Adventures in Rare Book School: The Value of Supplemental Coursework Opportunities


Many of us have spent countless hours drooling over the Rare Book School course descriptions, and dreaming of the day when we find a job that will fund us in our quest to attend such a program. But why wait? So many of the courses offered in this and alternate programs are of great use and value to library school students, and are an excellent supplement to traditional coursework.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in the course “History of the Book in East Asia” at the California Rare Book School. The course was a five day seminar-style class at the gorgeous C.V. Starr East Asian Library at UC Berkeley. It’s important to note that I have no previous knowledge of this field, no particular interest in becoming a specialist, and zero Asian language skills. However, this was still one of the most rewarding activities of my library school experience thus far.

It is a harsh reality that these courses and workshops are expensive, but there are a number of funding opportunities that make it possible for students to attend. My trip would have been impossible without a tuition scholarship from CalRBS, of which they offer several for each cycle of classes. Rare Book School in Virginia also has several scholarships that are offered annually. Additionally, graduate students may have access to professional development funding through their department or Graduate School.

Besides the programs in California and Virginia, similar workshops exist at University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (Midwest Book and Manuscript Studies), Colorado’s Antiquarian Book Seminar, and every year the Visual Resources Association and Art Libraries Society hosts a Summer Educational Institute geared towards image professionals.

There are many reasons to participate in courses and workshops, and individual motivations and interests play a huge role in the selection of an appropriate activity.  The value of this particular opportunity for me was:

  • Diversifying my skill set: I was completely unfamiliar with non-Western traditions and techniques regarding the distribution and construction of books and text. I’m working towards becoming an Art Librarian or Visual Resources Curator, and I know that I’ll need more than an expertise in European history to be useful to an academic institution.
  • Gaining experiences that are unavailable in my program: In my case, the very specific subject matter is beyond the scope of my MLIS program. It was also a welcome divergence from the practical library-related material that I have been working on, and broadened my usually focused studies, if only for a week.
  • Hands-on!: This experience was defined by the opportunity to handle and closely examine real-life examples of the materials that we were talking about. We even spent an entire morning making Japanese paper! I found a great deal of my learning came from the phenomenological aspect of the course. But not all courses will be tactile in that they bring out old books for you to handle; perhaps there is an element of the class where newfound skills are applied, specifically in a class about cataloging or metadata.
  • Learning from professionals who are active in the field: When they say these classes are taught by experts, they mean experts. There is a huge difference in the kind of instruction that you get from a professor versus a rare book curator, for instance. Plus, the class was diverse in participants: a conservator, a reference librarian, a special collections librarian, to name a few. My classmates, who came from a variety of backgrounds with a wide range of skills, were a huge part of my learning experience.
  • Time limitations make for an intensive study: A full week is not a great deal of time to conduct a class, and therefore the curriculum had a clear focus with defined goals. The best part was that there was no performance evaluation, no grades, and I got a certificate at the end!
  • Professional development: Although I am not interested in becoming an East Asian specialist, the entire experience was a valuable professional development opportunity. I connected with some prominent folks in the library community, not to mention that it looks great on a C.V.

Overall, my experience at CalRBS was one that will probably be useful to me in ways that I couldn’t have previously imagined. Perhaps I won’t need to articulate the subtle differences between 17th century Korean and Japanese bookbinding any time soon, but then again, maybe I will.

9 replies

  1. Hi Jasmine!

    Another great first post from our a new Hacker! Thank you for posting additional links to workshops found throughout the US. Rare book manuscript curation courses sound so fascinating and is such an interesting way to delve into other cultures and histories.

    Did you ever have to wear gloves or any other special procedures before handling any o the manuscripts?



    • Thanks, Aidy.

      Archivists and curators generally agree that wearing gloves when handling these kinds of materials is more dangerous than just clean bare hands. It’s hard to grasp/ turn pages with clumsy gloves on!


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