Adventures in Book Studies: Taking a Class inside Special Collections

As an LIS student, I’ve spent a lot of time in the main library on campus. My classes are there, I work there, and some mornings I even eat breakfast at the library’s café. However, rarely am I asked to use the library as a patron. In my first year of LIS, I never checked out a book and although I work in an archives, I never used the special collections for anything but a class visit. But this semester, I took Material Analysis, and all that changed.

The University of Iowa has a pretty sweet collection of rare books in their Special Collections (which you can check out on their tumblr). But I was woefully ignorant of them. As an undergraduate, I dwelt in American history (fascinating, but not known for its incunabula). And in the archival realm, I’ve arranged papers in mostly 20th and 21st century collections. So, honestly, my experiences didn’t give me a detailed idea of what makes the rare books in special collections special. What kind of books are in there? Where did they come from? What were they made of? Even if I had wanted to use the collection, I wouldn’t have known where to start. As someone who wants to work in a special collections or archives, I knew this gap in my experience was unacceptable.


Amoris Divini Emblemata (1660): a emblem book from the Spanish Netherlands printed in Antwerp and bound in parchment that I got to know very well this semester. 

Furthermore, it felt like lately, my library experiences were too far away from the average researcher’s. Most of my LIS classes had not been research heavy. Instead of researching for papers, my courses focused on experiential learning and technical skills. I talked to plenty of professionals, and created a digital humanities project, but I hadn’t needed to consult the Special Collections for any assignments. To be the best library professional I can be, I feel I should have at least some experience using the research library not as an employee but as a patron. That’s where the Material Analysis course came in.


As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m a “BLIS” student earning a Master’s in LIS and certificate in Book Studies over three years. So far, I have taken one course per term at the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book (UICB). At the UICB, book arts like calligraphy, letterpress, and papermaking flourish. You can literally make your own paper and use that paper to bind a book. Up to this fall semester, my only UICB coursework had been learning the art a20161216_145612nd craft of bookbinding. Material Analysis, more traditionally academic, teaches students how to describe and analyze examples of the arts they might learn to practice in other courses.


My course took place in Special Collections in the evening after close. I was drawn to it originally by its historical bent; we would look at the development of book cultures in the early modern era, but also by its promise of hands on activities. Even without having
researched in a rare books collection myself, I understand the thrill of looking at primary sources. I wanted to do more than read about the materials; I wanted see them in their Special Collections habitat, somewhat like a researcher would.  The buffet of books my classmates and
I encountered this semester did not disappoint on that front.

Above left: Cover of Uncatalogued Ethiopian Bible, undated. Above: Inside illustration of the same. 

To augment our reading about the handpress period, we performed hands-on activities with dozens of books that exemplified what we read about.
We handled parchment, papyrus, and tapa cloth. We identified gothic and roman script as they appeared in the 15th and 16th centuries. There were examples of engravings, woodcuts, painted fore-edges, and leather book covers with gold tooling for us to handle and study.


Catholic liturgical text (1494) with acorns on the cover! 

Crucially for me, we each picked out a book from the 16th century, studied it in Special Collections and wrote a paper putting it in historical context. I am still about 10,000 miles away from being any kind of expert in book studies. But, now with an overview of a rare books collection, and an inkling of how researchers might use it, I have a solid start. It’s not always easy, when you’re learning how to manage collections, to remain in touch with the way patrons use your library or repository. But for one class this semester, I stopped being the librarian-in-training and entered the world of the people I’m trying to serve. If you’re going through library school and see an opportunity to take a class in a special collections department, or find a chance to use your library’s collections like a patron, do it. Taking time to get inside the researchers’ heads is not only fun, but might also change the way you approach your work.



Featured photo & Photo # 4: Catholic Church. (1494). Incipit liber processionum secundum Ordine[m] Fratru[m] PredicatorumSeville : Impressus Meynardum Ungut Alamanum et Stanislaum Polonum socios.
Photos # 2 & 3: Ethiopian Bible (undated) Uncatalogued at University of Iowa Special Collections.
Photo # 1: Van Veen, O. (1660). Amoris Divini EmblemataAntwerp: Officinia Plantiniana.



3 replies

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences working in a class that actually uses special collections. Your comments reinforce my goals in my Rare Books / History of the Book course at Kent State. Students work on projects as though they were patrons and researchers. This blog posts affirms my belief that LIS students should all get hands on experience using collections and resources before they leave their programs. Thanks again

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience! Cool that there is tapa in your collection; I took a basic workshop in kapa (Hawaiian for tapa) and made one rather wrinkly sheet myself. I’ve long been interested and somewhat involved in book arts and am still trying to figure out how to weave that into my library science studies and future in librarianship.

    Liked by 1 person

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