Fun with RBS: Reading primers with a scholar's eye

See Dick read. See Jane write. See Dick and Jane go wild for the antiquarian leather bindings and medieval calligraphy!
The late August arrival of UVA undergrads snapping up textbooks and parking spaces heralds the departure of a very different breed of student-– those who have just completed the summer semester at the Rare Book School.
Every summer, over 300 curators, scholars, collectors, and librarians enroll at UVA’s most rarefied (and non-credited) school. The only institution of its kind in the world, RBS is mecca for the serious study of books-– how they are made, how they survive, and where you find them.
For those whose idea of paradise is a basement full of people talking about parchment and encoded archives, the RBS is a connoisseur’s dream. For those who may not share their passion, admits director Terry Belanger, “We’re so high-end, it’s ridiculous.”
Belanger began RBS 20 years ago at Columbia University, but moved it to UVA in 1992, with the expectation that Charlottesville would provide a more hospitable and less distracting environment than New York City. It didn’t hurt that UVA offers one of the finest special collections in the nation for study props.
“It’s good to have stuff, and we have a lot of stuff,” says Belanger of the cozily organized suite of rooms in the bowels of Alderman. But he says the school’s greatest attraction for students is the opportunity to forge relationships with the visiting faculty, a group of about 30 “foremost authorities” on the esoteric subjects of typography, bindings, and manuscripts. Classes are capped at 12, and competition is tough.
Recent exposure from The Washington Post and NPR could well result in a higher number of inquiries from amateurs, interest that Belanger does not discourage. He continues to teach an undergrad course and often recruits those students as curators for the RBS exhibits on display in the Dome Room.
Currently on display is an exhibit by fourth-year Elizabeth Shermer, entitled “The politics of literacy in c20 America.” A marvelous recap of the lives and times of Dick and Jane and astute analysis of the unending debate over phonics education, this is a display that reminds us just how ubiquitous rarity is. Two kids and their dog-– it’s a far cry from Visigothic paleography, but by no means pedestrian when put under the examination of the RBS.

“Reading with and without Dick and Jane. The politics of literacy in c20America” is on display in the Rotunda Dome Room until November 1. The RBS resumes courses in January. Course schedule information is online at