Summer Camp for Library Types: A Week at Rare Book School

lion“Go be smart. Don’t forget to wash your hands.” These two pieces of wisdom, spoken by RBS Director Michael Suarez, marked the end of daily mid-morning or mid-afternoon breaks during my week at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. This thirty-year-old program encompasses the love and care of books from a myriad of different angles: collecting, cataloging, reading/transcribing/interpreting, identifying and describing, even binding and printing. The list goes on, all courses focused on developing the skills of librarians, collectors, editors, booksellers, conservators, and scholars through the historical study of books and how we make them accessible. One course, five days, 6+ hours per day of non-stop book-talk. No water, unwashed hands, or writing utensils other than pencils allowed in any of the classrooms: a classroom treated like an archive, or an archive treated like a classroom. In other words, heaven for book lovers like me.

What is this Rare Book School?
RBS is a full docket of book-related courses taught by the best minds in their fields. Most courses are held at UVA’s campus, but more cities and campuses have begun joining its ranks, including Bloomington, Philadelphia, New York, and DC. At UVA, a large number of students stay on campus (not the lap of luxury, but it did have its perks), making the week an immersive experience in which classroom discussion often carry on into social conversation.

Each morning, we walked to the RBS classrooms in the basement of the library, where we were given breakfast and several coffee breaks throughout the day to break up the four ninety-minute class periods. The school runs throughout the summer, so a few classes meet during the same week, making for a larger community amongst the different classes. I attended a course called “Scholarly Editing: Principles & Practice,” but there were four other courses offered that week as well, including illustration processes, advanced critical bibliography, and reference sources. Daily classes end at five, but there are also evening activities such as lectures and roundtables. On Thursdays, all the independent and antiquarian bookshops (there are a surprising number in Charlottesville!) keep their doors open late especially for RBS students eager to inspect their wares.


What is there to say about scholarly editing?
Scholarly Editing, taught by David Vander Meulen, covered both textual analysis and scholarly editing: the history and assessment of the text and the use of this knowledge to create a new document or edition, either documentary or critical. Going in, I felt a little nervous not having any type of bibliographical knowledge, but David accounted for the different levels of knowledge amongst his students and gave us a crash course in bibliography—essentially the anatomy of a book and how it’s made—before moving on to trace the history of texts, analyze editions, and discuss some of the big questions facing editors when they first decide what it is they’re creating. Step one was realizing that texts change throughout history, sometimes intentionally but not always. The job of the editor is to assess the variations among editions and reprintings and decide which one to reproduce and how to explain that decision to the reader. One philosophy of the scholarly editor that David used to describe several tricky situations was that of having laying all your cards face-up on the table: transparency and documentation create a text that can most thoroughly allow the reader to understand what he or she is reading and where to go for more information.

David Vander Meulen with a Hinman Collator, a machine used to compare editions of books. Click for a great 2012 article about RBS.
David Vander Meulen with a Hinman Collator, a machine used to compare editions of books. Click for a great 2012 article about RBS.

We looked at ways this is done, from the process of collating a text (comparing two editions side-by-side in order to discover variants in words, punctuation, even text quality or page modification), choosing a copy-text (your base text, to which you compare other editions. Choosing this is more difficult that it sounds.), and whether the new edition will be a documentary edition (a straightforward reproduction of the text, with minimal editorial interference) or a critical edition (a revised text for a specific purpose, such as making the text more accessible to a modern audience by standardizing the spelling, etc). And, of course, there is a wide spectrum between these two editions. Along the way, we learned about printing and publication processes and what might explain variants between texts: might they be a change affected by the author to make his or her message clearer, an alteration imposed on the text by the editor catering to the reading public, or merely a slip of the typesetter or transcriber absentmindedly misplacing a letter or misunderstanding a word? They are all possibilities, and clues among editions can create a rich history of a work’s life in print. A trustworthy edition includes a description of how the editor approached these variations and the decisions that were made so that the reader could trace any inconsistencies or questionable aspects. A list of substantive and accidental variants is one indication that the editor has attempted to do this, along with a clear and detailed note on the text. We looked at several of these in class, and it shocks me how many of the editions I’ve trusted over the years (*gasp* Not you, Broadview!) did not include such things or were vague or contradictory in their explanations.

The text we used to practice collation.
The text we used to practice collation.

We ended by talking about annotations and apparatuses (or appendices), which can allow the reader to read like contemporary readers might have, filling them in on references or historical background that they would need to reach the intended understanding of the text. David not only provided us with clear and informative daily lessons and lectures, but he passed around a collection of objects and examples that made it clear that this was his passion and that he had been collecting teaching materials for quite some time. If that wasn’t enough, he invited the entire class to his home for dinner halfway through the week, a moving balm for those of us who had been eating out on a grad student budget (or subsisting on granola bars). It was clear that the RBS staff makes an extra effort to foster a welcoming community of scholars, even in such a brief amount of time. All nine students in the class walked away with a binder bursting with useful information that David had been generously providing throughout the week. That, and a new appreciation (maybe skepticism) for the books we all take for granted.

How and why should you apply to Rare Book School?
Though I’ve only just returned from my first RBS experience, I began the process of applying almost two years ago. Course tuition is not through the roof, but it’s enough to break most grad student banks. Luckily, there are scholarships and fellowships, but the application deadlines for these are a few months before the application process for the courses themselves (October and February deadlines, respectively, if I recall). If you keep an eye on the website, however, you should be able to take advantage of the help RBS can offer. The website provides a whole list of scholarships, but (from what I remember), it’s a streamlined process that only requires you to send in one application. There are also fellowships, but most of them are for specific circumstances or by invitation only. The reason that I don’t remember this process in more detail is because, if you receive a scholarship (I had a Director’s Scholarship, which covered my tuition), you have two summers to use it, so I originally applied in 2013. Here’s why: the deadline for scholarships is before the full list of courses for that year is announced. So, during the first summer I was eligible to use my scholarship, neither of the courses I had written about in my application was offered, and so the award was simply deferred to the following (this) summer. Now, that’s not the end of the process. You also have to compete for acceptance into a course, and some of them can be competitive and fill up quickly. Because it’s rolling admission, you’ll want to apply as soon as you can if you have your heart set on one course in particular. When you’re accepted, you’ll be directed to a preliminary reading list and may receive more instructions via the website or emails from your instructor. I won’t go into detail about what to bring or how to arrange for accommodations as that information can be found on the website, but I will give one important warning: bring a sweater. The library is beautiful and impressive but very cold.

Now, why should you go to all this trouble for just one week? I will add that it was a lot of work fitting in all the preliminary reading between the end of the semester and the start of RBS, and that the week was concentrated and exhausting. But, I will never look at a book the same way again. You learn an astounding amount of information in that short time. The class offered incredibly valuable insight in an area of study I had barely considered before. This means that I was out of my comfort zone with this course, not just because the material was very different than I’m used to but also because many of the students at RBS approach books differently than literary scholars do, focusing not so much on the content and interpretations of the text but how it came to exist and what life (or lives) that material object has had. I spoke to librarians who excitedly told me about impressive acquisitions in their collections and all that they knew about them, but when I replied, “I love that book,” they responded that they hadn’t actually read it. I found bibliography, textual analysis, and library science to be more foreign than I had expected, and I admit to feeling very out of place the first day. But, the community is welcoming, and the information is forthcoming in abundance, and by the second day I had learned to stop worrying about all of that and try this new kind of learning. It has given me an entirely new perspective on literature, where it comes from, and how we access it, one that will complement my own scholarship and the way I talk about texts in the classroom.

In fact, I’m already thinking about the next RBS course I might take.

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