“I’ll take ‘Obscure 19th century book binding terminology for 800, Alex.”

John Overholt headshot.jpg

This week on You’re the Expert, Early Modern Book scholar and former Jeopardy champion, John Overholt, discusses his life as the curator of Early Modern Books at the Harvard’s Houghton Library. Though an alarmingly large number of the You’re the Expert live studio audience guessed John spends his day sniffing the yellowing pages of rare books, Mr. Overholt was able to clarify that is not the primary function of his role at Harvard. In fact, he assured us that he does little to no sniffing whatsoever. It’s not good for book preservation, nor is it good for the preservation of his future as library employee. 

Mr. Overholt does study everything from the aesthetic aspects of crafting and creating the book itself, to the actual content printed on the pages. And sometimes, he even studies books where the design of the book itself is meant to overtly reflect the content within; for example, a book about the human soul made from human skin.  In this case, it would be entirely appropriate to judge a book by its all too literal cover.

And let us not forget Mr. Overholt’s role as book acquirer and defender. A large portion of his time as curator is spent finding and acquiring new books to add to the extensive Harvard archives, and waging bidding wars against other universities of comparable endowment size for rare books. Speaking of wars, imagine an apocalyptic scenario in which alien overlords came down from planet Zurg on a single minded quest to eliminate all original papyrus-printed copies of Hogwarts: A History.  There you will find John, defending the integrity of the written word with machine guns and grenades a blazin’. But since there is no NSA sanctioned knowledge of such an attack, John mostly just defends us against the dual evils of humidity and mold.

In a time when books are available online at the touch of a button, it’s hard to imagine an era in which early modern craftsmen poured hours into the delicate work of book binding, and labored meticulously over the flourishes in their handwriting. But lest we forget, John Overholt is here, to provide us digital age peons the Trebeck approved answer for 800 points: “What is Whip Stitching, Alex?” 

- Lee Stephenson, Production Associate

For more on John Overholt, check out his very active twitter account @john_overholt, or the blog he maintains on the Houghton Library website: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/houghton/


AuthorChris Duffy