Building the Book from the Ancient World to the Present Day: Five Decades of Rare Book School & the Book Arts Press

Intro Panel

Building the Book from the Ancient World to the Present Day

Five Decades of Rare Book School & The Book Arts Press

We have all been taught how to read books. But what can we learn by looking closely at their material forms? This exhibition celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Rare Book School and the Book Arts Press, which teaches leading curators, librarians, conservators, book historians, and collectors how to analyze books as physical objects, along with the materials and equipment used to make them.

Crossing borders and time periods, this show attempts to tell the larger story of the book as it reflects human society and culture over more than two millennia. The shapes of books are as varied as those who create them. We use the term “book” loosely, then, to refer to artifacts that fall within a variety of traditions, as well as to gesture toward more unusual objects that invite themselves to be considered as books—sometimes in deliberately self-conscious and provocative ways.

You will find in these cases artifacts from Rare Book School’s teaching collections, ranging from plant fibers and animal skins to glass negatives and photopolymer plates—from woodblocks and metal printing type to floppy disks and digital devices. The items that we have selected are not always beautiful, and many of them are not particularly “rare.” What is special about this collection is its purpose: to advance our understanding of the physical book and to preserve its history. Digitization alone cannot ensure the survival of this history, as much of what these artifacts have to teach us is carried within their own material construction. By learning to “read” books as objects, we are able to see more deeply not only into how books are made, but also into the very heart of human history.

Barbara Heritage
Associate Director & Curator of Collections

Ruth-Ellen St. Onge
Associate Curator & Special Collections Librarian
Rare Book School at the University of Virginia