FACETIME- Rare: Genius award winner gets hands-on with past

Terry Belanger

It's common for the secretly nominated winners of the $500,000 MacArthur Foundation award, a.k.a. the "genius" award, to express surprise that they've been chosen. Not so Terry Belanger.

The head of Rare Book School had an inkling he was a candidate in 2004– more than a year before he won– when a friend in Boston said, "I'm sorry you didn't get the MacArthur." Belanger quickly deduced that the letter of recommendation the friend wrote was for the 2005 awards, not 2004.

"By the summer of 2005, I knew 15 people who'd written letters," says Belanger. 

And by the time he received official word that he had indeed won the prestigious prize in December 2005, "How could I be surprised?" he asks. "I'd been sitting around all week waiting for the call." 

Nor does Belanger indulge in false modesty. "I am a genius," he declares. "I can prove it. I have the MacArthur Award that says so. It doesn't say what I'm a genius in." Here, he pauses before revealing, "Self promotion."

What's indisputable is that Belanger founded the Rare Book School in 1983 at Columbia University. When Columbia decided to drop its library science program, Belanger moved the nonprofit school to UVA. Along with being honorary curator of special collections, Belanger is a university professor, one of the 12 highest-ranked profs at UVA who report directly to the president.

And in the basement of Alderman Library, he's built a world dedicated to his mantra: "We have no right to deprive the future of the past." And the past– at least since the 15th century– is best found in books. 

He shows a visitor part of his domain in the bowels of Alderman where books are filed by designer, and rare though they may be, students get to touch and examine examples of book design breathtakingly beautiful and no longer found in modern publishing.

"Rare Book School and the University of Virginia have been a match made in heaven" says Karin Wittenborg, university librarian. "He has single-handedly made a program that's continuing education for rare book dealers, collectors and librarians. People come from around the country and around the world." 

"What we do at Rare Book School is try to train people to look after the past," explains Belanger. "By definition, that's janitorial."

The 275 students that get into the competitive, week-long classes at Rare Book School learn from a faculty that's "among the best in the world," boasts Belanger. "How else are they going to meet the chief of rare books at the Library of Congress, Mark Dimunation?" 

Students pay $900 for a course that costs $2,000 to put on. "The MacArthur came in very handy, because this place eats money," says Belanger, whose $500K came with no strings attached. 

After more than a quarter century nurturing Rare Book School, Belanger, 67, retires in June. Next on his agenda? "File," answers the genius curator. "I've got 35 years of papers to file."


Terry Belanger discusses "What Should Book Collectors Collect Now, and Why" at 4pm Friday, March 20, at UVA Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections.