Curator's Insights | Form & Function: The Genius of the Book

Exploring the Structure of the Book

 
"Usually, people focus on the cover when they talk about books," says Renate Mesmer, curator of Form & Function: Genius of the Book. But this exhibition goes much deeper. "I wanted to talk about how the book is built, what the materials are, what the structure is. It's really what I like," she says. "It's my work. It's what I've been doing since I was 16."
 

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Form & Function: The Genius of the Book
Item Title: 
Lelio bandito: tragicomedia boschereccia / di Gio. Battista Andreini fiorentino; all’ill.mo sig. patron mio oss.mo il signor Francesco Nerli, ambasciatore del serenissimo sig. duca di Mantoua in Milano.
Item Call Number: 
259- 981q
Item Creator: 
Andreini, Giovanni Battista, 1578- author.
Item Date: 
[1620]
Mesmer, who is the J. Franklin Mowery head of conservation at the Folger, works with the structure of books in the Folger collection every day. She calls it a "rich, vast, and wonderful collection" that includes a wealth of 16th and 17th century rare books, as well as much more. All of the volumes in the exhibition are from the Folger collection, "and we could have chosen so many other examples." 
 
Selecting just the right books was a team effort, she says. "The exhibition was hand-picked by the staff. I had the outline and the ideas and other people helped to weigh in, too—the conservation department, the curators, and outside conservators. We all have a different way of looking at it." For the show to work, she says, "people have to look and understand immediately" what is on display. In choosing the books, she "looked for clear, easy to read" features. A gilt edge had to "glisten," she says. "It had to look like gold." 

"People are very familiar with books and don't think much about how a book is made. It's not as easy as it seems to bind a book and make it work well."


The exhibition offers visitors the chance to "walk through and enjoy it and learn about how a handmade book is bound." It lets them "look at a book as an object, where you get to see something that is usually hidden, and understand a little bit about how it needs to function," she says. "People are very familiar with books and don't think much about how a book is made. It's not as easy as it seems to bind a book and make it work well."

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Form & Function: The Genius of the Book
Item Title: 
[Sammelband of two publications on letter writing]
Item Call Number: 
PA8517 .D2 1549 Cage
Item Date: 
[between 1549 and 1598]

There's a wealth of other information to be found in a book's structure, too. "Just take the job we have here at the Folger. To repair a book, you sometimes have to take the layers off, to get to see what's inside," she says. "It adds to our knowledge of how things are made and are used. There are pieces of evidence that help us to understand what the book went through, what the bookbinder did, or what the reader did." 

Creating the exhibition "helped me to carefully look at the books," she says, to consider "what the binders may have thought. I didn't have that thing in mind, 'How am I going to repair them?' Instead, I examined how the book was bound. I was thinking about what was done." 
 
As for the books on view, Mesmer has no single favorite item—or, alternatively, she sees all of them as fascinating. "Ask a parent, 'Which one is your favorite child?' I can't really say that. They are all very interesting, which is why they were picked."