'Impressive' collection at Belmont Abbey on display during 'Preservation Week'
BELMONT — On April 23, the Abbot Vincent Taylor Library at Belmont Abbey College participated in the American Library Association's "Preservation Week" by hosting an information exhibition and book preservation demonstration by preservation specialist Alexandrea "Ali" Pizza. It was the first look in years that many people had of the Benedictine college's extensive rare books collection.
"This exhibition is a pleasant surprise," said junior John Frisby, who wasn't aware of the rare books collection housed on the ground floor of the 54-year-old library.
Throughout the six-hour exhibition, which included a one-hour workshop about how to make your own sewn-binding journal, Pizza, monk/librarian Brother Andrew Spivey and a student intern offered tips about how to preserve rare books, what classifies a book as being rare, and when to get rare books appraised and insured. She recommended that rare books be laid flat on a shelf, damaged side up, or be stored in a box made of archival paper.
"First editions depending on the printer, where published, the age, whose hands they have been in, the binding style, whether there are fancy clasps, gold leaf or velvet: these all affect the quality and value of an old book," explained Pizza, as she worked on preserving the pages of a 1736 work by Thomas Prince. The cover of Prince's "Chronological History of New England" had fallen off.
"Right now, we are focused on stabilizing the environment through humidity control and temperature. Thankfully, we have no pests to worry about, but we do need much more room for proper storage and further facilities to keep up with conserving the books," Pizza explained.
Students and scholars are always welcome to make an appointment to see and study the works housed in Belmont Abbey College's rare book collection, whether to analyze a particular binding style or read the texts. However, the Preservation Week exhibition was the first public display of the college's rare book collection in many years.
In fact, it was the rare books collection that was the "deal-maker" when Pizza's husband, Dr. Joseph Pizza, was offered a position as assistant professor of English.
"He came home from the interview with a job offer and said, 'Honey, they have a rare book collection!'" Pizza recalled. "I said, 'Oh yeah, how big?' I didn't expect such an impressive collection."
After Pizza earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and they were married, the couple set off for Oxford University in England where Joseph earned his doctorate. Meanwhile, Ali spent three years as an apprentice to the conservation binders at Oxford's famed Bodleian Library, including Christopher Clarkson, the world's leading authority on the conservation of medieval manuscripts.
The Bodleian and the Vatican Library recently announced a $3 million collaboration to digitize approximately one million pages of materials in the next five years, making many of their rarest books available online for public viewing.
Likewise, to provide access to Belmont Abbey College's works, library director Don Beagle began a project to digitize key works from the 13,000-plus volume collection about a decade ago. Digitizing the works allows them to be studied without compromising the integrity of the works themselves, he noted.
For example, the Vincent Taylor Library boasts the largest collection of works by the "Poet-Priest of the South" Father Abram J. Ryan, a Catholic priest from the Civil War era. Digitized copies of unpublished poems provide insight to the deep faith and utterly human spirit of this chaplain for the Confederate Army.
"It makes me wonder if we should not think about a (permanent) exhibit to showcase a number of the Abbey's rare books and manuscripts. The rare books in the Abbey collection – their range, their beauty and their craftsmanship – are a secret that we have kept far too long, and far too well in my view," said Mark Newcomb, Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs.
Responses from students at the exhibition were overwhelming, too.
Junior Abbey Peoples said she wants to make book binding her career. "I have always had a love for books, especially old books," Peoples explained. "I had no idea we had so many, and this is my first time coming into contact with them."
Sophomore math major Raphael DeSablon knew of the college's rare book collection and called the exhibition "very beneficial, that's for sure! It was very interesting."
Said Pizza, "We don't have the space and materials necessary for the long-term preservation of the books. It would be a great opportunity for students and the academic community to utilize the collection. It is for their benefit, and without their research or appreciation, this rich history is lost."
— Mary B. Worthington, correspondent
View the rare book exhibition online
"Rare Books & Special Collections: An Online Exhibition 1474-1900" is online at crusader.bac.edu/library/rarebooks/index.shtml