Nora Bloch: California Rare Book School’s Project Manager Finds Work a Real Page-Turner

As Project Manager for the California Rare Book School, the IS graduate student draws on her diverse experiences in conservation.

Nora Bloch has benefitted from a diverse range of on-the-job experiences as a graduate student in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. Since 2009, her experiences have varied from building a clamshell box to house an artists’ book made of dried fruit, to teaching letterpress students that printing with movable lead type on the press is not the same as pressing the print button on the computer screen.

Bloch has enjoyed this exposure to library conservation and fine press books at UCLA thanks to the Department of Information Studies and the vast libraries across campus. She taught a letterpress course and led the the Horn Press Student Group, a student-run printmaking organization, with IS Professor Johanna Drucker, the inaugural Bernard and Martin Breslauer Professor of Bibliography. Bloch also worked under Kristen St. John, collections conservator at the UCLA Library Conservation Center, helping to repair or rebind books, and to build the boxes that preserve the university’s collections.

“I loved [making] boxes for the artists’ books at the conservation lab,” says Bloch. “It was a fun challenge because artists’ books come in all shapes and sizes and they are not always what we think of as a book. You can’t just stick a book made of fruit or a cellphone shell that opens up with pages inside on a shelf; you have to put it in a clamshell box so that it won’t be damaged.”

Currently, Bloch is the Project Manager for the California Rare Book School (CalRBS) at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, and also works for a local rare book dealer. She is able to draw upon her previous experiences to assist the CalRBS instructors, who come from the wide spectrum of professions that all meet in the rare books and special collections fields, and help them to present the highest caliber of on-the-ground knowledge to their students.

Bloch turns the hand crank of a 1940s Vandercook flatbed printing press for a demonstration in a Fiat Lux printing class taught by IS Professor Johanna Drucker. Photo by Alison Hewitt

“The instructors for the California Rare Book School spend a lot of time preparing for these courses,” notes Bloch, who coordinates the one-week seminars at the UCLA libraries with visits to the Huntington Library, the Getty Research Institute, and the International Printing Museum in Carson, to name a few. There are also courses offered at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley and The Book Club of California in San Francisco, among others.

“[The instructors] have thought very carefully about how they can concentrate a great deal of information into [one] week with really impressive materials to match the content of their courses,” Bloch says. “Our classes are small, which means that students can spend some quality time with the materials. I don’t think everybody realizes that these materials are accessible. They are not just locked up in the basement for no one to see – they are here for us to study.”

Bloch emphasizes that the expertise of the students themselves makes the California Rare Book School all the more rich with a diverse enrollment of students, scholars, librarians, booksellers, and collectors. Having taken the “History of the Children’s Book” course last summer, she says that she is struck by the rare book school as a forum “where people with similar interests but different perspectives can come together.”

“There are professionals who are enrolled to enhance their own work and students who are just starting out,” says Bloch. “A bookseller is obviously going to have [his or her] perspective and a head of special collections is going to have a different perspective. I’m interested in hearing what a dealer thinks about value versus what a reference librarian thinks about value.”

Bloch’s research centers on collecting data about scarce materials in circulating library collections through surveys.

“A lot of work in libraries, with good reason, is done with reports drawn from data,” asserts Bloch. “The biggest challenge is that the collections are enormous. UCLA’s collection is so extensive – it is not just books and journals, but other materials and media. You can’t go book by book through 9,000,000 volumes, you just can’t. So caring for each book as an individual is one of the challenges that interests me most.

“Looking forward to the future of these materials, this data can help answer the questions we need to ask to assist in the selection of items in libraries’ vast holdings that should be preserved.”

Bloch thinks that library schools are unique among other master’s degree programs in that many of the students already have previous work experience from so many different fields that they can share with each other. She says that working in her chosen field of Information Studies as it evolves through the digital age while recognizing the value of tangible materials, is exciting.

“I like working in a university environment surrounded by people who want to learn while everything is always changing,” Bloch says. “I am lucky to have the experience of working in a big research university like UCLA, with my day-to-day [routine]. But the next thing I know, I’m in a room full of books from the 16th Century, and my heart is racing.”