The Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt University through March 2017

June 2016

by Jane R. Snyder

The chairman of a major publishing house told me that he had once witnessed his toddler grandson toss a hardcover book down the main staircase of his residence. A wise man, the publisher picked up the volume, sat down beside the boy, and gently explained to him, “We don’t throw books; books are our friends.” The current show at Vanderbilt University’s Jean and Alexander Heard Library presents a collection of amazing friends, both medieval and modern.


Lesley Patterson-Marx, Butterfly Harmonica Book, 2014

Before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press which revolutionized book production, illuminated manuscripts were the only—albeit extremely time consuming—method to capture information between covers and allow content to pass from reader to reader. Whether filled with historical knowledge, extant medical wisdom, or spiritually uplifting treatises, those precious volumes required talented parchment makers, writers, calligraphers, and illuminators to bring them to life. In today’s world, you can read by turning on your tablet or clicking a mouse to order the newest print-on-demand title. Rarely, if ever, do you get an opportunity to see treasures like these up close.

Celia Walker, Director of Special Projects for Vanderbilt University’s libraries, wanted to involve students in the curatorial process. Professor Elizabeth Moodey’s undergraduate History of Art 2288 class stepped forward. The students—Anna Childress, Mary Helen Johns, Ariana Parrish, Danielle Pettiti, Francesca Salvatore, Sharon Si, Rebekah Smith, and Daniel Weitz—worked in tandem with the library and the History of Art department to curate every aspect of his exhibition. They all deserve an “A+” for a thoughtful and well-executed presentation.

The rare volumes—researched and selected from Vanderbilt’s Special Collections and University Archives—and the artists’ tools on display will broaden your understanding of the art of illuminated books. Standing beside them are outstanding handmade books created by contemporary artists, including several who live in Middle Tennessee. Of added value are interactive touch screens offering viewers background data on each artist and guides for further study.

Modern bookmaking, using varied styles and reaching artistic levels that you may have never seen before, will surprise you with varied points of view and unusual thematic explorations. These intimate volumes are ideal environments for select autobiographical revelations as well as introspective thoughts. Challenges, both creative and cerebral, were clearly part of the curatorial plan for Book As Art.


Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friendship: An Essay, 1901-1912

This fascinating show will be open to the public through March 2017, but make sure to stop in when you have plenty of time to explore the details. You are sure to encounter a favorite friend among those waiting in the gallery.

The Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt University, 419 21st Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203. For more information, visit

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