Dr David Pearson, retired librarian and creator of the electronic database, Book Owners Online, talks about the rewards of teaching and how his summer school students helped to hone his thinking and knowledge.

Teaching on the London Rare Books School (LRBS) run the the Institute of English Studies (IES) is hugely rewarding because it has such a direct read-through to my research and writing. It makes me look at my topics afresh from year to year, ask myself what’s developed, what new resources need to be brought in or mentioned. The new edition of my handbook on Provenance Research (2019), which came out 25 years after the original edition, is wholly sincere in its acknowledgments to all my former summer school students, for helping to hone my thinking and my knowledge.

My courses have always been built around the idea of toolkits, of giving those who come a package of essential knowledge to help them better understand and interpret what they will find in books, be those inscriptions, bookplates, or bindings. They’re grounded in book-historical theory, but what I really hope is that my students will go back to their libraries and collections, whether as researchers or curators, enthused and empowered to look at least a bit anew at the evidence all around them.

I don’t think there’s any substitute (except during Covid-19) for picking up a book, handling and experiencing it, learning from it as the best teacher. The knowledge I have has been built up over a lifetime of looking at many thousands of books in my profession as a librarian and my scholarly research. If I can pass on some of that, and also my ideas about what’s important – well, what better chance do I have of influencing the future as well as the present?

Dr David Pearson retired from a long professional career in libraries and archives in 2017. He has published extensively on aspects of provenance research in book history, private libraries, and bookbinding. His most recent publication is Book Ownership in Stuart England (Oxford University Press, 2020), and he is the creator of the electronic database, Book Owners Online.