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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: Many students see summer as a time to get away from the books. But at the University of Virginia, a unique program brings them closer; allowing students to handle volumes that are centuries old, and to think about preserving works produced with modern technology.

From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman reports on the Rare Book School.

SANDY HAUSMAN: Three stories underground in the University of Virginia's main library, 60 librarians and collectors, scholars and other bibliophiles divide into small groups. They're barely breathing as they lean over texts that have been around for centuries.

BARBARA HERITAGE: "This is the Ship of Fools," 1497 Latin edition.

HAUSMAN: Staff members, like Barbara Heritage, shuttle from room to room, bearing precious cargo.

HERITAGE: Our job is to be almost like stage hands.

HAUSMAN: Do you have like a little curtain and a drum roll for some of these works?

HERITAGE: In fact we have a chime right here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIME MUSIC)

HAUSMAN: The school owns 80,000 books and manuscripts, some quite valuable. But director Michael Suarez wants students to handle them - to discover the history of paper, binding, typography and illustration.

MICHAEL SUAREZ: We insist that students touch and smell, and shine light through items and investigate them to understand the book in history, and to understand the book as history.

HAUSMAN: While classes are mostly about antiques, the program also explores preservation of materials that were born digital. That might sound easy, but consider this. In the late 1980s, the BBC created a modern-day version of the 900-year-old "Domesday Book," using a cutting edge technology - laser discs.

SUAREZ: And very recently they had to spend 70,000 pounds, about $100,000, to try to recover that information, because there were no machines extant that could read those laser discs.

HAUSMAN: After a week of intensive studies, students leave with a wealth of information, confirmed in their passion for books. Amy Elkins is a graduate student at Emory University and Eric Johnson is a curator of books at Ohio State.

AMY ELKINS: Whether you're a collector or you're a scholar of the book, things can get a little bit lonely. And it's important to have people who listen to your ideas openly and will engage with that.

ERIC JOHNSON: Yeah, that's one of the most valuable things about this program, is who you meet. And it's really nice to kind of have raw, distilled bookishness.

HAUSMAN: That spirit gives Suarez and his faculty hope that books will survive even in the digital age. Except for coins, he says, the artifacts most left to us since medieval times are books.

For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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