Rare – and very well done!

Rare – and very well done!

Contributed by: Chris

With time always at a premium, training courses can sometimes feel like a luxury and self-indulgence.  I have recently been on two short courses on rare books.  One was a day course arranged by the Historic Libraries Forum and held at Cambridge University Library; the other just a half day organised by the Association of Pall Mall Libraries at Middle Temple Library.  The trainers at each – Will Hale and Renae Satterley  – were excellent: richly informative but with a light touch. And in each case, the cost of the course was inconsequential. Remarkable that when training in most areas is so expensive, in the area of rare books the attitude is so generous.

The Cambridge course gave a truly expert overview of the topic. The first session covered the history of book-making: from the making of the paper (until the 1820s, linen rags were used to create a pulp, which was then spread like porridge over the surface of a kind of sieve) through the process of type and different forms of illustration (type ornaments, woodcuts, engravings), explaining with great clarity how the printing process related to the final structure and order of the book, and finally to the binding process.

The second session built on this by explaining about bibliographic format.  This involved much folding of paper and closely resembled a childhood origami session – good fun, and much laughter. It then moved on to an effective explanation of Format signatures – the method of expressing the structure of a particular book.  For example, a simple one might be A – P4; a more complex one π’a2 A-04, P4 (-P4).

The success of the course was in revealing how what often today seems esoteric and slightly mysterious to many of us is actually based on simple and practical considerations in the manufacture of the books.  This was reinforced at the end when we visited a workshop in the basement, where we could examine many of the traditional tools of print-making.

The half-day session at Middle Temple Library focussed on provenance specifically ie. the history of a specific copy of a book and the interpretation of the book-plates, signatures, mottoes and jottings of all kinds that appear on books.

Renae gave an amusing summary of the different kinds of evidence (from simply-interpreted through to very difficult and impossible); an informative explanation of the kinds of resources available to help; and useful tips on approaches to cataloguing.

The session ended with informal discussion of actual examples from the Middle Temple and Athenaeum Club Libraries.

Far from being a waste of time (and certainly far from being a waste of money), these training seminars have provided instruction and inspiration.  Should I have gone?  Definitely.