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Patrons of the pages conserve rare books at USC Libraries

Krieger_Dianeby Diane Krieger
A rare book chosen through the USC Shelf Life program gets its own cloth-lined, marble-papered box inscribed with a commemorative nameplate. (USC Photo/Noe Montes)
A rare book chosen through the USC Shelf Life program gets its own cloth-lined, marble-papered box inscribed with a commemorative nameplate. (USC Photo/Noe Montes)

Looking for a unique gift? Consider an old book — like, say, a 1677 edition of Thomas Hobbes’ Latin translation of Homer’s poems “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” That’s what Bob and Bano Pozin gave their daughter when she started her freshman year at USC.

OK, they didn’t actually give her the rare book — a jewel in the USC Libraries’ Special Collections. Rather, they sponsored its conservation in her honor.

The USC Shelf Life program pairs special library books with devoted readers. For $150 or more, anyone can support a treasured work. In addition to meticulous conservation, the chosen book gets its own cloth-lined, marble-papered box inscribed with a commemorative nameplate. The restoration also becomes part of the book’s permanent record in the digital catalogue.

Dozens of alumni and Friends of the USC Libraries have participated in Shelf Life: Bridget Flavin and Phil Daniel restored a first edition of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. Patsy Dewey ’58 restored first editions of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and Sea Wolf and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Kim, among other classics.

The library throws an annual dinner to honor its Shelf Life donors. Last year’s event was held in the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, home to USC’s Special Collections, with newly conserved books on display.

“It’s a heartfelt occasion when our friends and supporters experience firsthand the tangible results of their support,” said Marje Schuetze-Coburn, head of the department.

Traditional bookmakers used the very best materials available, so old books are “very, very robust,” Schuetze-Coburn added. It was only in the mid-19th century, with the spread of mechanized printing presses and cheap wood-based paper, that books became fragile.

Even the toughest hide-bound volume needs the occasional spa treatment, though — say, a rebacked cover or rehinged spine.

Conservation means getting books to a state where they can be safely handled again, and USC Libraries Special Collections prides itself on accessibility.

“Our rare books, our archives, everything we have is open to the USC community and researchers at large,” Schuetze-Coburn said. “We want all of our collections, from the newest digital database to the rarest book, to be used.”

One of the biggest supporters of the Shelf Life program is USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett. She makes a habit of conserving rare books to celebrate special occasions. For example, she honored Ilee Rhimes, retired vice provost and chief information officer, with the restoration of a 1655 Latin edition of René Descartes’ Discourse on the Method.

“Faculty are really touched by it,” said Dana Irwin, an administrator in the Office of the Provost who works closely with the library to find books that are meaningful to honorees.

Choosing to restore a 1792 edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman on the occasion of Jack Halberstam’s recent lecture in the Provost’s Writers Series proved prescient. The USC gender studies scholar, who coined the term “Gaga feminism,” referenced Wollstonecraft’s work in response to a question at the talk — just moments before Garrett announced the book’s conservation.

“It tied everything together very nicely,” Irwin said.

To sponsor a book conservation through USC Libraries’ Shelf Life, contact Schuetze-Coburn at schuetze@usc.edu.

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