In the UCI Libraries’ current exhibit, “Picture This: Five Centuries of Book Illustration,” curator Ryan Hildebrand displays his personal passion – books that are works of art.

“I love the physical aspects of books – the codex format, the binding, the paper. I love the transmission of knowledge and the evolution of the form,” says Hildebrand, the Libraries’ special collections and archives cataloger.

He hopes the exhibit, at Langson Library through May, will “spark an interest in books as something other than texts.” One requirement for the 46 pieces chosen was that they be “eye-catching” – enticing busy patrons to slow down and spend time with the illustrations. The books also needed to showcase various printing processes, from relief to silkscreen.

“People gravitate to the pop-ups,” Hildebrand says. But amid the vibrant, intricate pieces, viewers might overlook one of his favorites: Sixteen Sonnets by Rory Golden.

“It’s absolutely everything: poetry, binding, construction, paper – so tactile. Golden created all aspects of the book. And it’s unique. Only two copies exist, but all the illustrations are done by hand, so the one in our collection is really one-of-a-kind,” he explains.

“In all the exhibition pieces, the book itself is the art form,” he adds.

Still, to Hildebrand, it’s not enough that people admire such treasures: He wants them to try their hand at making their own books.

“I want people to see what’s on display as a jumping-off point for their own work.”

Before coming to UCI in 2002, Hildebrand earned his bachelor’s in English at UC Riverside and master’s in library and information studies at UCLA. He also interned at Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., with Stephen Tabor, curator of early printed books, who gave the exhibit’s opening lecture in November.

“At UC Riverside, the English department concentrated on criticism and deconstruction,” he says. Hildebrand, however, was far more interested in books’ construction.

A medieval literature class set him on his career path. “The professor spent half the time talking about literature and half talking about the manuscript tradition and the dawn of printing. Something clicked for me.”

While working at UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Library, he watched – and envied – the catalogers who recorded the details of all library materials. “They got to hang out with every new acquisition. Engaging with books every day was a dream.”

“When we first hired Ryan, he said, ‘I can’t believe you’re paying me to do this,’” recalls Jackie Dooley, head of special collections and archives. “And after four years, he seems to enjoy it more every day.”

Hildebrand wants his work to kindle an appreciation for the beauty of books. “I think it’s great that others respond positively to the things I admire,” he says. “It validates the artists’ endeavors.”