Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Looking, and Looking, and Looking at the Newberry Library

Last month, while attending the ALA in Chicago (for those of you who think this is the American Law Association, think again; it's the American Library Association — for librarians — and it is, as shows go, pretty dull stuff), I allowed myself the luxury of visiting the Newberry Library on West Walton Street. The Newberry is one the great, free-standing, independently funded research libraries in this country, and it is well known in typographic and calligraphic circles for its outstanding collections in these areas. I was welcomed by Paul Gehl, whose official title is Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing, which contains probably the greatest collection of writing books and calligraphic manuscripts (along with those at the Houghton amassed by Philip Hofer and the British Museum) in the English speaking world.

In the old days, when I was a student at Dartmouth, you could go to almost any library, sign in, sit down in the reading room and have books brought to you. You didn't have to wear white gloves or provide evidence of some formal scholarly affiliation, or show your drivers license to prove your identity. As a senior at Dartmouth, I spent an entire term my senior year at the Bodleain Library at Oxford sitting in the reading room and looking through fifteenth and sixteenth century books. No one asked me any questions; the books were brought, left at my reading station, and picked up when I was finished. All in total silence.

The same procedure, I am glad to report, still obtains at the Newberry, and Paul Gehl is the personification of civility and helpfulness; he simply gives the interested scholar the two wooden racks of typewritten cards describing the Wing holdings with a few slips of paper on which to write the call numbers. It's simple; it's efficient; and it's a pleasure. No wonder that every serious scholar from Stanley Morison to Beatrice Warde to Nicolas Barker has made it their home, and a special vote of thanks is due to Jim Wells, who presided over the collection for years and who befriended and was a friend to so many in this rarefied field that still holds a fascination for a certain lunatic fringe.

The history of scholarship in the fields of typography and calligraphy is riddled with individuals who never received a formal college diploma and never attended formal courses of study but whose education was nurtured and furthered by curators like Jim Wells and Paul Gehl. Daniel Berkeley Updike, whose "Printing Types" remains the standard in the field to this day, never graduated college; not did Stanley Morison, probably the foremost typographic scholar of the last century. Richard Benson, whose recent book will find its place on the shelves of the classics, never graduated, not did his brother John Benson, the foremost stone-cutter of our age. Matthew Carter, who is surely the foremost type designer of our time, was offered a place at Oxford, but declined to study punch cutting in the Netherlands instead. The list goes on. Scholarship, and most especially connoisseurship, have little to do with a college degree; they have everything to do with looking, and looking, and looking some more. And reading. To this end, we have institutions like the Newberry to thank, and to their curators for their help and encouragement.

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