Beware of the Incunabulum

Posted on October 27, 2009



Is That an Incunabulum I Hear?

One of my favorite tasks as a librarian is repairing damaged books. It’s fun to take an old ragged looking volume and make it look all shiny and new.

My favorite part, of course, is ripping out the “guts” of the book by slitting its spine. Tends to make bibliophiles a little nervous, but you get used to it after a few times. Even if you do feel rather like Norman Bates.

I usually take one day each year and teach the classes book repair basics. They love it, and become quite good at it. It also teaches them to respect the books by seeing how they are put together, and how much work goes into each little volume.

They also learn about the terrible problem of acidic paper in books, and watch as the pages crumble at my touch on a “demo” specimen. And they’re fascinated to learn that books aren’t just made from trees, but also from rags. And that a book published in the 1700s is most likely in better condition than one printed only 100 years ago.

Their favorite part, however, is the one vocabulary word I teach with this lesson: INCUNABULA. I like to write it on my chalkboard and have the students guess as to the meaning. I usually get guesses like, “A space alien?” , “A weird type of Spanish or Italian food?”, or, on one memorable occasion, “What my little brother leaves in his diaper?”

They soon learn, however, that an INCUNABULA is a book published prior to 1500. Which would make the book at its youngest five hundred and nine years old. I certainly wouldn’t take the scissors to one of them.

You can actually study book repair and major in rare book custodianship at some universities. I certainly wouldn’t mind doing so! Even if I do have to watch out for the ocassional rogue incunabulum!

Posted in: Lesson Plans