Oak Knoll was featured in the Fall 2011 issue of Winterthur Library News. As part of Winterthur’s book connoisseurship course for the first-year fellows in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, the class visited Oak Knoll to present reports they had written about books as objects. With brief talks from Bob, Rob, Laura, and Danielle, we hoped they had a great experience at our bookshop.
From the article in Winterthur Library News Fall 2011
WPAMC Book Connoisseurship and Oak Knoll Books
Last semester library staff members Emily Guthrie and Richard McKinstry, together with library conservator Chela Metzger, taught a book connoisseurship course to the first-year fellows in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. The course was designed to encourage an appreciation and understanding of books and bound structures as cultural artifacts.
Over a period of three days, the students became familiar with the history and structure of bound books, whether printed or manuscript, and viewed dozens of different bindings from the library’s rare book and manuscript holdings. Honorary Winterthur trustee, bibliophile, and generous library donor Edmond L. Lincoln joined the students and staff to add his comments, especially about the earliest of the library’s holdings.
On day three, Bob Fleck, owner of Oak Knoll Books and proprietor of Oak Knoll Press in New Castle, Delaware, kindly welcomed the group to his bookstore, located in New Castle’s former Masonic building, Odd Fellows Hall, and opera house. Oak Knoll Books was established in 1976 and today has the world’s largest inventory of books about books and bibliography. Oak Knoll Press publishes approximately 25 books per year on bibliographic themes. After giving a tour of his business, Bob and co-workers Rob Fleck (his youngest son), in charge of antiquarian and library sales; Laura R. Williams, publishing director; and Danielle Burcham, publishing assistant, spoke about the current state of the antiquarian book trade and Oak Knoll’s publishing program.
Each student had been given an assignment to study a book as an object, selecting a volume from the library’s unprocessed shelves. They presented their reports at Oak Knoll on the old opera house stage that once hosted the likes of Enrico Caruso, Annie Oakley, and other well-known public figures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
We very much appreciate Bob Fleck’s willingness to host the students and look forward to a return visit.
The Literature of Collecting & Other Essays by Richard Wendorf explores the world of books, libraries, and the visual arts. He investigates the relationship between theoretical texts devoted to collecting and rich fictional texts that also take collecting as their focus. This excerpt comes from the chapter devoted to the origins of the Boston Athenæum. It discusses some of the earliest origins of the library.
An athenaeum was not, strictly speaking, a library (there were several of these in Rome, created both before and during Hadrian’s reign), but an athenaeum was certainly a site that contained a number of books. At one point Sidonius writes to a friend that there are “books in any number ready to hand” in the villa he is visiting: “you might have imagined yourself looking at the shelves of a professional scholar or at the tiers in the Athenaeum or the towering presses of the booksellers.” The rhetorical triplet speaks volumes, for it indicates that the Athenaeum was simply one of several places where substantial book collections could be found during the empire’s golden age. The central sources for such books—such scrolls, we should remind ourselves—would be formal libraries, either those that were privately owned (by Aristotle or Pliny, for example) or those that had been established for more public purposes (most notably by Pollio, Augustus, Trajan, and Hadrian). The earliest known remains of a library are to be found at Pergamum in Turkey, and although this library was erected as an adjunct to the sanctuary of Athena, the history of ancient libraries is actually quite separate from the establishment of Hadrian’s athenaeums. The properties of these early libraries are worth noting, however. In Pergamum, for instance, a large chamber was used for meetings and receptions, and three consecutive alcoves served as stacks for the library’s collection of scrolls. These scrolls would then be consulted in a long covered space located between the alcoves and the open atrium of the complex. A statue of Athena dominated this central public space, and busts of literary figures—including Homer and Herodotus—were placed on pedestals within the library. The three alcoves are thought to have held as many as 200,000 books, which is the number of scrolls Mark Antony was said to have taken from Pergamum as a gift for Cleopatra. The Romans embraced Greek culture as early as the third century BCE, and Greek texts remained a staple of Roman libraries almost wherever they were created. Perhaps the most important exemplar is Rome’s first public library, established by Asinius Pollio and the writer Varro in the Roman forum around 39 BCE. Here is Matthew Battles’s recent description of it:
“Following Caesar’s wishes, they built a library with two reading rooms—one for Latin books, another for Greek—decorated with statues of appropriate poets and orators. This is the pattern all subsequent Roman libraries take, from the great imperial repositories of Augustus and Trajan to the more modest public libraries and to the little collections of the provincial cities. It marks a strict departure from the Greek model, with its prototype at Alexandria, which had no reading rooms as such. The bilingual nature of the Roman library expressed the Mediterranean heritage to which Rome laid claim, while the emphasis on the reader’s experience gives proof of its republican origins.”
