As I mentioned last week, Bridget and I have been working on our next library exhibit. This exhibit will highlight material from the Library and Archives’ Pre-Columbian collections—whether in the Library, the Rare Book Collection, or the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA)—and is designed to accompany the upcoming Pre-Columbian Symposium on processions. Right now, we’re finishing touches for the on-site exhibit as we work on the corresponding online exhibit. Since the on-site exhibit is mostly finished, it seemed like a good time to share what’s been going on behind the scenes!
To make a book exhibit, the first thing we have to do is pick the books and other materials we are going to display. Bridget Gazzo, the Librarian for Pre-Columbian Studies, created our initial list of books. These included both scholarly works, so we could research Pre-Columbian processions, and rare books. Once we assembled the rare books (and a few modern ones with good pictures), we went to the Rare Book Room to choose the best images from each, using strips of archival quality paper as our bookmarks. We examined both nineteenth and twentieth century travelers’ accounts and some facsimiles of extremely rare manuscripts. (Our facsimile of the Getty Murúa, an illustrated manuscript from Peru, is just beautiful! It’s so carefully done that they even recreated the little holes in some of the pages.) If we’d left ourselves more time for this part, it would have been any bookworm’s dream!
We were in a hurry, though, because digitizing images for the online exhibit required an appointment with a photographer. So after we finished choosing the images, we trundled our cart of books down to Joe Mills’ office. Joe is a Dumbarton Oaks photographer currently working on a massive project on Byzantine seals, but he also took the photographs that we’ll have in the online exhibit. This is a trickier process than you might think! So much so that I don’t have any pictures from it, because I was busy holding the books steady while he photographed them.
The next week involved sorting and re-sorting our books by theme, including both rare ones and ones from the regular collection. Modern books have an important role to play in most of our exhibits—rare books are less likely to include color than books from our era of the comparatively cheap printing of color photography. Modern books with color illustrations, therefore, are critical to the visual appeal of the exhibit! (Although, to be on the safest side of copyright law, most of them will only be appearing on-site.)
At last, we settled on three themes that we’ll use both online and on-site: pathways, plazas, and processions. There are four display cases in the library, which have each been assigned a theme; “processions” gets two of them because it’s the most important. Three of our cases are vertical ones that look like glass bookshelves; the fourth is a big, low case, much deeper than the others, where we can put books like the one that was half as tall as me.
Once we have distributed the books to their cases, it’s time to strap them in! To set up each book, there are two steps we have to perform. First, we have to strap the books to the right page. We do this by looping a clear plastic ribbon, to which we’ve attached velcro strips on facing ends, around the book. Then we attach the velcro together behind the book, where you can’t see it when it’s open.
Our next step is to put each book in its own stand. Our stands are top-of-the-line, but it’s still a very fiddly process.
One consideration is the angle at which we’re going to display the book: books on the bottom shelf need to be facing up so that you can see them without bending over. Books on the top shelf, on the other hand, need to be as close to ninety degrees upright as possible, so that they don’t point at the ceiling rather than at viewers. Another problem I encountered was the weight of the books. In the photo below, there’s a beanbag weight on the back of the stand, because it’s a small stand carrying a heavy book. Without the weight, the stand fell forward each time I let go of it!
A last variable, and the most difficult one, was the “tightness” of books, a term I have recently learned. When you open some books, they are perfectly happy to stay lying open, possibly until the end of time. Magazines, for example, are usually not tight—you can easily leave them open to any page. Some books, however, are “tight.” This means that the spine has sufficient tension that if you laid them open flat on a desk, for example, they would probably close again. We practically had to wrestle some of our books into submission! This sometimes involved solutions with multiple straps, a lot of velcro, and a weight or two just in case.
But all of that is finished, and all the books are happily locked into their cases. Check back in early September for an announcement when the online exhibit goes up!