excitedly looking up Eisenstein, that she passed away earlier this year. She was the first scholar in residence at the Library of Congress, and, obviously, a total badass, and I wish I’d known her.

As you might have surmised, I was feeling a little out of my league by the time I arrived in Charlottesville. I mean, I had to find a youtube video to help me pronounce “vade mecum.” I was surrounded by Ivy League special collections librarians and folks from places like Sotheby’s and the American Antiquarian Society. Not to mention, there’s a whole Game of Thrones style Hall of Faces as you walk into the RBS reception room, with a Polaroid of everyone attending the classes this summer, and everybody was looking significantly better coiffed and air conditioned in their registration snapshot than I was. Fortunately, book people are book people, and they tend to be empathetic towards introverts and generous when pouring wine, and so I survived the first night jitters!



Each day a new name tag greeted us, reflecting the preferred typography of the time period we were covering (except for the Wednesday field trip, here represented by my blessed coffee).

When our first class started the next morning, I was ready for action. As my cohort gathered in our classroom, the lovely Byrd/Morris Seminar Room, located at the very top of the Beauty and the Beast style spiral staircase in UVA’s Special Collections Library, we found our places, each marked with a folded name tag tent in scribal-style curlicued letters. Mark and John called the class to order by introducing each other, and their humor, warmth, and affection for each other were evident immediately. We each proceeded to introduce ourselves, and I found myself in a room full of biblio-badassery, including many special collections librarians and, my personal patron saints, English professors. I was ready to make some BFFs (Book Friends Forever).

After a morning filled with all things Medieval manuscripts, we headed down the spiral staircase to Special Collections. So, in addition to the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST STYLE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library is mostly underground, like a glorious literary iceberg. Under the quad pictured at the beginning of this blog, lies one serious collection of rare books. Embedded in the landscaping on the quad, you can see the skylights that filter exceptional reading light down into Special Collections. So, underground, in the gloriously sunlit reading room, we viewed illuminated manuscripts from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, books of hours, a French pocket Bible, a massive choir book, all written by hand by monks and scribes on parchment, a writing surface made from animal skin. All of these book were beautifully inked, most really were illuminated, decorated in gold leaf within elaborate initials and miniatures (hand-painted panel illustrations).


Illuminated and illuminating, so meta.

Spoilers ahead, do not read this paragraph if you intend to attend The History of the Book. Mark and John fortuitously let us go to coffee break, so as to keep us from fainting over all the shiny manuscripts, instructing us to wait afterward in the reception room instead of returning to class. One of the distinguished RBS staff came to fetch us, joking that we were going to “the edge of darkness.” She led us through the maze of RBS stacks, through a big, heavy door, and told us to step carefully. After the door all was dark, and we closely followed her down a flight of stairs. Up ahead we saw flickering, glowing light and the vague shape of many, many, many cases of beautiful books (the RBS teaching collections). Out of the darkness, we hear John call, “Greetings, sisters and brothers,”and see a long table with seats down each side, a small electric candle at each setting. We all sit down and John says, “No one told you to sit down.” And so we stand back up, to hear John say, “Take a seat, brothers and sisters.” Then, John goes on and on about “how was your day, brothers and sisters, feeding the pigs, cleaning, farming, etc.?” Then John and Mark agree there’s too much light (and there’s like no light), we’re wasting wax, so they have us turn off 3 candles, making it even darker. Then they pass out our readings, thin little folders, each with a section of old Bible, circa 18th to early 19th century, inside. “No one told you to open them…You may open your readings…Now read until we tell you to stop.” It was really hard to read, and we “spilled wax” everywhere on our booklets as we moved the candles about to illuminate the pages. It’s an exercise they call “scriptorium,” meant to illustrate how most monks actually wrote manuscripts. Only the fanciest monk-scribes got to write by daylight, most of them had to do work all day, then scribe and pray and read devotions after sundown. End spoilers. 


Ye Olde Common Press

We finished out Monday with papermaking and bookbinding, tracing the development of writing surfaces from cuneiform tablets to papyrus to parchment and finally to paper. On Tuesday, we entered the 15th century with its good ol’ Johannes Gutenberg and its early printed books. Tuesday was full of printing euphoria for me. First, we printed in class on a common press, the kind Gutenberg likely printed the B42 on (the first Western book printed from movable type, Gutenberg’s 42 line Bible). We took turns inking and pulling, and it was glorious and difficult. Few of us managed the perfect “kiss” of plate on paper, which requires a good deal of muscle and control, neither of which I’m known for. I would soon find out that the common press was mere puppy love, for that evening I met the love of my life, the Vandercook.


