Rare Book School (RBS) could be called summer camp for nerds, but these are the coolest nerds you could ever hope to meet. Medieval specialists from France, polyglot librarians from El Salvador, MLISc students from Arkansas and curators from Spokane are just some of the lovely, brilliant people who might be your classmates at RBS.
What is RBS? They describe their program as providing continuing-education opportunities for students from all disciplines and skill levels to study the history of written, printed, and digital materials with leading professionals in the field. A good summary but a true understatement. Especially when it comes to the phrase “professionals in the field.” Words like experts or even celebrities in the field would be a more accurate description. The instructors at RBS are exciting speakers who are generous with their time, and bonus—they are hilarious.
How did I, a humble paraprofessional, with a weird resume, get invited to such a prestigious course? I don’t know, frankly, I am unworthy. A fraud with imposter syndrome who managed to slip into an elite, academic secret society, unnoticed. Tell no one; I hope to return. In truth, I applied for a scholarship, and perhaps taking pity on me, I got it. RBS is welcoming to many of us who don’t fit neatly into one job description. Check out the many scholarships they offer and join our weird little club!
The plague canceled the course I registered for using the National Endowment for the Humanities- Global Book Histories Initiative (NEH-GBHI) scholarship I received. As a conciliation, I was allowed to take three online courses instead. I zoomed into An Introduction to the History of Bookbinding with Karen Limper-Herz (Lead Curator for Incunabula and Sixteenth Century Printed Books at the British Library) and Books in the Manuscript Era I & II, with Raymond Clemens (Curator for Early Books and Manuscripts at the Beinecke Library, Yale University). These online courses were brilliant. However, if you have the opportunity to go in person, there is nothing quite like seeing beautiful, rare materials IRL. Meal breaks and excursions offered a fun opportunity to network with your professors and fellow students, something that’s difficult to replicate online.
The course I took this summer (2022) focused on early literacy, using religious texts as examples of how literacy was disseminated. The professors for this course were Lynne Farrington, Director of Programs and Senior Curator of Special Collections for the Kislak Center, and Peter Stallybrass, Annenberg Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, both at the University of Pennsylvania. We discussed and viewed some truly incredible materials (see pictures).
Figure 1 shows a medieval hymnal that could be seen from the nosebleed seats. Figure 2 shows a beautifully illuminated book of hours. Figure 3 shows a New England Primer from the 18th century. Finally, figures 4 and 5 show unusually large and small formats.
If you are interested in taking a course, (and after reading this and seeing these great pictures, how could you resist?) check out RBS at rarebookschool.org.