I've decided to start my own rare books library. A very small rare books library, mind, or a very special special collection.
But let me back up. On Saturday I took my grad students to the rare books and special collections room at the nearby University of Research (UR). Arranging the visit had been a bit of a production--the room isn't open late enough on weeknights for us to go during our regular class period; some of my students live 20 miles away; I hadn't previously met the librarians; I was worried about parking on the day of a home sporting event--but in the end it worked out marvelously.
I'd originally asked the librarian to pull only printed books from the seventeenth century, but after assigning my students a few chapters from Andrew Pettegree's The Book in the Renaissance I'd regretted not poking around to see whether the library had any medieval manuscripts. When I mentioned this to the librarian, he nodded. . . and in fifteen minutes returned with a cart of books of hours, incunabula, a Torah scroll, and stones with Sumerian and Babylonian inscriptions.
And then he left us alone, saying only, "be gentle." So we hung out in the richly-appointed seminar room, passing everything around from hand to hand--my students exclaiming at the feel of vellum versus parchment versus paper, and squinting up close to try to determine whether the red letters in the incunabula were printed that way, or hand-rubricated.
It's probably the best time I've ever had in a rare books room, but it inspired two conflicting emotions in me. First, excitement: it's not a large collection and its pre-1700 holdings are pretty thin, but it's perfect for pedagogical purposes; I'm determined to use it for every upper-division or grad class I teach from here on out. Lots of students at much fancier and better-funded schools don't have access to this kind of material, and it's a way to make up for my institution's more limited resources.
But at the same time, going to the collection reminded me of those more limited resources. The UR collection is itself pretty small (they have no early Shakespeare or Milton, for example) and, because it's half an hour away, hard to use in a casual way; I can't schedule multiple class meetings there, for the purpose of looking at just a book or two each time, and I can't use it for my lower-division classes even if they're small.
Thus, my plan: I'm going to build up my own rare books library.
I already have one lovely seventeenth-century book, a small folio, and I've been thinking about purchasing another, a duodecimo. Both are either necessary for or relevant to my research, but they would also be great show-and-tell specimens. I've purchased several books in facsimile for teaching purposes, and I plan on buying more--but they're not the same as originals.
So what more can I buy, cheaply? Well, ABE is selling individual leaves from a King James Bible for $60, and I imagine I could find other interesting leaves for similar prices. There's also a surprising number of intact seventeenth century books available, some for as little as $75, if content isn't important. And if all I want to talk about is bibliographic stuff--title pages or gatherings or watermarks or whatever--maybe content isn't important.
Or, you know: I could just add a PayPal button to this blog and solicit y'all's donations. Copies of Dunne's 1633 Poems are going for as little as $33,000!