Part of Hadrian’s own library at Tivoli has been reconstructed at the Museo della Civiltà Romana, and it should not be a surprise for us to learn that the smaller part of it was Roman rather than Greek. With books arranged along the walls and accommodation for readers created in the center, these Roman libraries functioned much like modern reading rooms—and some of them were very grand indeed. A reconstructed view of one of the libraries in the Forum of Trajan looks very much like an imperial prototype for Anglo-American libraries in the nineteenth century. These, then, are the classical models for our modern institutions. Ancient libraries and athenaeums were both devoted to the preservation of classical learning, and both enjoyed considerable cultural status within the extended empire. Hadrian’s athenaeums in Athens and Rome were certainly well stocked with books, but they were primarily sites for instruction, composition, declamation, and performance. Roman libraries were heavily invested in Greek as well as Latin literature, and they were furnished with reading rooms, statuary, colonnades, and galleries and administered by a professional staff. Surely it is not entirely fanciful to imagine the ways in which our modern English and American institutions—with their classicizing architecture, galleries and busts, readings and lectures, and collections based on European as well as native sources—reflect the attributes and aspirations of these ancient establishments. It would be fanciful, however, to argue that these Roman libraries and academies enjoyed any kind of influence, direct or indirect, on the rise of the modern subscription library in England and America. What gradually evolved in London and Philadelphia, Newcastle and Newport, Liverpool and Boston, deserves a history of its own, even though the shadow of Athena (and Minerva) will never entirely disappear.
Click here for more information on The Literature of Collecting.
John cranked up the publishing program to 17 titles in 1998 and 23 in 1999. We were especially happy to publish Jane Greenfield’s ABC of Bookbinding (Bib. #84) as it fit in well with our other ABC book. Jane’s Headbands (Bib. #26) had appeared in a second edition with us in 1990 and still sells well today. Jane has recently passed away and will be missed by all.
We published Anthony Rota’s Apart from the Text in 1999 (Bib. #105). Anthony (and his wife Jean) and I went back a long way in the book business starting with the day he helped me purchase the remaining inventory of Deval and Muir. He was a Past President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association (England) and was on the Committee and eventually President of ILAB. He often counseled me on the politics of this group and mentored me in every way he could. A dinner with Jean and Anthony (don’t dare call him Tony) was always full of great food, great wine, and charming talk. He tried to keep me from being too aggressive in my plans for carrying forward my ILAB agenda and sometimes I listened and acted in accord, and sometimes I didn’t. None of this affected our good feelings and trust for one another. We also published his autobiographical Books in the Blood (Bib. #179) in 2002, which is an excellent read.
The 26 titles published in 2000 was our new record for number of books published in a year, but what made it a special year was the publication of The Great Libraries: From Antiquity to the Renaissance by Konstantinos Staikos. Kostas Staikos is a well-known Greek architect and historian with an abiding love for the history of libraries. In his spare time, he had formed a remarkable private collection of books tracking the development of Greek printing throughout the world, rescued a Greek letterpress printing shop, and become part owner of a large, modern printing plant in Greece. To call him a true Renaissance man is probably an understatement.
One day Andy Armacost, our Director of Antiquarian Sales (1995-2004) fielded an incoming call from Mr. Staikos, who asked if we would be interested in publishing an English language history of the library that he had written and published in Greek. Andy turned the call over to John von Hoelle who listened with respect, but also with the reserve that must be used for all authors calling out of the blue with potential major publishing projects. We had no idea why this man had chosen to ask Oak Knoll Press to publish his book until a call later in the week by Nick Basbanes about another matter shed some light. Nick had visited Staikos in Greece to interviewe him for a book about collectors. His mention of Oak Knoll Press must have resonated with Kostas and resulted in that phone call.
Kostas’s book has become one of our all-time best sellers, which was surprising to us as the price of $125 was higher than most of our titles. It was so well produced and beautifully illustrated that it captured the spirit of our book world. It went into a second printing and laid the foundation for Kostas’s series entitled The History of the Library in Western Civilization, which will be six volumes when finally completed (Kostas is working on volume four at present [update—he’s now finishing volumes 5 & 6!]). This work is an obvious labor of love by a dedicated bibliophile and scholar. Each of the three volumes to date has received critical acclaim from the library world.
It’s 2010, why read?
It’s 2010, why Books?
It’s 2010, why Books about Books?
Questions people may have asked you before. Questions you may have even asked yourself before. And really, how could you not question yourself, especially after seeing how we now live in a world graced, or bombarded (depending on how you want to look at it) by technology. I know I have pondered these questions before, and to me, the answers are simple.
It’s true, with so many new ways to communicate and receive information, the printed word is becoming a last resort for many. It’s easy to rely on the iphone, flip out your blackberry, or get lost for hours browsing website after website. And while these are all tremendous inventions and tools, they still cannot replace the simple practicality and beauty of the book.
Just the feeling you get opening a book or walking into a library is unparalleled. It’s never tiring. A library holds potential for education and entertainment. Each shelf contains books on every subject for people of every age. It’s quiet, peaceful, and humbling. The products of hours, even years of work, sit before you in bound pages. The thoughts and stories of people from all time periods, countries, backgrounds, and walks of life are enclosed between the two covered boards keeping it hidden inside.
But why books about books? All things have a history, and books are just another creation that harvest history. To be able to understand the change, growth, and purpose of a book only helps in understanding how important books have been to the development and chronicle of our world. The creation and formation of a book is extraordinary and to think the book could ever be replaced by anything else is a misguided thought.
That’s my opinion, but let me know what you think! Send me a message in the comments field.
-Danielle Burcham, Publishing Assistant