This summer I had the exciting opportunity to study at the prestigious Rare Book School (RBS) at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Each year RBS runs a wide range of courses on antiquarian books, manuscripts and special collections, offering librarians, rare book dealers and conservators the chance to be taught by some of the world’s leading experts in the history of the book. Courses are intensive and last for five days with students attending from 8:30am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Library tours, bookstore visits, evening lectures and other bookish events also take place throughout the week.
Founded at Columbia University in 1983, Rare Book School is now based in the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library. RBS classes are kept small, usually just 10-12 students, to ensure that everyone can get their hands on the books, and entry to courses is highly competitive. This year there were more than 700 applications for around 380 places, so I was very pleased to receive my acceptance letter to the course, Provenance: Tracing Owners and Collections, to be taught by David Pearson, Director of Culture, Heritage and Libraries at the City of London Corporation, and an expert on provenance in historic collections.
I arrived in Washington DC on Friday afternoon, just in time to enjoy a Nationals baseball game and get a welcome from President Obama, then set off for Charlottesville on Saturday morning with a 3 hour bus journey that took us through the lush Virginia countryside and some well-preserved Civil War battlefields. After finally arriving in C’Ville, as it is known to locals, I made my way up to the University and excitedly checked into my room before heading out to explore the campus. Rare Book School offers students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stay in a room on the famous Lawn, designed by the University of Virginia’s founder, Thomas Jefferson . The Lawn forms the centre of Jefferson’s “Academical Village”, a large grassy court around which the original university buildings stand. Facing the Lawn in rows of colonnades are 54 student rooms and ten Pavilions, which provide both classrooms and housing for faculty members.
Being chosen to live in a room on the Lawn is one of the University’s highest honours. Final-year students submit an application and personal statement to be reviewed by the residency committee and the award of a Lawn room is considered very prestigious, despite the absence of air conditioning and en-suite facilities! Stories abound of “Lawnies” in fluffy dressing gowns and snow boots braving the elements to reach the bathrooms. Each Lawn room comes complete with a rocking chair and it is a tradition for residents to pull their chairs out to the porch on warm evenings and watch the world go by.
At the head of the Lawn sits the magnificent Rotunda, a half-scale replica of the Pantheon in Rome and the original home of the University’s library; the collections have now moved to the impressive Alderman Library, where Rare Book School is based.
The RBS week began on the Sunday evening with a wine reception for all the students and staff, and a warm welcome from the School’s director, Michael Suarez. I introduced myself to some fellow provenance students and we went out for dinner on The Corner, a popular area near the University crowded with restaurants and bars. The social aspect of RBS was great fun, providing lots of opportunities for networking and getting to know other students between classes, over lunch or at evening events. Charlottesville is famed for its abundance of antiquarian and second-hand bookshops and on Booksellers’ Night many of them stayed open late, offering wine, cheese and other nibbles to visitors from Rare Book School. Evening lectures are also a big part of the Rare Book School experience and we had the chance to attend a fascinating talk about the 15th century printer, Aldus Manutius, and his influence on the history of the book.
In my provenance class were students from California, Boston, Philadelphia, Maine, Texas and London, including rare book dealers, postgraduate students, special collections librarians, curators and cataloguers. Each day, our excellent tutor, David Pearson, guided us through a different aspect of provenance in historic collections and we looked at examples from the Rare Book School collections. We studied palaeography, working hard to decode 16th and 17th century handwriting. We discovered the fascinating history of bookplates and how to date them from the design of the plate. We had a wonderful day learning all about heraldry and how to “blazon” (describe) coats of arms in the arcane language of medieval heraldic terms. Our final day was spent in the University’s Special Collections Library, putting our new skills into practice to decipher and record signs of provenance in a selection of rare books drawn from the library’s extensive collections.
Many thanks are due to CILIP Cymru’s Kathleen Cooks Fund, the Cardiff University Staff Development Fund and the Sir Herbert Duthie Prize for Staff Development for making it possible for me to attend Rare Book School. I had a wonderful week in Virginia and made some great new friends on my course. The skills I have gained are already being put into practice in my work with the Cardiff Rare Books Collection, and I would thoroughly recommend a course at RBS to anyone who works with or has an interest in rare books and manuscripts. The Rare Book School experience is unparalleled as a professional development opportunity, and it is also a lot of fun!