Rare Books and Special Collections

By Sidney E. Berger. Chicago, IL: Neal-Schuman, 2014. 560 pp. $125.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-55570-964-8.

Sidney E. Berger’s article “What is So Rare…: Issues in Rare Book Librarianship,” published in the Summer 1987 issue of Library Trends, reviews the previous fifty years of professional literature and concludes by affirming “the more we know, the more we need to know.”[i] With the publication of his comprehensive Rare Books and Special Collections, Berger has established a baseline for this domain expertise. Besides what we need to know, Joel Silver suggests in the book’s foreword that Berger’s latest work is also an answer to “What are librarians supposed to do now?” in light of the shift away from collections in favor of services (xii). Not surprisingly, many of the challenges and opportunities of rare book librarianship remain the same as those outlined in Berger’s 1987 state-of-the-field report.

Berger identified a need for such a volume after teaching various aspects of book history and rare book librarianship and having no single resource that covered all the basics, including the material aspects of books as well as the circumstances of collecting, preserving, and providing access to special collections materials (xv). He draws upon his extensive knowledge as both a maker and scholar of books as well as his background as both a librarian and administrator, giving the publication both theoretical and practical underpinnings.

Despite an ever-increasing emphasis on the digital over the physical, special collections librarians must continue to cultivate and promote an intimate knowledge of the book as such. To this end, Berger devotes his longest chapter to “The Physical Materials of the Collection,” which contains fifty-seven of the book’s sixty total illustrations, nearly 100 footnotes, and a targeted bibliography of eight-plus pages. Of course, special collections librarians must also maintain a vast array of operational expertise all the while assessing new trends in discovery, access, and use. Thus, Berger also covers such varied topics as archives, fund-raising, security, preservation, and outreach (among others). Each chapter concludes with thorough footnotes, and the seven appendices cover information ranging from common abbreviations culled from booksellers’ catalogs, to paper sizes, to descriptions of suggested departmental forms.

Berger writes in a candid style, e.g., exclaiming “it is a great deal of fun to open boxes containing special collections materials” and warning compilers and readers of bibliographies against “cutesy two-part titles” that might obfuscate the contents of books (34, 251). Berger also punctuates his text throughout with personal anecdotes, indicated by gray inset boxes. Each of Berger’s asides offers insight into a valuable lesson learned and evokes the voice of a mentor.

For students, this book is an indispensable introduction to rare book librarianship, though it works equally well as a self-paced ready reference for library professionals, book history scholars, book dealers, etc. And the book's physical structure telegraphs this purpose. It is a hefty, perfect-bound paperback with textbook proportions of 11 inches high by 8 ½ inches wide with a two-column page layout. Berger is clearly well versed in the frequent topics of discussion and debate in the world of rare books, and he aims to prepare others “to converse with confidence and accuracy” (82).


Molly E. Dotson, Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library, Yale University

[i] Sidney E. Berger, “What is So Rare…: Issues in Rare Book Librarianship,” Library Trends 36, no. 1 (1987): 16.