The Rare Book Open House

By Damian Stockli

I (left) and Prof. Tricker (right) loitering at the beginning of the event.

The Goddard Library’s Archives and Special Collections opened its doors to visitors Wednesday, November 16th at 10:00 AM for the annual Rare Book Open House, where each of Prof. Neuman’s student

archivists presented a rare book—and its charming idiosyncrasies—from the Jonas Clark collection to visiting students and faculty. I’ve had the privilege of meeting with Prof. Neuman’s class each week this semester, and volunteered to assist her and Head of Archives Cynthia Shenette with some preparation for the event.

A small group of undergrad and graduate students from across majors, the student archivists have spent the last two and a half months steeped in the history and process of book-binding, typography, and pagination. Words like intaglio, deckle edge and eighteenmo come easy to them. Each student spent weeks with a particular book from the Jonas Clark collection, preparing to share some of their specialized insights with visitors.


Image of the Rare book Open House at peak

The Archives and Special Collections Room was set up in five stations where over sixty guests got to engage with the archivists and have their questions answered. It was an open floor format—guests could visit each station as they pleased. Among the books on display were a thirty-pound volume of the Diderot Encyclopedia, a 1611 King James Version Bible, and an original Jane Eyre from 1847, rebound.

Notably, archivist Kelsey Heyel had planned to present on a 19th-Century Paradise Lost before Cynthia informed them of a slim chance the yellow dye on its cover retained traces of arsenic. That print of Paradise Lost did not make it onto the floor for the event. Kelsey promptly washed their hands, and made do with a 17th-century edition instead. (To learn about recent work remediating arsenic, see the Winterthur Poison Book Project.)


The well-practiced archivists arranged the books on felt wedges, with book snakes and acid-free markers to assist with leafing. At each station, visitors had the chance to touch some of the materials the archivists had been working with for months: the bumpy irregularities of cloth pulp paper, the smooth but brittle wood pulp, or the uncannily smooth vellum (AKA parchment). The books in the Jonas Clark collection are prized and studied largely because of their materiality, after all.

At one station, archivists Peyton Dauley and Becca Levine explained to visitors a particular 1586 geography book’s atypical pagination, though when I stopped by we became distracted by the archaic details of the maps, and speculated at length on the Italian names given to imagined geographies. 

Peyton Dauley with Historia navigationis in Brasiliam quae et America dicitur (1586)

At another station, Kira Houston and Zee Cheema took visitors through typeset practices in their King James Version, also pointing out a wormhole that cut through half an inch of the Holy Calendar.

Next to Zee and Kira, Casey Gorczyca would take a breath and roll his neck before repeating his debrief on intaglio-printed illustrations, while his partner Elaine Nutter-Diaz explained the key differences between intaglio and relief-printed illustrations, which are done with wood blocks, rather than metal, and requires an entirely different printing process.

Kira Houston presents his KJV (1611)

Towards the back of the room, Robin Bozik and Manning DelCogliano presented on the materiality of binding and ink. Manning drew on her chemistry background to explain the oxidation process, including visual aids for the chemical compounds involved, and related the browning ink in her 14th-century manuscript to the universal principle of entropy. Robin took me through the marbling process with their first edition of Jane Eyre, which was rebound at the height of marbling’s popularity as a decorative choice. The rebinding reflects the fashion of its era, but detracts from the edition’s monetary value.

Another group, consisting of Sabrina Nacci, John Roche, Andre Nolan, and Kelsey Heyel focused on text and paratext. Andre took me through The Anatomy of Melancholy, and John displayed a digitized version of one of the most famous books in English literary history—Shakespeare’s first folio. I got the chance to flip through Sabrina’s collection of Aesop’s Fables, whose strange alphabetical index system stopped us from finding “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” though “Wolfe and the Weake Young-Man” was entertaining enough.


Casey Gorczyca, Kira Houston, and Zee Cheema (left to right)


Meanwhile, Prof. Neuman and Cynthia kept to the schedule, entertained guests, and made announcements. There was a steady flow of guests for the hour and a half, some of which took a personal interest in the books on display, such as one woman who was eager to find a particular passage in Kira’s King James Version. Many familiar faces from the English Department were in attendance as well.


Becca Levine presenting The Iliad (1715-20) to a guest

A small throng of visitors stayed past the end of the event, even as many of the archivists began closing their books and returning felt wedges to their storage bins. The room was reorganized in short order, and the archivists arranged their display pieces on a cart for return. As I took down the flyers scattered about the Academic Commons, Cynthia wheeled her cart of rare books back down to the archive, as she had every week during the semester.


The remains of the day.

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