by Michelle Lyons-McFarland
This summer, I was privileged to attend a course at the Rare Book School. RBS is an independent institute housed at the University of Virginia supporting the study of book history and printing. I’d previously been awarded a scholarship to RBS, but was unable to attend until this summer. The course I took was “G-10: Introduction to the Principles of Descriptive Bibliography” taught by David Whitesell, which was held in July in Charlottesville, Virginia.
G-10, known as “boot camp” by RBS faculty and alumni, is considered one of the foundational courses in RBS. Based in the methodology of Fredson Bowers, the class takes a hands-on approach to descriptive bibliography and collation, with extensive homework each night. Students learn to examine a book to determine how it was constructed and write a collation formula based on that examination, including flaws or errors found in a given copy of a book. For example, a book in folio format with four gatherings, where every two leaves are from one large sheet of paper folded in half, would be noted in a basic collation formula as “2°: A-D2.”
I stayed on “the Lawn,” the original dorms designed by Thomas Jefferson, which I referred to as “eighteenth-century camping,” as there was no air conditioning and the bathrooms were outside around a corner. We spent most of the time in the air-conditioned library, however, getting comfortable with format, signatures, and pagination. My fellow students were book collectors and booksellers, special collections librarians, and other academics focusing on book history and printing. Some of them were first-timers like me, while others were alumni of other RBS courses.
We started every morning at 8 a.m., with a light breakfast, followed by a lecture and lab, then lunch, and then a “museum” in which we closely examined themed groups of items from the University of Virginia’s special collection, including type, printing demonstrations, papers, and bindings. One of my favorite sessions was for paper, where we looked at a series of printed texts using vellum and parchment of different weights, then paper made from different types of materials (rag and wood pulp among others), and then both woven and laid types of paper to get a sense of how they were made.
We then adjourned for homework, where depending on our “legion” and “cohort,” we were assigned six books to collate for the next day’s examination in lab. If that sounds like a lot, it was. The course I took has more homework than any other course RBS offers, though perhaps less up-front reading prior to the course. That said, it was thrilling to get to handle early books so closely and unravel them to get at their secrets. I even found a misplaced signature in a well-examined volume of Bell’s British Theater that no one had noticed before, earning the honor of a notation to the formula for that book with my name attached for future G-10 classes.
I am not sure what I expected from RBS, but what I got was a fantastic experience. The connections I made and the knowledge I got from the course will serve me well as I continue my research, and the experience re-energized me and gave me new enthusiasm for my projects. I understand now why so many RBS students return for other courses. RBS now definitely figures among my future summer plans, and I’d encourage anyone with an abiding interest in book history or print culture to plan to attend.