Admit it: even though the treasures of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library are mentioned in 95 percent of University President Richard Levin’s speeches, you’ve never been inside the building. In fact, the closest you’ve come to walking in the door is ducking underneath the building’s overhang to get out of the rain as you run to dinner in Commons.
If this sounds like you, then the “Gleaming Gold, Shining Silver” exhibit is your big chance to see what all the fuss is about. That “Gleaming Gold, Shining Silver” is a two-story exhibit consisting entirely of 19th-century book covers should not deter you.
Rather than thinking “dust-jacket,” think work of art; most of the over 200 covers shown are so intricately decorated and creatively designed that they could stand alone as examples of 19th-century art.
The first floor of the exhibit consists of two glass cases primarily concerned with the technical elements of book-making and selling during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first case outlines the processÊof making a book cover, from weaving the cloth, to gilding the pages, to designing the endpaper, and all the details in between. Concise information placards located within the case explain not only how the fashion and styles of book making evolved during the 19th century, but how innovations in the industry transformed the appearance and price of the modern book as well. The second case shows illustrations of 19th-century bookstores and explains the different editions of books they might have stocked.
Floor two of Beinecke Library holds the bulk of the exhibit and explores the more artistic rather than technical features of book covers. Here books are organized in cases in a variety of ways, for instance the themes explored in the cover art or the particular cover’s artist. Once case explains the popularity of botanical designs in the 19th century and is filled with books featuring such cover illustrations. Other cover themes addressed within the exhibit include aviation, art nouveau, butterflies and birds.
The refreshing thing about the “Gleaming Gold, Shining Silver” exhibit is that it can be viewed in five minutes or an hour. The collection contains enough intricate pieces and written information to potentially serve as a comprehensive guide to 19th-century book covers for the curious student. But realistically, most people won’t kick themselves for never learning that striped cloth covers were all the rage for books given as gifts between 1845 and 1852. Even if you’re just passing by Beinecke Plaza between classes, don’t hesitate to drop in on the exhibit. The 200 stunning book covers are worth just looking at regardless of whether you want to learn anything.