PUL Librarians teach Rare Book School classes on 15th century books and Black bibliography

Two classes, separated by 400 years and a couple feet of drywall, called Princeton University Library (PUL) Special Collections home this summer as part of Rare Book School. In one room, visitors to the Library surveyed the history of Black Bibliography dating back to the 1970s in a class led by Kinohi Nishikawa, Associate Professor of English and African American Studies and Jennifer Garcon, Librarian for Modern & Contemporary Special Collections. In another, Will Noel, John T. Maltsberger III '55 Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, Eric White, Scheide Librarian and Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, and Paul Needham, retired Scheide Librarian, guided participants through various features of manuscripts and early works of printing. 

Paul Needham, Eric White, and Will Noel, lead a session on 15th century books and manuscripts.

Paul Needham, Eric White, and Will Noel, lead a session on 15th century books and manuscripts. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson.

For Nishikawa and Garcon, their class originated from a challenge faced by librarians, catalogers, and researchers in the 1970s — a surplus of books by Black Authors.

In the case of “Fifteenth-Century Books in Print & Manuscript,” Noel said that the class is an outgrowth of Needham’s original Rare Book School course, “Fifteenth-Century Books in Print.” 

“Many years ago, in the twentieth century, I became a curator of medieval manuscripts in a museum in Baltimore,” Noel said. “Along with these manuscripts came 1,000 books that I knew nothing about. They were all fifteenth-century printed books. And so I did what so many library professionals do when they need to learn new things: I took a course at the University of Virginia's Rare Book School, entitled "The Fifteenth-Century Printed Book."

Noel learned a great deal about the printed book in the course but also found that much of the class could be applied to his specialty, manuscripts.  

“I wasn't the easiest of students. I was over-enthusiastic, and I asked too many questions,” Noel recalled. “ Nonetheless, I cannot have annoyed Paul too much, because a couple of years later, Paul and I were teaching the course together, and it was entitled "Fifteenth-Century Books in Print and Manuscript."

Kinohi Nishikawa and Jennifer Garcon helping Rare Book School attendees during their course on Black bibliography.

Kinohi Nishikawa and Jennifer Garcon helping Rare Book School attendees during their course on Black bibliography. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson.

For the summer 2023 iteration of the course, Needham, Noel, and White covered everything from the paper and parchment that items were printed and written on, to how they have been destroyed or saved over time.

One evening, the class even visited book artist and Pied Oxen Printers Proprietor David Sellers in Hopewell to do some hands-on printing. 

Down the hall in the Black Bibliography course, the students also stepped outside the walls of Special Collections, albeit to visit the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

“The visit to the Schomburg Center was a wonderful experience,” said Rene Boatman, Technical Administrative Assistant at PUL who also helped facilitate the course. “The presentations were excellent as were the materials.” 

According to Steven Knowlton, Librarian for History and African American Studies, who attended the course as a student, the visit to the Schomburg included presentations from Barrye Brown, Associate Curator for the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books, and her colleagues who work in preservation and cataloging, on publication history and how to examine physical artifacts to discern their history within and outside of the library. They also saw rare 1920s and 1930s editions of classic works by creators such as Langston Hughes and Aaron Douglas.

Despite operating somewhat like a traditional college class, one requirement of students admitted to rare book school courses is to write a short essay detailing both the personal and professional benefits of attending a given course, as well as what existing knowledge they have that can be of use to the rest of the students. 

“The students were hugely engaged,” Noel said. “We always learn things from the students. In this course, we had conservators, professors, and graduate students, all of whom had insights to share.

Rare Book School is now accepting applications to attend its 2024 offerings, which include three courses held at PUL in July 2024, including “Why Black Bibliography Matters,” “Fifteenth-Century Books in Print and Manuscript,” and a newly added course, “The Book in Ming China: History and Analysis.”

Published on January 29, 2024

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Strategist

Media Contact: Stephanie Oster, Publicity Manager