Rare Book School receives $896K grant

Andrew Mellon Foundation awards funds to further bibliographic scholarship

An $896,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will soon allow 20 selected scholars to study bibliography, or books as physical artifacts, at the University-based Rare Book School, the University announced last week.

The Rare Book School is a non-profit independent organization based at the University that sponsors classes for academics, historians, book collectors and archivists interested in the history of books, manuscripts and the written word.

“The purpose of the grant is to help young scholars, both doctoral and untenured faculty, to learn how to read the physical objects that convey texts,” Rare Book School director Michael Suarez said.

The discipline revolves around thinking of books as made up of codes, Suarez explained. Codes are embedded within the physical attributes of a book including its format, cover and binding. The bibliographer carefully examines every physical aspect of a book to interpret these codes.

“Just as an archaeologist takes an artifact and tries to analyze, to reconstruct [the] circumstances of its making [in order] to understand the existence of the artifact in its cultures, so too is the book historian a kind of archaeologist of the book in which we take the material… [to] reconstruct the circumstances of its construction, distribution and consumption,” he said.

The 20 scholarship recipients in 2013 will experience hands-on training at the Rare Book School, attend bibliographical field schools throughout the United States, and host symposia aimed at fostering discussion about bibliography at home institutions, said Barbara Heritage, Rare Book School assistant director and curator of collections.

Bibliographic training was formerly a required element for top English literature graduate study programs, but interest in the training has since tapered off, Suarez said.

“As a result, many graduate students have not had any significant guided experience to learn how to analyze the original materials of the historical periods that they study,” Heritage said. “And when they finally do encounter those artifacts, they do not have the requisite skills to interpret the evidence before them with intellectual rigor.”

The Mellon grant aims to revitalize interest in the field.

“Without a concerted plan of action to revive the discipline of bibliography, rare books will increasingly become ‘curiosities,’ mute symbols from the past, rather than eloquent voices for it,” Heritage said.

The Rare Book School has so far received about 600 requests from applicants, many of whom have backgrounds as doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows or are junior faculty.

The application deadline for The Mellon Fellowship for Scholars in Critical Bibliography is Dec. 1.

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