Rare Book School: A Rare Treat, Indeed

By Duncan Stewart, Catalog Librarian, University of Iowa Libraries

This summer I won a cataloging trifecta: my supervisor urged me to apply to the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, my library came up with the money to pay for it, and the Rare Book School (RBS) accepted me into the rare books cataloging course taught by Deborah J. Leslie. In due course, I dutifully procured and read the precourse readings, flew to Charlottesville from Iowa, and settled into my large room in Brown College, a student housing community. Old hands at the Rare Book School insist that you ought to stay in the Jefferson era rooms on The Lawn, which lack air conditioning and have bathrooms ’round the back, in order to truly experience Rare Book School. But I was very happy in my overly air-conditioned room, with adjoining bath, in Brown.

As everyone knows, Thomas Jefferson designed and built the original campus of the University of Virginia and it is beautiful and well situated. RBS is housed in the basement of Alderman Library, where workrooms and reception areas compete for space with large, heavy vintage printing equipment. The single most important thing to know about RBS is that its staff has taken to heart Napoleon’s dictum that “an army of book workers marches on its stomach.” RBS provides lashings of snacks, gallons of caffeinated drinks, and after classes, even alcoholic beverages to soothe the fevered scholars’ minds.

Assigned readings included the bible of rare book catalogers, DCRM(B): Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Books). The course was taught by Deborah Leslie, head of cataloging at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Leslie’s teaching skills, experience, and sense of humor guided the class as we learned the application of rare books cataloging codes and were introduced to the important physical properties of rare books such as format, collation, binding, and types of illustration. We wrestled with the complex concepts of edition, impression, issue and state, and then applied all we had learned through in-class exercises, hands-on cataloging problems, and discussions about the difficulties and challenges of rare book cataloging. We also talked a great deal about how the day-to-day work of rare book cataloging fits into the broader sphere of rare book cataloging policies and workflow.

We worked on material in a range of European languages and a great variety of type fonts. My language training was a great help in this and I enjoyed puzzling out things like the title proper, the author, and publication information in German, Latin, or French. I also found that the cataloging rules in DCRM(B) dovetailed pretty well with the AACR2 cataloging rules that I use in my everyday work.

Most challenging for me were the complexities of collation, pagination, discerning how the paper was produced, and the variety of binding materials and techniques. I could take an entire course on collation and pagination and still just be starting to understand the formulas and coded presentation of this aspect of rare book cataloging. It was only with the tutelage of Leslie and constant reference to Terry Balenger’s writing on descriptive bibliography that I managed to at least understand, if not master, these issues.

Rare Book School is very much about classroom learning, eating well, and getting to talk books with a broad swathe of librarians, archivists, conservators and other book workers. An equally valuable component of RBS was the program of after-class lectures, displays, and receptions. Sören Edgren’s talk “Papermaking and Woodblock Printing in Chinese Book History” stands out in my mind both for the breathtakingly long history of printed books in China and for the beauty of the examples presented. Movie night, complete with popcorn, and several vintage, but informative, videos about printing and paper making was also a lot of fun.

Many of my fellow students already had a great deal of experience with rare books. All were friendly, willing to share their own expertise, and very good company. The school encourages students from all its courses to socialize, talk about the different classes they are taking, and to visit Charlottesville book stores on “rare book night,” an evening when students can tour a number of book dealers, examine their wares, and partake of their wine and cheese.

In the space of one week at Rare Book School, I came to understand the fundamental elements of rare book cataloging, and returned to my library with the skills to begin to properly catalog rare books. In some ways I am still digesting all of the information I took in.  Fortunately I have good notes, the class manual, and Debora Leslie’s e-mail address to fall back on. I highly recommend the Rare Book School rare books cataloging class to any cataloger faced with a daunting shelf of leather-bound Latin tomes or any other rare book cataloging project.

One last benefit I earned by attending Rare Book School—after facing the intellectual challenges, absorbing the masses of information, and doing the difficult hands-on exercises, I can truly say leading the implementation of RDA at the University of Iowa Libraries no longer scares me one bit.