Form & Function: The Genius of the Book

Jun 16 – Sep 23, 2018
Mon–Sat: 10am–5pm | Sun: noon–5pm
 
Dive deep into one of the world's greatest technologies—the book. Discover a history beyond what’s printed on the page, seen in the structure, craftsmanship, and beauty of this often-overlooked marvel. Curated by Renate Mesmer, the Folger's head of conservation, Genius of the Book shows the Folger collection from a completely different perspective. 
 
Form & Function: The Genius of the Book
 
Discover the key parts of a book, and find out the many ways they can be combined. View the hidden details revealed by ultraviolet, infrared, transmitted, and raking light. And examine the small elements that a microscope can expose, including the fine touches of a richly embroidered 17th-century binding. A Shakespeare First Folio that was rebound in the late 1700s by Roger Payne, a well-known bookbinder, is also displayed, together with copies of Payne's descriptive notes. 
 
While the rare books are at the heart of the display, Genius of the Book also offers many other ways to explore, enjoy, and appreciate books and bookbinding. You can touch and feel some of the materials used in books, including leather, fabric, and parchment, and see an early bookbinder's tools or a conservator's modern equipment. 
 
As the exhibition shows, there are many reasons for the choices that were made in creating rare books. Ornamental features can also serve a functional purpose. Decorative or gilt edges can help to protect the edges from becoming dirty as a book is handled. 
 
Knowledge of the art and craftsmanship of rare books helps us explore the history of how books were made, makes it possible to repair and conserve them, and gives us the insight and expertise to appreciate them. In this exhibition, the books speak for themselves—not through the information stored inside them, but as unique, hand-crafted objects in their own right. 
 
Renate Mesmer
Curator
Form & Function: The Genius of the Book

This 16th-century book is a sammelband, which means that it comprises multiple works that were bound together after they were published. The binding is pigskin over wooden boards, with working brass clasps.

Form & Function: The Genius of the Book

If you look closely, you can see how this orange-colored parchment binding was once able to be closed using a tab and a slot.

Form & Function: The Genius of the Book

The blue sewing thread visible on the spine of this binding is very unusual among books in the Folger collection. Note also the manuscript scraps used as spine linings for the binding.

Form & Function: The Genius of the Book

Have you ever wrapped books in paper to protect them? This book from 1566 is covered in parchment manuscript.

Form & Function: The Genius of the Book

Note the manuscript material reused in this binding as spine lining. This binding is also unusual for the Folger collection in that the sewing support (look closely at the vertical line just to the left of the manuscript scrap) is covered with so much thread, sewn using a herringbone stitch.

Form & Function: The Genius of the Book

This Italian book, published in 1620, was selected for the beautiful blue floral designs and vibrant yellow color of its paste paper cover.

Meet the Curator

Renate Mesmer
Curator

Renate Mesmer is the J. Franklin Mowery Head of Conservation at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She is a book and paper conservator with more than twenty years of experience in the field. She formally trained as a master bookbinder in Germany and has pursued further conservation training at renowned institutions throughout Europe and the U.S. She has held previous positions conserving and restoring books and manuscripts at the University Library in Mannheim, the Speyer State Archives in Germany, and the Centro del Bel Libro in Ascona, Switzerland.