Rare Books Class

The second week of July I took a wonderful course, my first course in Rare Books about reference books for them. It met Monday through Friday from 9 to noon and 1 to 4 pm. We just had 8 students and a very knowledgeable, yet approachable teacher who welcomed questions. There was no PowerPoint, which weren’t missed. It just goes to show that as long as the topic’s interesting and the teacher knows what he or she’s doing, there’s no need for bells and whistles.

We learned about 350 the bibliographies and reference books that help collectors, scholars and readers learn about rare books. A couple days after class I managed to visit the university rare book collection.

The two assignments had parts that were the most challenging work I’ve had to do, i.e. find out the price of a 3rd edition of John Wolridge’s Systema Horticulturea when it first came out and find what the first book printed in Swedish was and what library currently has it.

I wound up going to rare book collections at Northwestern University, Harold Washington Library, Newberry Library, Loyola University Chicago, Clark University and the Chicago History Museum. It took me 8 trips and I had to throw in the town with the Systema Horticulturae question. I will say the staff at Harold Washington and the Chicago History Museum topped the list for approachability and helpfulness. Northwestern has a lovely gothic rare books room, but most of the books aren’t there. Believe it or not they’re housed in the engineering library, which is a 15 minute. (I understand running out of space but dividing the rare books collection up like this doesn’t make sense.) The Newberry has some helpful staff and others were rather clueless. I needed a book for a bibliography and their catalog showed they owned three copies but no one could find any of them. None of their books can be checked out.

Loyola was the worst of the bunch. You must make an appointment a day in advance. There’s no special room for rare books, just a messy windowless office where two women were working. Their office smelled like old books, which isn’t necessary. I was there in the morning without an appointment and when I asked if I could just make one, the librarian (clerk?) told me I’d have to call, which seemed absurd.

Yet at both the CHM and Harold Washington, I was treated well and while no one would (or could) do my homework for me they seemed invested in my success and were happy to help.

I’m so glad I took this class. While I think it takes a lifetime to really become an expert in this field, I loved being introduced to the wild world of rare books.

Kudos to the teacher for challenging us, not making us do a group project, and for being so approachable when brought up questions. You’d be surprised how often that’s not the case.


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