Professional Development

Oak Knoll Book Festival

Wednesday, October 15, 2008 9:31 am

I was invited to participate, along with 9 other rare books and special collections librarians across the U.S., in a special event at the 15th annual Oak Knoll Book Festival and Conference held in New Castle, Delaware. Organized by rare and antiquarian book dealer Bob Fleck of Oak Knoll Press, the festival brought together 10 rare books librarians with 10 fine press and typographic designers and publishers from across the U.S. and from England, Wales, and Paris for dialogue, dinner, and conversation.

In April, Bob Fleck invited me to participate in this first ever gathering. Others invited and attending were Special Collections Librarians at Columbia University (Jane Siegel remembered Jim Galbraith warmly!); University of Kentucky; University of Delaware; University of Iowa (and their Center for the Book); Duke University; Lafayette College; University of Washington; and University of Indiana.

The weekend began with the 20 of us sharing a bit about our libraries including our collections, our philosophies of collecting, our budgets, and our standing orders with fine presses. For the printers and artists books designers the dialogue was complementary in terms of their focus in work, their emphases in printing, their physical locations in terms of distribution, their price structures and their own philosophies for choosing content and format.

The conversation was lively and informative for the 10 hours we had together on the first day, beginning in a large setting, then in a smaller group break-out session, and then back to share all with each other. We continued over drinks and dinner into the night.

We learned about how each of our acquisitions budgets and buying power allow us to purchase fine press rare materials and the thought and deliberation that goes into the selection and buying. Format, content, style, literary representation, and cost are all critical elements in making the decision to buy or not to buy.

The presses, in turn, shared with us their reasons for the limit on their number of books due to time and cost constraints. Because the work is so labor intensive what with setting type; illustrating and illuminating appropriate to author’s content; binding and sewing; and advertising and selling, the press persons are often by necessity bivocational, utilizing a second job’s salary to help pay for their press expenses. Output is often limited to 100 copies or less, and all are signed by the artists and writers and publishers. Expenses are high and, as a result, prices usually range from $100 – $2500 per book. The final product, though, is one worthy of artists’ shows for the beauty, delicacy, sensitivity to text, design, and flow of writing are exquisite and one of a kind.

Six of the presses from whom I purchase books and broadsides were represented at the table: Bird and Bull Press (with whom I have a long standing standing order); Gregynog Press in rural mid-Wales; Old Stile Press in southern Wales; Incline Press in London; and University of Kentucky Press.

One of the presses with whom I established a new standing order to purchase the press’s entire offerings is Press on Scroll Road. Bob Baris, owner, is printer, typesetter, publisher, distributor, and certified purebred organic sheep farmer from central Ohio. Bob is a close personal friend of poet and writer Wendell Berry and he publishes much of the original writings of Berry as well as poet Peter Fallon, among others. Bob and I shared stories of farm work, border collies, weaving (his wife weaves wool from 4 Dorset sheep), and beautiful autumn days with fall harvest and frosty mornings. He and I shared (over merlot and the best crabcakes I’ve ever had in my life!!) a common love of and appreciation for books, poetry, printing, hard work and farming of old.

Also at our table was David Vickers of Gregynog Press in Wales. His works are among the most beautifully crafted and are representative of some of the best writers of England and Ireland from the 16th centuries to the present. He, too, is from a farming life in Wales and we talked at length of presses and the countryside surrounding his working shop.

The following day was the crème de la crème of rare books buying!I purchased works from many fine presses including Pre Nian, Gregynog, Shanty Bay, Solmentes, and Old Stile publishing the writings of Vita Sackville-West, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Benjamin Britten, Aeschylus, Wendell Berry, John Keats, among others. I also included one small chapbook from the VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond) graphic design press students as well as a small item from Wells College Press and their students. I spoke with more than 20 press persons and purchased judiciously, according to our collection needs and areas of study and research.

The 15th anniversary of the Oak Knoll Festival honored Henry Morris, founder of Bird and Bull Press. A prior interest in making handmade paper led Henry Morris to establish Bird & Bull Press in 1958, and it is now one of America’s oldest private presses. Strong interest in the art and history of handmade paper has resulted in a variety of books on Western, Japanese, and Chinese papermaking, marbled and decorated papers and other books on related subjects. Henry regaled us on two mornings of the festival with tales and woes of his days of printing and publishing including printing his first work, an 18th century cookbook (where he took out lines of recipes to fit his sheets of paper!) published on sheets of paper he’d handmade himself, a labor intensive work in and of itself. He spoke of trying to sell this small book to New York bookstores at $3.00 apiece and was elated when he could. Today, if a copy of this first printing can be found, it is worth $300.00! A real lesson in the values of patience and persistence and entrepreneurship!

The festival was a terrific combination of meeting, socializing, learning and buying! I hope to be at the next anniversary gathering doing more of the same!

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