Monday, November 08, 2010

Special collections

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!


Bardiac said...

I have a miserably unbound (because it was cut out) copy of a 1711 printing of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and it's GREAT for Shakespeare show and tell days :)

I also use lots of MRTS and Malone society facsimiles on occasion.

I applaud your rare book collecting!

Sisyphus said...

Hah! I love it! Could I get a paypal button for shoes?

For my "intro to grad seminar" for my MA institution the prof (a very old guy, let me tell you) handed out a copy of a Swift volume to each of us, and then made us do this funky long typography project, that made me think the whole time, why do we have to use symbols for whether it is italicized when we could just digitize copies of it??? So, while it is probably not too expensive to gradually build up a collection of a minor author, you'd have to think carefully about what they should *do* with it, especially those of us unredeemed bastards who are not textually inclined.

As for me, I'm just collecting youtube videos at the moment (and passing them along, of course).

Sisyphus said...

Ooh, and have you seen Meg of Irvine's vellum book that she made herself? You could do something like that for fairly cheap, and show them that.

I recommend you also make your own paper --- piss, rags and all!

Hmm, and what about snooping around estate sales... annual library book sales, etc.

... clearly I am getting too into this.

Renaissance Girl said...

For ages, I have had my eye on this very cool rare book called _Physica Sacra_ by 17c Swiss naturalist J. J. Scheuchzer. It's a German Bible in four huge volumes, illustrated with lavish engravings that are very minute and science-inflected. (From which the cover of my first book, by the way.) It's only $10K on some of the antiquarian sites. That's what I'd get. Perhaps you and I can grant cross-lending privileges to our students.

Anonymous said...

I oten pass around old newspapers or posters and it's cute to see the excitement of my students. At heart, college students are just "big kids." Very tactile.

Flavia said...

Anon: exactly! beyond the Benjaminian aura, there's something about the material objects, and being able to handle them, that really alters students' understanding of a work.

RG: you're on. And I love the cover of your first book.

Sis: oh, nothing like that. I just want students to have the experience of working with original texts (in many cases, facsimiles are perfectly adequate, as Bardiac suggests--if we're talking about reading early modern spelling, typography, and discussing form and layout--but I want the OG objects as illustrations of the stuff that isn't replicated in facsimile).

So anyway, dudes! Single leaves from illuminated MSS are available for < $200. I think one of those, and a leaf from a KJV, will be my modest near-term purchases for my library, with the book related to my scholarship waiting for a tax return or something like that. (An early edition--with some interesting new front matter--is as little as $700, though a first edition is $3000. Still reasonable, considering. . . but something I'd have to actively save up for.)

anthony grafton said...

Great idea! Check out ebay's rare book offerings. There are often actual bargains. Expensive though old books have become (and the web tends to push prices up), with patience and cunning you can build up a fascinating collection.