The modern book, a bunch of sheets bound together within a cover, has endured for two millennia, surviving the Dark Ages, radio, television and the moving picture.
But now it is threatened by an electronic version of itself. The e-book is projected to outsell the printed book by 2015, according to Publishers Weekly magazine. Borders bookstores have begun liquidation sales. Google intends to scan all the world’s books by the end of the decade.
And now there is a new urgency at Rare Book School, arguably the preeminent center for study of the book as artifact.
Founded at Columbia University in 1983, Rare Book School relocated to Charlottesville in 1992 as a nonprofit affiliate of U-Va. and found a niche as a place for librarians and scholars to decode the story told by the book itself: the ink, the paper, the typeface, the binding, the illustrations, the subtle notations in the margins.
“You have to teach people how to read the object, not just how to read the book,” said Michael Suarez, a Jesuit priest and English literature scholar who left a post at Oxford to run the school two years ago.
Bookbinding and publishing lore once were the province of library schools. But they strayed from that mission over the decades, Suarez said, to follow the gradual migration of information from printed pages to electronic screens. Some have dropped the word “library” from their names.
Rare Book School has gone in the opposite direction, amassing a collection of 80,000 items that range from 7th-century papyrus fragments to manuscripts stored on Reagan-era floppy disks and unreadable on the modern computer.
Unlike most special collections, this one is meant to be handled. Many items are ragged specimens of rare texts — worthless to the collector but priceless to the rare-book student — or multiple copies of comparatively obscure works, enough for every student. For the sake of the books, students are forbidden to enter a classroom with food, drink or pen; notes are taken in pencil.
One bookcase is given over entirely to Harry Castlemon’s Gunboat series, popular juvenile literature from the 1860s that time has forgotten, a collection assembled to illustrate the evolution of publishing in the 19th century. Another case brims with Baedeker’s travel guides, popular with tourists of the early 1900s. And surely no library has more copies of “The Tent on the Beach,” a specimen from the later 1800s that is a minor work of Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier.
Every corridor on the basement campus hums with adoration of the printed book, one of the more successful contrivances of the civilized world: compact and portable, with pages perfectly suited to opposable thumbs and a spine that fits neatly between the knees.