UI librarian to catalog rare Westminster books

UI librarian to catalog rare Westminster books

Last winter, Christopher Cook traveled to London for a conference, and he did what many tourists in London do: He visited Westminster Abbey.

Cook walked through the Gothic building where England's kings and queens have been crowned, and he stumbled upon a locked door and a sign, "library."

It was closed. But after contacting the abbey's librarian, he was able to go behind the doors and view the library's collection. Of particular interest: the abbey's old books – the very, very old books.

Cook, the rare-book cataloging project manager at the University of Illinois Library, will return to London this summer to examine and catalog the abbey library's 58 "incunabula," or books printed in the 15th century, in the infancy of printing.

"You never know what you'll find once you start digging in," he said about cataloging such books.

Cook specializes in cataloging books from the first 50 years of printing, from when Johannes Gutenberg started printing in 1454 to Jan. 1, 1501.

Books from this time period are extremely rare and valuable, and they're also beautiful, said Valerie Hotchkiss, head of the UI's rare book and manuscript library.

Only about 10 percent of the books printed from that period have survived.

Today, about 28,000 books from this period exist around the world, and the UI has about 1,000.

It's the third largest university collection of 15th century books, behind only Harvard and Yale, Hotchkiss said.

Cook, who said he has always been interested in books, was a sophomore when he began working part-time in the UI Library's rare book room.

He started at the UI as a history major – he liked Roman history. He took an Italian language class "for fun" and ended up majoring in Italian and minoring in linguistics. From there it was on to earn a degree in library science from the UI's Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

During his time at the library school, he tailored his curriculum around cataloging and rare books. One of his projects in grad school was compiling a supplement to the university's catalog of its books published before 1501.

"He has this drive and energy to catalog books," Hotchkiss said of Cook.

It takes a detail-oriented person to catalog books, which is essentially taking a systematic approach to describing a book, Hotchkiss said. There's a sense you are solving a mystery when you try to uncover information such as how the book was bound, who owned the book, who printed it and what the notes in the margins mean.

"It's detective work," she said.

After learning about Westminster Abbey's library, Cook applied for – and was awarded – a grant from the Bibliographical Society of America's Katharine Pantzer Fellowship in the British Book Trades. A portion of his research in London will be funded by that grant.

Essentially the goal is "to make sure the world knows what they've got," he said.

The incunabula inside the Westminster library are on theology, history and most are in Latin; some are in English, Italian and Greek. Some are printed on cotton, one is printed on vellum. They're mainly text but some contain illustrations from wood cuts.

Cook said he likes the fact that he's studying books that came out of this period when printing was such a new technology.

Printing, he said, was a signal the Middle Ages were coming to an end.

"With printing, people were able to spread ideas, people were learning to read and ideas were disseminated more widely," he said.

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