The stacks of books in Julian Neuhauser’s office in James Branch Cabell Library are very old and very rare. There is a tiny book, dating back to 1709, that is bound with tortoise shell. There is an early goatskin-bound copy of “A Dictionary of the English Language,” the original dictionary by Samuel Johnson. And there is a 1723 edition of “Daimonologia, or, A Treatise of Spirits,” an occult text from the personal library of Richmond fantasy author James Branch Cabell, namesake of the James Branch Cabell Library.
These rare books have long been available to researchers as part of VCU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives, but now, thanks to the efforts of Neuhauser, a graduate student in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences, they are more accessible than ever before.
Over the past year, Neuhauser has been cataloging VCU Libraries’ trove of books published before 1800, allowing researchers to not only search by author, title and subject, but also now by a wide variety of material features.
“Especially with older books, one thing that’s interesting to book historians like me is the material aspects of the books,” Neuhauser said. “Now that we have opened up the catalog to be searched by material terms, you can, say, look for all of VCU Libraries’ books that have a certain type of paper, or that have a specific type of binding, or have gold tooling, or have gilt edges and things like that.”
For book historians, he said, studying the physical properties of books provides insight into the printing processes and bookselling industry of a period, which opens up new culturally significant literary readings.