“Rare Book School is like graduate school.”


In the world of antiquarian books, there’s no substitute for experience. Handling thousands of books over a long period of time helps one to develop a “sixth sense” about which books are worthwhile and why. When I started my business, I was just beginning to develop this “sixth sense”. I wasn’t fortunate enough to get my start in the trade working for a veteran bookseller. I get my experience on the job, as I create and gradually grow my business.

I’ve done many things to make up for my relative inexperience. I found a knowledgeable bookseller willing to mentor me. I shop for books in all kinds of venues (from library sales to book shops to house calls to dealer catalogues to book auctions) so I have a chance to see the range of conditions and the frequency with which certain books turn up on the market. I build relationships with other booksellers who don’t mind being asked for advice from time to time. I research and write about books. Three years ago, I attended the annual Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar. Last summer, I began taking classes at Rare Book School.

When I attended the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar during the summer of 2007, a man named Terry Belanger came to speak to our class. Terry Belanger founded Rare Book School in 1983 and was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as a “genius grant”) in 2005. He spoke to our class a bit about printing and papermaking processes and had us enthralled from the beginning to the end of his lecture. He encouraged us to think about attending Rare Book School at University of Virginia.

“The Colorado Seminar, which gives a great overview of the trade, is like undergraduate school,” said another bookseller who was in Colorado with me. “Rare Book School is like graduate school.” I remembered that description and I wondered how I would know I was ready to attend “graduate school” for antiquarian booksellers.

With intensive, weeklong courses on such topics as Descriptive Bibliography, Introduction to the History of Typography, and History of the Book in America, Rare Book School allows students to delve deeply into very focused topics. Taught by some of the best in the field, the courses offer book collectors, librarians, booksellers, and anyone else interested in the field the chance to learn about many of the minute aspects of rare books. Rather than an overview of the trade, it presents an in-depth history of books and print and print culture.

As I began to acquire more and better books for sale, I realized that it was important to be able to properly identify books I considered buying and even more important to describe them accurately when I sold them. I wanted to know the difference between an etching and an engraving, between and aquatint and a mezzotint, between a photogravure and a photograph. It would be difficult to learn these things without seeing examples of each and without the explanation of an authority on the subject.

And that’s how, in 2009, I knew I was ready for some “graduate school” level experience and I applied to take Terry Belanger’s Course, Book Illustration Processes to 1900: I had reached the stage of enough experience in bookselling to know that there was still a lot I didn’t know.

It was my first visit to University of Virginia and to Rare Book School, and I was in for a treat. The beautiful campus, founded by Thomas Jefferson, is a true temple of learning. And the Rare Book School classrooms, at the back of a warren of hallways in the basement of the Alderman Library, seem to have come to life from the set of a movie about rare books. Our classroom was a bit removed from the rest of the library, a bit small and a bit cramped, but every inch is filled floor to ceiling with books and prints, printing presses and type specimens. It was the perfect setting to immerse oneself in learning about the processes of book illustration.

Each day, our class began with a discussion of the different printing processes used prior to 1900, largely following Bamber Gascoigne’s book, How to Identify Prints. (If you don’t have this book, I highly recommend it. Terry Belanger calls it “indispensable; both comprehensive and excellent.” It was one of the main textbooks for the course.)

It was good to receive instruction as to the chronology of illustration processes and the way each process worked, but what really made the class stand out was the instructor’s experience and use of dozens and dozens of real-life examples of each of the different types of printing processes. During the course of the week, I personally handled hundreds of prints, cards, leaves of books, books, and printing plates from all eras. Rare Book School, no doubt thanks to Terry Belanger’s efforts, has amassed an astounding collection that is used to teach.

Any good bookseller will tell you that there is no substitute for the experience of seeing and handling as many books of all kinds as you can. My visit to Rare Book School increased that experience for me exponentially. It can do the same for you, too.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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