University of Virginia’s Rare Book School

NPR has a brief feature this weekend on the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School: (“Students Get Up Close And Personal With Rare Books”). I have to say, I am in favor of their pedagogical philosophy:

“We insist that students touch and smell and shine light through items, and investigate them to understand the book in history, and understand the book as history,” Suarez says.

The Rare Book School, which has a collection of some 80,000 printed items as well as a collection of printing presses, emphasizes the study of books as objects of cultural and historical importance. Naturally, any study of the history of the book must also cover the present and future of the book — which can give a much-needed historical appreciation of just how quickly book technology has evolved in recent history:

“The classes that bring students into this underground treasure trove mostly deal with antiques, but the program also explores the preservation of materials that were born digital. That might sound easy, but consider this: In the late 1980s, the BBC created a modern-day version of the 900-year-old Domesday Book, using a then-cutting-edge technology — laserdiscs.” *

Michael Suarez, director of the Rare Book School, has some interesting thoughts on the differences between the study of printed vs. digital books (UVA Today: “When a Book Is Not a Book”). Digitization surely has its advantages as well as its disadvantages. More problematic is when people begin to accord the digitized image of a printed page the same status as the book itself; when that happens something is lost along the way:

“ The book as a physical object holds more than the words within, he argued. It has social codes that display what kind of book it is … The way a book is made contains historical evidence that is lost in the digital format. For book historians, each book also holds bibliographical codes and clues. Handmade books are each unique in ways that can’t be reproduced online.

‘A book is always a communal object, a coalescence of human intentions, Suarez said. ‘If you know enough, every book is alive with the judgments of its makers.’”

You can check out the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School website here. The website even helpfully has included reading lists online. If you are looking for some good food for scholarly thought, you might want to check out a couple of the reading lists on digital books here and here.

And, the Rare Book School Wikipedia page isn’t bad at all, filled with some background context, such as its beginnings at Columbia University, and nuts and bolts information about RBS.

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*We took a brief look at the BBC Domesday Project not long ago.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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