Alexandra Wingate (College of William and Mary, Virginia)

The London Rare Books School (LRBS) is the closest thing an aspiring rare books librarian could have to Hogwarts. It’s held in an amazing building, run and taught by remarkable people, and covers all those subjects that you can only dream about at your regular school or university—though the LRBS offers courses such as the Medieval Book and the Early Modern Book Trade as opposed to Potions and Divination. Nevertheless, I had that same mix of excitement and intimidation leading up to the first day of the LRBS that Harry had approaching the Sorting Hat. I’m an undergraduate student studying linguistics and Hispanic studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, USA, and the idea of taking graduate-level classes was a bit nerve-wracking. However, my fears were assuaged because no matter their background, anyone who is involved in any capacity with the LRBS is a wonderful person, who has the same goal in regard to rare books as you do—to learn about them.

For the first week of LRBS, I took part in the Introduction to Bibliography course, which was taught by Andrew Zurcher, Warwick Gould, Colin Smythe, and Laurence Worms. Each of them brought his own perspective to the topic of bibliography as scholars, publishers, and booksellers. For this course, Andrew asked us to complete a small project, during which we created a full bibliographical description of an early printed book of our choice. Being a Hispanic studies student, I looked through Senate House’s catalog for something associated with Spain or the New World. I found a 1616 copy of the second part of the Comentarios Reales by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, which is his history of Peru. I used the Comentarios Reales previously in a paper at William and Mary, so I was very excited to look at this text. By studying the contents and structure of the book, I came up with my own description, which included a quasi-facsimile transcription of the title page, the collation and signing formulas, and physical features. I was particularly excited to see the preliminaries, the pages that come before the actual content.  During research which I conducted in spring 2016, I learned about the different types of preliminaries in Spanish books and their functions. I found the book’s tasa, which states the legal price of the book. This is interesting because the price was determined by the number of bifolia that made up the book. There were 157 bifolia, and so at a price of 4 maravedis per bifolium (pliego in Spanish) the book cost 628 maravedis when it was originally printed.


I was one of the lucky few who was able to stay for both weeks of the LRBS, and in my second week I took the Provenance in Books course with David Pearson, who wrote the standard text used for learning about the subject. We learned about inscriptions and notes in books, bookplates, book labels, armorial book bindings, and heraldry. The paleography exercises, in particular, helped us to bond as a class because we were united in our misinterpretation of people’s terrible handwriting. I learned how to identify the style and date of armorial bookplates and correctly state the blazon for a coat of arms. On the last day of the class, we were given twelve early printed books to study for provenance evidence.  We then compared our findings with David’s. Never have three and half hours of my life passed so quickly.


What I will take away from the LRBS is this: most people in the field of rare books and manuscripts are lovely people, who also want to geek out over the subject they love. To any future undergraduate students who might be intimidated by graduate courses, don’t worry about it. If you were accepted to the course, you’ll do fine and whatever happens you will end up expanding your knowledge on the topic. The LRBS has firmed my resolve to continue on the path to rare book librarianship. I still have two years left in my undergraduate degree, but afterwards I want to complete a book history graduate program and get my Masters of Library and Information Science (MLIS). LRBS proved to me that rare books are my passion and I intend to pursue that passion.

The London Rare Books School will run 26-30 June & 3-7 July 2017. Course options will be posted in October.