Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Blast from the Past

The best course I took at Columbia Library School was History of the Printed Book with Professor Terry Belanger. Starting with incunabula, Profesor Belanger took us through five and a half centuries of changes in how books were manufactured. The course covered more than the history of the book--Professor Belanger taught us social history, literary history (with an emphasis on British literature), the history of technology, art history, copyright, business history, all as reflected in the printed book, and made it fascinating. To this day, I check the back of a hardcover book to see what typeface it is printed in before I look at the title page or table of contents. Columbia closed its library school in 1992, and Professor Belanger, like the rest of the faculty, had to find a new home. He had founded the Rare Book School at Columbia in 1983, and moved it to the University of Virginia in 1992. The mission statement of the School comes from its homepage: "Rare Book School (RBS) provides continuing-education opportunities for students from all disciplines and levels to study the history of written, printed, and born digital materials with leading scholars and professionals in the field." In fulfillment of this mission, the Rare Book School offers courses on everything related to books and information from Introduction to Paleography to Born Digital Materials: Theory & Practice. The latter offering was recently brought to the attention of LIPA members through an email message. Professor Belanger recently retired from the position of director of the Rare Book School. His influence has been widespread. Most rare book librarians in the United States have taken at least one course at the Rare Book School.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, which unfortunately requires a subscription for access, profiles Professor Belanger in its December 11 issue.

The profile brought back fond memories of a favorite professor. One would think that a person who loves the printed book would recoil from technology, but that is not the case at all. Professor Belanger has embraced it wholeheartedly as yet another tool in his arsenal.

Both the euphoric embrace of digital technologies and the haze of nostalgia for the book have obscrued its technological nature, propagating the notion that the meeting between the book and the computer pits the pretechnological against the technological. Any triumph for one is viewed as a loss for the other. Without denying that digitization poses serious new challenges for the book, one can argue that that perspective is deeply flawed.

Few people are better prepared to explain why than Belanger, who has spent his career teaching others how to study the book as a physical object, as a form of technology, and as the product of many other technologies. It turns out that doing so has profound consequences. It has made Belanger receptive to the use of digital technologies in the study of the book and inspired his innovative approaches to collecting and teaching. It has also been the core insight behind the transformation that he and his students have brought to the field of rare books over the past several decades.

Belanger buys up cast-off books in bad condition so that he and his students can take them apart and look at their guts without remorse. He

despises the tendency of some of his colleagues in the world of rare books to allow their fondness for books to become an undiscriminating fetish of form over function. He calls that "pretty-book syndrome" and works hard to guard against it by emphasizing the prosaic aspects of working with rare books and playing down the spiritual satisfactions. As he likes to quip, "Librarianship is not all glamour."

Belanger believes that online databases and Google can help researchers to track down obscure information about books and authors, but is concerned that projects to digitize rare books pose risks. "Because so much information about a physical object is lost in photographic duplication, future students of the book will be a profound disadvantage if they can examine only digital reproductions. ... 'Each generation needs to rediscover the past in its own way, using its own improved technology for that purpose.'" Belanger thinks that not all books need to be preserved in their original format, and that digitized versions provide adequate access.
He believes that books do certain things well and digital technologies do other things well. The two should coexist without trying to eliminate each other. If an Audubon print is viewed in the original rather than in digital reproduction, that is no reason to maintain that information created digitally and intended for digital viewing would be improved by taking on physical dimensions.

I highly recommend this entertaining profile of a library pioneer.

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

Thank you, Marie, for a wonderful post! Thanks for introducing us to Prof. Belanger, if we were unlucky enough never to have attended the Rare Book School, or to have reminded us of that wonderful experience if we were so fortunate. What a great post!