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Featured Exhibitor: Patrick Olson

Stepping into Olson Rare Books is the closest reality people have to step into a time machine.

What makes this inventory of books stand out is that the material is from the hand press period, before the Industrial Revolution. According to Olson, this period begins with Gutenberg (ca. 1455) and ended around 1830.

“ I'm interested in early printing, the process, the materials, the techniques, and the distribution economics,” Olson shared why he chose to work in this unique niche.

Before he went into business for himself, Olson received his MS in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and held a variety of professional positions working with rare books: as a rare book cataloger at the University of Illinois and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as a curator at the University of Iowa, and the Head of Special Collections at Michigan State University.

“As a librarian, I was responsible for lots of different collections, I wasn't able to pick and choose what I wanted to focus on all the time,” Olson continued, speaking on the benefits he has as a bookseller. “I can find books that really kind of speak to me and kind of compel me in a way.

“Most of my work is researching and investigating these old books to tease out the story behind them,” Olson spoke passionately. One of the most fulfilling experiences as a bookseller is to find the mysteries that lurk behind so many old books.

A memorable rare book Olson encountered was a book that holds significant importance for the foundation of the Gutenberg printing press, the beginning of mass-produced material. The book is “Fragment of a Latin Grammar” by Ilyas Tinnitus.

“Some scholars have suggested that this particular edition was published before Gutenberg finished his Bible, and was sort of one of these smaller works to help bankroll the years along the process of printing the Bible,” Olson explains.

For Olson, encountering one of the earliest works of the European press remains the pinnacle of his rare book trade career.

“It's all downhill from here.” Olson laughed while proudly reminiscing.

Olson is not in any shortage of other interesting ephemera and books. When describing some of the material he will bring to the Boston Rare Book and Ephemera Fair, one can already hear the “oohs” and “aahs from the future book fair audience that will be present when they see the items he brings.

“I have an 18th-century Dutch Bible that has a carrying chain attached to the top where, you know, the women would use it to carry their Bible to church,”

Olson will also bring a 17th-century prayer book that is not only annotated but also has close to 300 scraps of paper with prayers and notes written on them. Audiences will also look at books printed before 1501 in the West.

In addition to desiring to tell stories of the past with the books and ephemera, Olson buys and sells, he also values the people in the rare book world ecosystem. Olson wants to ensure that the state of the rare book “is inclusive and supportive of all backgrounds and all identities.

Finding representation in a niche such as pre-1830 European material presented quite a challenge to Olson. Some of the most common sources of representation include poems by Phillis Wheatley, considered the first African-American to publish a book of poetry (link) and almanacs by 18th century AA mathematician.

“I'm often looking for the less obvious sources of representation in early modern. Maybe two and a half, three years ago, I did a catalog on sort of the representation of people of color in early modern Europe.”Olson said

These catalogs include material from a Portuguese playwright of African descent, Alfonso Alvarez, from the 1530s.

He believes in not only having representation in the material but in shedding the long history of the rare book world has a long history as the exclusive purview of the wealthy (white) elite. Olson provides background support for a National Book collecting prize called the David Ruggles prize, designed to encourage and support young book collectors of color.

A healthy curiosity warranted Patrick Olson to seek a career in the rare book trade, and he emphasizes it as a must-have quality for rising young booksellers.

Olson advises them: “Be ready for the unexpected, because, you know, in so many ways, you're gonna see all kinds of weird, unusual, unexpected material. And for me, that's, that's what keeps it interesting.”

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