BEST OF: Rare Book School, A Week Among Bright Bookish Minds


In years past, aspiring book dealers learned the trade by apprenticing with experienced ones. Today, with so few “bricks and mortar” antiquarian book shops in business, those entering the field must seek out other ways to master this complex and challenging profession. In terms of formal educational opportunities, many dealers look to the highly acclaimed Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar as a means of learning the nuts and bolts of the rare book marketplace. If you find yourself looking for an historical perspective of the rare book world or an academic approach to specific areas of the field, Rare Book School (RBS) is unquestionably a good choice.

RBS, headquartered at the University of Virginia (U.Va.), is a non-profit organization offering non-credit courses on “bookish and bibliographic” subjects. All RBS faculty members are recognized experts in the rare book field. The week-long classes are scheduled throughout the summer on the U.Va. campus and at other times of the year in New York, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Affiliated RBS programs are located in Los Angeles and London. The tuition for each RBS course is currently $870.

Topics covered in Rare Book School run the gamut from ancient history up through modern technology. While many of the classes are geared towards special collections librarians, there are numerous courses of interest to those in the used and rare book trade. For example, this past summer session included classes in book illustration processes, descriptive bibliography, and the history of the London book trade.

Students are accepted to RBS courses by application. You must complete a questionnaire detailing your work history and submit a short essay describing your interest in the particular class you would like to take. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis beginning four months prior to the course start date. While the application may be off-putting to some potential attendees, the process unquestionably benefits the program by ensuring that all attendees understand the subject matter and have an articulable interest in the field.

Beyond top-notch educational opportunities, RBS offers book dealers the chance to meet people in the rare book world that they might not otherwise encounter. In addition to dealers, attendees include rare book librarians and collectors from all over the United States and several foreign countries. The chance to meet special collections librarians, whose career paths offer interesting parallels and intersections with rare book dealers, is a particularly valuable opportunity for dealers. Getting to know these librarians is a wonderful way to learn about institutional book collections and what the collections of the future might include.

In operation for 24 years, the program at Rare Book School is well-run and seamlessly organized. The schedule follows the same general format each week. Attendees arrive on Sunday night for a reception and a light supper. The evening is capped by remarks from Terry Belanger, founding director of the Rare Book School. (In 2005, Belanger was named a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow for his work at RBS.)

RBS courses run Monday morning through Friday afternoon. The days are full, with classes beginning at 8:30 a.m. and ending at 5:00 p.m. In the evenings, students have the opportunity to attend optional events, including guest speaker programs and book-related movies. There also is usually a bookseller night during which local used and rare book shops stay open late especially for RBS students. Friday evening closes with a reception.

Charlottesville is a lovely town with a wide range of accommodations available. While many RBS students chose to stay in local hotels, U.Va. offers RBS students the opportunity to stay on “The Lawn,” part of Thomas Jefferson’s historic Academical Village. While Lawn rooms may seem primitive (no air conditioning or attached bathrooms), they offer abundant charm in the form of hardwood floors, fireplaces, and rocking chairs from which to watch the sun set on the brick colonnade facing Jefferson’s famous Rotunda.

The curriculum at RBS is not for the faint of heart. Each class has a required advance reading list. The course registration materials explicitly state that registrants should consider withdrawing if they find themselves unable to complete the reading before the class. This preparation is a challenging but essential component of the information-packed program. The pace of the classes at RBS is brisk. Instructors hit the ground running and expect the students to do the same. Some of the courses even include evening homework assignments.

While attendees work hard at RBS, the effort is well-rewarded. Beyond being one of the only places in the world where you can take these types of courses, RBS offers valuable opportunities to build relationships with some of the brightest minds in the rare book field. You can read more about RBS and its offerings at http://www.rarebookschool.org/.

Originally published in the Fall 2007 issue of The Standard.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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