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

Date: 28 September 2022 – 23 December 2022
Location: The Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, New York
Curated by: Barbara Heritage & Ruth-Ellen St. Onge

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 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, and as reflected in Rare Book School’s teaching collections. 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 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.

Click here to visit the online version of the exhibition.

The exhibition is accompanied by a book:
Building the Book from the Ancient World to the Present Day
How Manuscript, Printed, and Digital Texts Are Made
By Barbara Heritage and Ruth-Ellen St. Onge

Building the Book from the Ancient World to the Present Day offers a carefully curated overview of how books have been produced throughout history and across various regions of the globe. This richly illustrated volume walks readers through the unique collections of Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. Founded by MacArthur Fellow Terry Belanger, this international institute brings together curators, librarians, book historians, curators, and collectors from around the world to teach and learn about books as physical objects. See through their eyes how the book is made, step by step, from substrate to letterform, from printing to binding—and how technological innovations, such as the invention of paper or printing with metal type, developed in various societies. This volume will prove instructive for cultural heritage professionals and general booklovers alike.

Published by The Legacy Press. Distributed by the University of Virginia Press. Available for purchase from the following vendors:

University of Virginia Press
Barnes & Noble