Six hours of classes each day give way to wine-and-cheese receptions or evening lectures, prompting much worshipful talk of books.
“I riffle the pages with my thumb as I’m reading, and I can’t do that on a Kindle,” Jeremy Dibbell, a young staffer at Rare Book School, said one evening while dining with other staff and faculty.
“I think about getting an iPad, but not for books,” said Michael Winship, an English professor from the University of Texas who teaches during the summer in Charlottesville. He is considered an authority on 19th-century American publishing and teaches “The American Book in the Industrial Era, 1820-1940.”
Albert Derolez, teaching “Introduction to Western Codicology,” is a Belgian scholar who excels in Gothic manuscripts.
Martin Antonetti, teaching “The Printed Book in the West to 1800,” was once librarian of the Grolier Club, the nation’s premier organization for bibliophiles.
“You know the phrase, ‘So-and-so wrote the book on X?’ ” said Elizabeth Ott, a U-Va. doctoral student who works at the school. “That’s often literally the case with Rare Book School professors.”
In class, students take turns operating wooden and iron printing presses and hanging pages to dry. Or they gather round ancient manuscripts for a closer look at this goatskin binding or that woodblock rendering.
Antonetti opens printer Johannes Pine’s 1733 edition of what is known as Pine’s Horace. With engraved copper plates, it was a luxury buy for the 18th-century European aristocrat.
“Pine engraved it and published it and went bankrupt,” Antonetti said. “He published a Pine’s Virgil to recoup his losses, but that was the final nail in his coffin.”
Terry Belanger, an English literature scholar, started Rare Book School as a laboratory on the history of books and printing within Columbia University’s School of Library Service. Over time, the school gained a reputation as a world leader in training librarians and scholars to collect, catalogue and preserve rare books.
With the future of the book itself now in question, the school’s mission seems all the more clear.
“I actually think that the digital is making us much more aware of the form of the printed book. And so I think this is a moment of rare opportunity, rather than a moment of great crisis,” said Suarez, who co-edited the million-word Oxford Companion to the Book. “This whole Gutenberg elegy, death-of-the-book thing — I’m not buying it.”