Form and Function: The Genius of the Book

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Dive deep into one of the world's greatest technologies—the book. Discover a history beyond what’s printed on the page, seen in the structure, craftsmanship, and beauty of this often-overlooked marvel. Curated by Renate Mesmer, the Folger's head of conservation, Form and Function shows the Folger collection from a completely different perspective.

Discover the key parts of a book, and find out the many ways they can be combined. View the hidden details revealed by ultraviolet, infrared, transmitted, and raking light. And examine the small elements that a microscope can expose, including the fine touches of a richly embroidered 17th-century binding. A Shakespeare First Folio that was rebound in the late 1700s by Roger Payne, a well-known bookbinder, is also displayed, together with copies of Payne's descriptive notes.

While the rare books are at the heart of the display, Genius of the Book also offers many other ways to explore, enjoy, and appreciate books and bookbinding. You can touch and feel some of the materials used in books, including leather, fabric, and parchment, and see an early bookbinder's tools or a conservator's modern equipment.

As the exhibition shows, there are many reasons for the choices that were made in creating rare books. Ornamental features can also serve a functional purpose. Decorative or gilt edges can help to protect the edges from becoming dirty as a book is handled.

Knowledge of the art and craftsmanship of rare books helps us explore the history of how books were made, makes it possible to repair and conserve them, and gives us the insight and expertise to appreciate them. In this exhibition, the books speak for themselves—not through the information stored inside them, but as unique, hand-crafted objects in their own right.


Renate Mesmer is the J. Franklin Mowery Head of Conservation at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She is a book and paper conservator with more than twenty years of experience in the field. She formally trained as a master bookbinder in Germany and has pursued further conservation training at renowned institutions throughout Europe and the U.S. She has held previous positions conserving and restoring books and manuscripts at the University Library in Mannheim, the Speyer State Archives in Germany, and the Centro del Bel Libro in Ascona, Switzerland.