Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2005 Issue

An Interview with Terry Belanger of the Rare Book School,<br>Recipient of $500,000 MacArthur Award

Belanger

Terry Belanger of the Rare Book School


By Mike Stillman

Money talks. When he was awarded one of the $500,000 MacArthur Foundation awards, Terry Belanger's name suddenly was heard by all kinds of people with little connection to the world of rare books. Of course, Mr. Belanger was already quite familiar to those deeply involved in the collecting and trading of rare and antiquarian titles. As Director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, there is probably no one more knowledgeable in the field today. Still, just as there is likely no ABAA member or rare book librarian who does not know or know of Mr. Belanger, there must be 10,000 Abebooks and eBay dealers who do not. For them, half a million dollars served as an introduction.

Mr. Belanger received his award for the work he has done in education, for the history of books and printing, rare book librarianship, and antiquarian bookselling. The Rare Book School he heads up is the premier training grounds for those who will continue this mission in the years ahead. However, he is quick to look at the award as recognition of the importance of what he does, not some sort of personal honor. In a sense, this is an award in which all of us who are in some way connected to the preservation of old books share. It is recognition that antiquarian books are more than quaint relics of the past, but a part of who we are, worthy of our efforts at preservation. Of course, only Mr. Belanger gets to spend the money, but spiritually we all share in the prize.

Being named a MacArthur Fellow provided the perfect segue to an interview with Mr. Belanger. Despite being a specialist in things antiquarian, Terry Belanger is equally expert on the issues of today, many of which arise out of the huge technological advances of the past two decades. We asked about current issues and concerns, such as online bookselling, digitization of books, and the role of rare book libraries in a rapidly changing environment. Some of his answers may surprise you. All are worth hearing because, no slight intended, he almost surely knows more about this field than either you or I.

First, for those still unfamiliar, here is a brief account of the Rare Book School and its director. Terry Belanger established the Book Arts Press at Columbia University in 1971, and was serving as Assistant Dean in its School of Library Service in 1983 when he started the Rare Book School. Columbia was considering closing its School of Library Service. The Rare Book School offered an opportunity for Columbia's school to reach and educate others who could not participate in the degree program, providing added justification for keeping the library program alive. The RBS succeeded in educating many times as many students as was possible through the limited access degree program.

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