Books of all shapes, sizes, colors, and materials attract different readers based on their interests and tastes. One reader may have a certain love for large, leather-bound books instead of pocket-sized paperbacks. Others, however, might find a small, colorful paperback to be just as mesmerizing as any old-fashioned dictionary or encyclopedia. Some, if not a lot of readers, regardless of the content of any old book, may be discouraged from reading any type of book just because of its front cover or the old, worn feel of it.
While not all readers are guilty of adhering to the prejudice of rejecting certain books without really looking at what they’re really about, many readers are. The new John J. Burns Library exhibit in the O’Neill Reading Room, Judging a Book By Its Cover: The History of Early Printed Books looks to explore the development of the history of printed books while also displaying creative projects put together by the exhibit’s curators, students in the Early Printed Books course.
The exhibit, in its entirety, can be found in three display cases found throughout the Reading Room. At first glance, these cases are filled with a vast array of colors, materials, and content. While there may be a few examples of classically-rendered, albeit small, student-crafted pamphlets and books, this exhibit explores a wide range of print mediums that have been used over the centuries.
Several students in the class put together volvelles, wheel-like paper crafts often used as calendars displaying the month and season throughout the year. Many of these volvelles might be calendars, but a few of them adapt the volvelle in unique ways. One such volvelle, put together by Angelica Carberry, MCAS ’19, was made into a circle of fifths, a tool that allows musicians to discern major and minor keys. Another volvelle, this one made by Christine Lorica, MCAS ’17, tries to help teach its viewers how to speak French, as the wheel points out different verb endings used in the language. The exhibit’s volvelles are far and away the biggest spectacle found in the O’Neill Reading Room and display the student’s unique approach to rebranding an antiquated print tool.
Other books and pamphlets included in the exhibit are a little less specific in their aim and purpose. One sheet attempts to personify the various astrological signs with drawings of a variety of characters, each dressed colorfully. Other books featured throughout the display cases are simply supposed to be noteworthy for their covers. One such cover is made of wood. Two others are painted with intriguing designs. While these covers are pretty enough, it’s really difficult to tell what they are trying to tell viewers about what the students who created them learned in their time in the Early Printed Books class.
These few books are not the only component of the exhibit that seem a bit misguided or disorienting. For an exhibit titled, The History of Early Printed Books, there isn’t much of a history of printed books to be had in the O’Neill Reading Room. The three display cases are filled with these creative projects put together by students, but with little else. There are no definitions for or descriptions of some of the mediums in the exhibit or terms that are found in the students’ explanations of their works. While the creative projects in the exhibit are interesting enough on their own, their seems to be a lack of a cohesive element that would tie together the different parts of the displays and give the exhibit an overall message. This is by far the exhibits’ biggest flaw.
Judging a Book By Its Cover works as a beautiful display of creative print mediums that students in this Early Printed Books class have crafted. It does not, however, do a great job of living up to its title, giving a well-rounded history of printed books. In some ways, the students’ works flesh out elements of different mediums, but they do not really expand on the development of books and printed texts. While the students’ projects are interesting to behold, the discrepancy between what the exhibit’s title implies about its content and the many works on display is hard for viewers to reconcile well.