Terry Belanger founded the Book Arts Press (BAP) at Columbia University in 1972 as a laboratory for various programs concerned with the history of books and printing, descriptive bibliography, the antiquarian book trade, and rare book and special collections librarianship. When Belanger became University Professor and Honorary Curator of Special Collections at the University of Virginia (UVa) in 1992, the BAP and its collections moved with him to Charlottesville, changing its name in 2000 to Rare Book School (RBS), and for the most part restricting the Book Arts Press name to publications.
At UVa, RBS supports courses concerning the history of the book and related subjects. It carries on exhibition and publication programs under the Book Arts Press imprint, and it sponsors public lectures -- notably the annual Sol. M. Malkin Lecture in Bibliography. But its principal activity is an annually-offered collection of non-credit five-day courses on subjects ranging from medieval bookbinding to modern fine printing.
RBS has a collection of printing presses and equipment that includes a full-scale reproduction of a wooden common press (of the sort Benjamin Franklin might have used), a 19th-century Washington iron hand-press (such presses could be broken down and loaded into a Conestoga wagon), and a 20th-century flatbed cylinder proof press (a Vandercook SP-15, favorite of modern private-press letterpress printers). RBS's printing-house comprises 200 cases of printing type (including the 48-case Annenberg collection of wood type), a small Brand etching press, and various pieces of hand bookbinding equipment.
RBS owns about 20,000 books and 10,000 prints, dating from the 15th century to the present. Many of the books -- including a large collection assembled to illustrate the history of cloth bookbindings -- are on display in glass-fronted bookcases in the Dome Room of the Rotunda (the original library of the University), located a short distance from Alderman Library on the Central Grounds of the University. Other collections are kept in the RBS classroom and studio -- rooms which, together with the Pressroom, make up the RBS suite in Alderman Library.
Rare Book School (RBS) classes make heavy use of the RBS collections. The institute annually attracts about 300 students, who come for one or more five-day non-credit courses taught by an international roster of specialists in the history of the manuscript book, typography, book illustration, bookbinding, descriptive bibliography, rare book librarianship, and related subjects. While they are at UVa, many RBS students and faculty members live on the Lawn in rooms designed by Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University.
The RBS Collections
The physical arrangement of the RBS book and print collection supports both classroom and independent study. The books are generally shelved by date (rather than by author or subject), to show the chronological development of vellum, leather, cloth, and paper bindings. Many of the prints are filed by technique (rather than by artist or engraver), to facilitate the identification of illustration processes. Other RBS collection arrangements assist the study of various formats, genres, materials, and physical features such as sewing structures, endpapers, and dust-jackets. An unusual feature of some of these collections is the presence of multiple copies (sometimes as many as a dozen or more) of the same (or almost the same) book -- a duplication valuable not only for facilitating group viewing in the classroom but also for demonstrating the bibliographical principle that almost exactly the same can be another way of saying quite different.
RBS also maintains a library of about 2,000 recently published books on various aspects of the history of the book: paper making, typefounding, typography, printing, illustration, binding, publishing, bookselling, collecting, the antiquarian book trade, and related areas. This non-circulating reference collection ensures that the most useful books for RBS's purposes are always close at hand. Supplementing this library are much larger holdings on the same subjects in the Alderman Library stacks and in various UVa special collections.
Rare Book School and the Book Arts Press are supported by a 800-member friends group, the Friends of Rare Book School. Since 1976, individual Friends have contributed more than $1,000,000 to RBS, as well as many gifts in kind. In addition, more than two hundred North American and European libraries have donated unwanted, damaged, and defective books (or parts of books) both old and new to the RBS collections. RBS's relationship toward these gifts tends to resemble that of the Bedouins toward their camels: very little goes to waste.
There are five classes of Friends. The regular membership is $50/year. Good Friends of Rare Book School contribute $100 or more/year, Very Good Friends pay $250 or more/year, Close Friends pay $500 or more/year, and Best Friends donate $1,000 or more/year. As part of their membership, Friends of Rare Book School receive an occasional newsletter, and a copy of the annually-published Book Arts Press Address Book.
For more information about RBS, the BAP, and their various activities, write to:
Rare Book School