They Gave Me Half a Million to Preserve Rare Books


They Gave Me Half a Million to Preserve Rare Books

Terry Belanger, honorary curator of special collections at the University of Virginia, is a MacArthur Foundation Fellow.

The call came last September. I was among 25 people who had been selected for a MacArthur fellowship in 2005. A panel of experts had decided that my work at the Rare Book School, which I founded more than 20 years ago, is worth supporting. The no-strings-attached grant will pay me quarterly installments of $25,000 for the next five years.

Rare books isn't an undergrad major. The nearly 300 students who attend our school each year are mid-career professionals who come to learn how books were made over the centuries, what they were intended for and how to keep them from falling apart. We offer roughly eight five-day sessions a year.

Our instructors come from all over the world to teach, and we buy a lot of equipment and books. For example, we recently acquired a 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle for $40,000, considerably less than the usual price for such an early printed book. But the volume was stored for 45 years in Beirut under less-than-optimum conditions -- you can see how the cycles of damp and dry weather damaged each page. That makes it a valuable teaching tool.

Funding the future

The university pays my salary and that of my assistant, and it provides space and support services. But I'm responsible for funding the school. The budget is about $500,000 a year. Classes are usually 12 or fewer students, and tuition covers only about 40% of the total costs. I will have to pay income tax on the MacArthur money, but I don't plan to spend it personally. I laid out $25,000 or so to wipe out the school's debt, and I intend to use the rest of the money to support the school and its programs. I am 64 years old and plan to retire in four years, about the time the grant runs out. So my goal is to secure the school's future with a $2-million endowment campaign.


Digitized texts, such as the Gutenberg Bible and Thomas Jefferson's Letters on CD, are wonderful resources, but we can't neglect the original books and manuscripts. Winning the MacArthur award is like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for what we do.

-- As told to Barbara Hoch Marcus