Video project showcases UMW’s rare books4 min read
by KY HUYNH
Within the walls of Simpson Library is UMW’s own collection of 2,000 rare books, including many first editions and signed volumes. This semester, Antonio Barrenechea, professor of English and faculty liaison for special collections, and Nick Onorato, a senior communication and digital studies major, are creating a series of videos highlighting books in UMW’s collection.
“A rare book is a book that is both scarce and desirable,” said Barrenechea. These books may either be scarce “due to a limited print run, or through the ravages of time. Sometimes it’s both.”
Barrenechea and Onorato’s first video spotlights George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” The library owns a British first edition of the book from 1949 in the original dust jacket.
Next up is “Ulysses” by James Joyce. “It’s really old,” Onorato said. “Some of the pages aren’t cut fully and still connect, the bindings are torn apart, it’s really interesting.”
UMW holds a first edition copy of “Ulysses,” the 552nd book in the first print run from 1922.
“A rare book in the collection is also desirable in that it holds historical importance for readers,” said Barrenechea. “In the case of ‘Ulysses,’ it is one of the greatest novels ever written and a summation of modernist literary experimentation, a masterpiece that also survived an obscenity trial.”
According to Angie Kemp, head of special collections, the collection contains works that are centuries old.
“Our oldest book dates back to 1496,” she said. “It’s been rebound, but we also have books from the 16th and 17th centuries. Probably one of the biggest strengths of the collection is the James Joyce collection, which includes the first edition of the ‘Ulysses.’”
Onorato shoots and edits the videos, while Barrenechea talks about the books. They hope to produce four videos, highlighting different rare books to bring awareness to UMW’s special collection.
“I would like to make UMW students and faculty more aware of their own treasures,” said Barrenechea. “I would also love to have more outside scholars be aware of how strong our collections are—particularly in Joyce studies.”
Onorato also hopes to bring attention to the special collection, as he learned about the collection in Barrenechea’s first-year seminar class examining “Dracula.”
“The main reason why we’re doing these videos is to make people aware,” said Onorato. “The only reason I know about it is that I had Dr. Barrenechea for my FSEM, and he brought our class there because he showed us ‘Dracula.’”
Barrenechea and Onorato have enjoyed the project, despite its challenges.
“Trying to get a feel for the holdings in the collection takes time because there are around 2,000 books in the collection,” said Barrenechea. “Familiarity for me involves touching, opening, and studying the books. It is difficult to write substantively about our holding strengths without that.”
This project developed through Barrenechea’s love of books.
“Aside from living in bibliophile heaven—as you can tell, I love books, have always loved books—I’ve thoroughly enjoyed corresponding with current and past faculty members and librarians trying to piece together the story of rare books at Mary Washington,” he said. “Tying documents in the university archives to the actual reminiscences of these people, who have given kindly of their time, has been great. I have also enjoyed working with Nick Onorato.”
As the project has progressed, Onorato has gotten more comfortable with the process of creating content.
“I feel like I’m more on top of things,” said Onorato. “After the first video I’ve been really in the groove. Honestly it’s kind of fun—I think this semester working on these projects I’ve gotten a lot of practice in with Adobe, and I feel really confident in the program. It’s also pretty cool to just hang out with Dr. Barrenechea.”
A year ago, Barrenechea was awarded the William Reese Fellowship at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley for his research project on rare books: An Intellectual History of Literature of the Americas.
“The connection with William Reese, a preeminent bookseller at Yale University—where I received my Ph.D. in comparative literature—inspired me to do more with our own rare books at Mary Washington,” he said.
Onorato encouraged students to visit the library’s special collection, as it offers more than rare books.
“Definitely come check it out, it’s really cool,” said Onorato. “Even if you’re not into antique books or old collections, you can look at the previous UMW student newspaper archives if you want to do a project on the school’s history.”
Barrenechea highlighted the beauty of printed texts.
“I think the digital age can make us underestimate analog books,” Barrenechea said. “No one would deny the power of access to the words comprising a novel on a laptop. However, the art of the novel—and certainly the context of original reception—remains tied to the tactile and immersive experience. In many cases, the physical copy—its proportions, weight, cover art—invite us into a particular type of experience.”