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'Up and coming star' librarian to catalog Westminster Abbey books

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

Christopher Cook
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Christopher Cook will begin cataloging the Westminster Abbey library’s collection of incunabula, or early printed books on June 24.

Released 6/12/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Although he’s not yet 25 and has only just entered the profession, Christopher Cook already is regarded as an expert in his trade.

Which is why the library at England’s Westminster Abbey is eager for him to begin helping them out of a deep dark hole.

Cook is off to London on June 24 to begin cataloging the library’s collection of incunabula, or early printed books. The newly minted librarian and new rare book cataloging project manager at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois hopes, he said, to “provide a descriptive bibliography of the Abbey’s collection of 15th-century imprints, shedding light on book distribution, collecting habits and binding practices in early modern England.”

According to Cook, who earned his master’s degree only a year ago from Illinois’ top-rated Graduate School of Library and Information Science, the Abbey’s collection consists of about 60 incunabula, the majority of which are in Latin, although some of the works are in English, Greek and Italian. Most are theological or philosophical in nature, but history, law, poetry and medicine also are represented, he said.

Although the Abbey’s books are recorded in the “Incunabula Short Title Catalogue,” they “have never been treated with copy-specific descriptions,” Cook said. Among the titles he will be working with: “On the Wisdom of Solomon,” by Robert Holcot, “Lives of the Popes,” by Bartolomeo Platina and “Comment on the Psalter,” by Hugh de Saint-Cher.

Cook will spend about three weeks examining the collection, then will do provenance research on campus using “the excellent research resources of the U. of I. Library,” he said.

After he has compiled all his data, probably by the end of the year, Cook plans to publish a “fully indexed, illustrated monograph, making available to scholars and book historians the details of one of London’s valuable repositories of 15th-century imprints.”

The Bibliographical Society of America awarded Cook the Katharine Pantzer Fellowship in the British Book Trades in January to conduct the work.

His supervisor at Illinois, Valerie Hotchkiss, the rare book and manuscript librarian, wasn’t a bit surprised that Cook was given the prestigious job.

“Chris is one of the best rare book catalogers in America,” Hotchkiss said. “And the fact that he comes from the U. of I., which holds the third-largest university collection of 15th-century books, makes him an expert in this period of book production.”

At Illinois, Cook has been overseeing the cataloging of more than 60,000 volumes of rare books since he joined the staff last June. To date, he and his team have cataloged nearly 12,000 books, most from the 16th and 17th centuries. Cook also has been improving the catalog records for the library’s 1,100 or so incunabula.

Cook, who speaks and writes Italian and reads Spanish, has been methodical about acquiring skills in rare book cataloging. He specialized in the field in graduate school at Illinois, and as a student, compiled a list of all of the incunabula that the U. of I. had acquired since 1979. He then published his findings in a monograph.

Also as a student, he wrote a policy for cataloging incunabula at Illinois, and began to provide full cataloging for the collection that he soon would oversee.

He also curated two exhibitions at Illinois: one as an undergraduate student, on Florentine printing of the 15th century, the other as a librarian, on “Dante at Illinois.”

Cook also has taken advantage of professional development opportunities. In the summers of 2005 and 2006, for example, he took courses in descriptive bibliography and rare book cataloging at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School.

“I spent a lot of time looking at catalog records, reading about cataloging and doing it. I found a skill that I am good at and I ran with it.”

Last November Cook attended a conference at the British Library that focused on English printing. During his free time, he entered Westminster Abbey and happened to pass the door to the library, which was locked.

“Being a curious librarian, I asked the docent if there were tours of the library. She suggested I ring the bell and ask, so I did. I was given a two-minute tour by Tony Trowles, the librarian, and I left.”

Cook said that on the flight home he began thinking about possible projects that could take him back to London, and he wondered about the nature of the Abbey’s incunabula collection. Back home, he searched the international incunabula census and found that the Abbey library had about 60 incunabula – “a manageable number,” he said.

Further investigation showed that no catalog of the collection had been published, so Cook approached Trowles with the idea of producing one. The Abbey librarian was enthusiastic about the idea, since a catalog would draw more users to his collection.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for Chris,” Hotchkiss said, “and his extremely worthy project is yet another sign of the goodwill and cooperative spirit that exists between English and American libraries.”

What makes the young man so good in such an arcane and difficult trade?

“Attention to detail, of course,” Hotchkiss said, “but also a fanatical fascination with the art and variation of the descriptive process known as cataloging. This is a guy who catalogs for fun at Internet cafes, who begs to catalog new acquisitions that are tricky – like medieval manuscripts or scraps or even non-book items – just for the challenge of it.

“He also likes to be the first person in the world to catalog a new book. The knottier the case, the more he likes it. The world of special collections has already recognized him as an up and coming star, hence the award from the Bibliographical Society and the trust of the folks at Westminster Abbey,” she said.

Cook was born in Macomb, Ill., and raised in the small town of Scotia. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Illinois in 2004, with a major in Italian and a minor in linguistics.