Behind the Scenes: Rare BooksPosted by Mary Alvarez.
May 15th, 2023
Written by Ava Stanski, Rare Books Graduate Assistant
When you ask a bibliophile what their favorite thing about books is, you’re likely to get a variety of answers. Some like the smell of old paper, others like the different designs on the covers, and some enjoy the content of the books more than the books themselves. As a graduate assistant with the West Virginia & Regional History Center’s rare books department, I had the opportunity to indulge my love of books as I sorted and catalogued over 6,000 new acquisitions, courtesy of a recent donation by Jim Presgraves, owner of the bookstore, Bookworm and Silverfish. Throughout the semester, I organized the books based on subject, then figured out what was already in the system. Out of those, I compared the condition of the recently acquired copies to those of the older copies, and decided whether to keep or replace them.
Working so closely with such a wide variety of books – some as much as three hundred years old- allowed me to learn about aspects of books and book-making that I had never considered before. I learned about different binding techniques, the different materials used in the covers, and the different aesthetic choices in cover designs and how they differed from decade to decade. I even learned that many cloth covers were patterned to look like leather, since it was more desirable but less financially sustainable for publishers to use. I also learned that every material, font, and color had a story. For example, green covers from a certain time period had trace amounts of arsenic used in the coloring.
Each book I worked with was unique in its own way, and each one will surely stick with me in the future. Thanks to the assistantship, I’m able to appreciate much more about books than I ever thought possible, as well as contribute to the appreciation of others by sorting them into the History Center’s collection and putting together my own exhibit, made up of several different subjects and categories that I found especially interesting. One shelf contains books on natural history, with detailed gilt designs on the covers and intricate diagrams on the pages. The second shelf holds books in other languages: one mathematics book in French, one book on horse care in German, and one translation and analysis of Herodotus’ work in the original Greek.
The final shelf displays two different decades of books and the differences in the designs that make up the covers. The exhibit, as well as the assistantship itself, was a joy to carry out, and hopefully many others will be able to appreciate everything I love about it.