The Glorious Vandercook

Tuesday night was ornament night. Katherine Ruffin, the Book Studies and Book Arts Program Director at Wellesley College, and John Kristensen, the proprietor of Firefly Press, demonstrated how type ornaments are used in letterpress printing, and each participant designed a keepsake of ornamental type and printed it on a 1950s Vandercook, a flatbed cylinder printing press. It was love at first print. 0004rbsblogI saw our future flash before my eyes, our life together as jobbing printer and her press, making authentic letterpress invitations to fancy parties and business cards for hipsters, maybe even popping out a few broadsides or chapbooks down the road…Of course, right now I’m a penurious bookseller, but if I put in the hours, maybe someday I could be a penurious letterpress printer too…It’s pretty tempting. I went back to my dorm full of dreams that night.



Minerva keeping guard at the Library of Congress

It was a short night, because Wednesday was field trip day for History of the Book students, and we left at 7 AM sharp, DC or bust. I don’t know if I mentioned earlier, but Mark, one of my instructors, he’s the Chief comma Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress (LoC), you know, the people’s palace of books. And each year, Mark and John take their students to the LoC to see wonders upon wonders and miracles upon miracles, the rarest books in the land. We saw an elaborately embroidered Book of Common Prayer from 1641, a block book from around 1470, Vesalius’ 1543 The Human Body, a Geneva Bible of 1560, a King James Bible of 1611, a Shakespeare First Folio, all before lunch. Then there was an original Audubon wild turkey, a Bay Psalm Book (the first book printed in the Americas), the wanted poster for the assassination of President Lincoln, and William Blake’s First Book of Urizen, with his hand-painted illustrations. And more. It’s ridiculous, but with so many 0009rbsblogstunning rare books and printed materials to lose our minds over, we still managed to have a clear favorite: Galileo Galilei’s Siderius Nuncius, commonly called The Starry Messenger. Published in Venice in 1610, The Starry Messenger is the first published work of science to come from observations using a telescope. It contains the first ever image of the moon through telescope, an image that is completely ubiquitous these days, but can you imagine seeing the moon with all its mountains, valleys, and craters for the first time ever? This book was powerful, so powerful that it sparked the series of conflicts that would lead Galileo to refute his own work and eventually die under house arrest. Galileo’s observations were a brand of heliocentrism that ran contrary to the Church’s views of the cosmos, refuting the “rising” sun and “unmoving” earth of Scripture. Of course, any original of such an important and controversial text would be worthy of admiration, but this isn’t any old Starry Messenger


A Dirty Copy of Galileo’s Starry Messenger

Do you see those smudged fingerprints over there? They’re Galileo’s. This was a printing copy, with his notes, his typos, his ink smudges. Our minds were seriously blown. On the bus ride back to base, we felt like we were returning to earth. Also, because we were well-behaved, we stopped at a little place called The Moo Thru and treated ourselves to ice cream made from the milk of real Virginia cows, and of course reflected on the many splendored wonders of this world.


Daedelus Bookshop, 3 Stories of Books!

On Thursday, we met John Milton, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Jefferson, and Phillis Wheatley, entering the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and encountering cheap print and the rise of literacy. Thursday evening was Bookseller Night, when the antiquarian and rare book dealers of Charlottesville keep their doors open late for RBS students. Charlottesville is a great book 00012rbsblogtown, and I had the pleasure of wandering the aisles of Blue Whale Books, Daedelus Bookshop, Heartwood Books, Read It Again Sam, Oakley’s Gently Used Books, and Franklin Gilliam: Rare Books, along with the indie bookshop New Dominion. I might have found a few things that made my luggage risk Amtrak’s 50lb limit, like this phrenology self-instructor, filled out with results for a “superior specimen.”



Rare Book School: Caffeinating the Bibliosphere for 33 Years

Our last day dawned much too early. How had we reached the 19th and 20th centuries so quickly? I couldn’t complain, though, because I am rather fond of the Brontes, and then there’s Dickens and Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles Darwin. Best of all, fine press printing. We saw glorious examples from the Kelmscott Chaucer, the Doves Bible, and, my favorite, the Golden Cockerel Four Gospels. After covering the rapid developments in printing processes the 20th century brought (or wrought), we finished out class with the vast Jane Eyre collection John began when he was curator of collections at Rare Book School. RBS’s collection includes not only a first printing of the novel, but seemingly every edition in all kinds of languages and with all sorts of covers, even a CD from a 90s band named Grace Poole. Having picked up Jane Eyre in 8th grade because my copy had an introduction by Meg Cabot, illustrious author of The Princess Diaries, I deeply enjoyed the presentation of but a fraction of RBS’s Jane Eyre holdings, most sourced from EBay for under $30.


An older, wiser, more caffeinated, and super cool RBS alumni

As we learned earlier in this long-winded blog, bibliophiles know how to party. The RBS Farewell Reception ended our week with a bang, and I picked up some killer RBS swag too. Then I came home to talk everyone’s ears off about book history and printing presses and Galileo. And everyone thought I was really cool and way smart and not a nerd at all. THE END.

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