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Students At Rare Book School Get Hands Dirty With Age-Old Manuscripts

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At rare book school, a hands-on approach

Electronic books may be the future of publishing, but for a small band of bibliophiles, librarians, collectors, and historians, nothing can replace bound volumes of text and illustration. Students at the annual UVA summer program study the history of binding, paper making, typography and illustration.

Michael Suarez is a Jesuit priest and professor who brings a sacred tone to the topic. "Except for coins, after the medieval world, the artifacts that are most left to us in the Western world are books," he says.

As head of the Rare Book School, he wants students to learn everything about them. The key, he says, is to touch.

"We insist that students touch and smell and shine light through items and investigate them, interrogate the physical artifact," Suarez says. "If you know enough about materials, and you know enough about processes and people, then every book is alive with the judgments of its makers."

In the basement of the University’s library, small groups huddle over treasures shuttled from classroom to classroom by library staffer Barbara Heritage and others.

"What our job is is to be almost like stage hands," she says.

Tracing a book's path

This summer, 300 students will take intensive, week-long classes with 51 faculty members. Among them is David Pearson, a world expert on provenance: figuring out who owned a book. That information could add value, but clues are often covered, cut out or erased.

"Shakespeare scholars have long been frustrated by the fact that there is not a single book surviving which was demonstrably owned by Shakespeare," Pearson says. "There are a few books in the world with what look like Shakespeare's signature on the title page, and they're all forgeries."

It's possible, he adds, that Shakespeare didn't own books. More likely, they were lost in a time when their practical value eclipsed their historic significance.

"Lord Chesterfield in his letters in the 18th century, refers to someone taking editions of the classics into the bathroom, where they would serve a dual purpose," Pearson says. "You could read the book, and then once you'd read it, you could put it to another use."

Book school a welcome meeting of minds

After a week of intensive studies, students leave with a wealth of information, but they also come away confirmed in their passion for books. John Block, a collector from Pittsburgh that has attended the summer program for 18 of its 28 years, appreciates being among like-minded bookworms for a few weeks.

"I'm around people who understand collecting. There are no dumb lines here about have you read every one of those books, or why do you do it," he says. "Everyone here understands that collectors are possibly wired up a little bit differently from the general population. But here we're the majority, and that feels very good."

The camaraderie can be a welcome break from a hobby, or profession, that can be somewhat solitary, points out Amy Elkins a graduate student from Emory University in Atlanta that is participating this year.

"Whether you're a collector or a scholar of the book, things can get a little bit lonely," she says.

"That's one of the most valuable things about this program is who you meet, it's really nice to kind of have raw distilled bookishness," adds Eric Johnson, a curator for medieval and renaissance books at Ohio State.

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