I spent last week looking at pictures. Sounds relaxing, no? But since I was taking a class at the University of Virginia’s summer Rare Book School, it was enlightening but intense week, with a large amount of information absorbed in a very short time.

Illustration from Wenceslaus Hollar's Theatrum Mulierum
An illustration from Wenceslaus Hollar’s Theatrum Mulierum (1643) is an example of Chine-collĂ© technique, in which a print is made on very fine, thin paper and then mounted onto a thicker backing page. From the ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives copy.

Rare Book School offers a variety of classes every year, on a wide array of special-collections-related topics. This year I was keen to take “History of Printed Book Illustration in the West,” taught by Erin Blake of the Folger Library.

ZSR’s special collections have a wealth of illustrated materials. And in recent years I’ve noticed a rapidly growing demand for our visual resources in teaching, research, social media, and other special projects.

Bernard Salomon woodcut from Vitruvius, De Architectura (Paris 1586)
Bernard Salomon’s woodcut illustrations for Vitruvius’s De Architectura went through many editions during the Renaissance. This example from ZSR’s Special Collections was printed in Paris in 1586.

I went into the class with a basic knowledge of the history of book illustration, but after a week under Erin’s tutelage, I now have a much enhanced understanding of illustration techniques, and I know more about the innovative and influential artists of the past 600 years. I can now with some confidence tell my etchings from my engravings and my collotypes from my photogravures.

American Entomology butterflies
An illustration from Thomas Say’s American Entomology (Philadelphia, 1824) is an etching hand-painted with watercolors. From the ZSR Library Special Collections’ copy.

I’m eager to deploy this new information in next year’s teaching. But I’ve also realized that I need to enhance the metadata for the visual aspects of our books. Academic library cataloging has traditionally viewed the text as primary, with illustrations, in most cases, of secondary importance. With better documentation, we’ll be able to make even more extensive use of special collections’ exciting visual resources.