Of the thirty-two different libraries that compose the University of Illinois’s library system in Urbana-Champaign, so far I’ve only frequented a mere eighth: the Main Library, the Literature & Languages Library, the Undergraduate Library, and the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Although each distinct, the first three libraries all match up, more or less, with other libraries I’ve visited.  The Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, however, is different.

There’s a ritual to entering this cold, dry, protected space.  Before going in, you have to lock up your backpack, purse, coat, pens, snacks, water bottle, binders, and folders.  Laptops, books, and handouts, however, are allowed, and, for taking notes, the librarians provide long, blue sheets of paper and orange and navy-blue pencils, the school colors.

Most work is done in one of the inner rooms.  There, on large, low tables, the librarians lay out the items you requested earlier to view, cradling the books and manuscripts in velvet covered foam, holding them open gently with pieces of drapery cords.  Here, unlike some other RB&M Libraries, you examine the materials bare-handed because the librarians and curators believe the oil from your fingers will damage the pages less than any clumsiness from gloves.  

This means that I’ve actually touched and paged through a copy of Mr. William Shakespear’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies: Published according to the true Original Copies, the third folio edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, which came out in 1664.  It’s huge, and in four volumes.  It’s more than three centuries older than I am.  The bindings are brittle, and with several introductory letters, dedications, and memorial poems it takes forever to get to the actual plays—some of which aren’t included in the Bard’s œuvre today.  Suddenly, Ben Johnson’s “To the Memory of My Beloved Master, William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us,” a poem I read in preparation for the GRE, becomes all the more immediate on its thick, yellowed pages, in its still-black, handset type.  I see this poem, big and bold, framing the writing to follow, no longer isolated from its subject as in an anthology of onionskin pages.

Besides folios, I’ve also touched quartos, octavos, and books so small they could fit in my palm—all a few hundred years old.  I’ve seen beautiful tooled bindings and covers that are falling apart.  I’ve looked at books with illustrations done with copperplate engravings and books with type squished together to save paper.  Most of these writings, with their strange s’s, v’s, and irregular spellings, especially the ones in blackletter (gothic script), are very difficult for my 21st C eyes to read.

And, the history of the book, of which I’ve learned only a little, is rather unsettling for my 21st C mind.  Take early modern printing, for example.  Each hand-carved letter was selected and set—upside down and backwards—by hand, by someone who might not have had enough schooling to read the page he was setting.  It’s amazing anyone had the patience to work with a printing press.  Of course, with such minute work—in the age before electric lights—typos, misprints, and even eliminations of whole lines abound.  Or, consider the uses of these old books: sure they were repositories of knowledge and culture, but they were also funded by patronage and offered as expensive gifts.  They were political tools, used by both church and state.

It’s tempting to think that my work in the RBML has brought me closer to the real thing, a truer Shakespeare, unfettered by 21st C modifications of spelling, typesetting, or editors’ interpretations of where scenes begin and end.  Certainly it’s a privilege to spend time with these old books, and I am gaining a rich perspective that my Shakespeare anthology just can’t offer.  But, every veil that’s lifted only reveals another veil.  Instead of learning more, I’m learning how very distant the real thing is, if it even exists.  I’m discovering how very little I know—or can know.  Maybe that’s a start.

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