Our series profiling the next generation of special collections librarians continues today with Anne Bahde, History of Science Librarian in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
How did you get started in rare books?
The summer before my last year in college, I got a job paging materials in the Newberry Library’s Department of Special Collections. At the time I had no idea how lucky I was, I just knew I needed a job and that it would be nice to work with books. On my first day during a tour, they took me into the vault and showed me a First Folio. As I thought about how many hands had touched that book, how significant it was as an artifact--it took my breath away, and that moment changed everything. I walked into work that day thinking I wanted to be an English professor, and I walked out wondering how I could spend every day around things like that.
Where did you earn your MLS?
I went to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and tried to concentrate in rare books and special collections librarianship. This was way before UIUC had a certificate in special collections--I sort of had to make it all up as I went along, and I was lucky to have professors that were willing to support that. I think I had something like five independent studies in rare book topics. I’m so glad that students there now have such a great program to get them started in the profession.
Have you worked at other institutions as well?
I worked in the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago as an undergraduate and a graduate student, working as a page, exhibit and preservation support, and rare books assistant. It was an incredible place to begin- I loved the energy of working in such a vibrant, busy department, and I draw on the lessons of my early experiences there nearly every day. I managed a small used and antiquarian bookstore in Chicago for a while after graduate school, then went back to SCRC as reader services assistant and assistant to the Director. After a brief stop in Washington for a second master’s degree, I started my first professional position in Special Collections and University Archives at San Diego State University. The collections there were fantastic, and I worked on instruction, outreach, exhibits, public services, collection development, preservation, and more as part of a small team there. It was exhausting but terrific.
What is your role at your institution?
I curate the rare books collections and the history of science collections, and do acquisitions, instruction, outreach, exhibits, and reference for those areas. I work with a small team of curators who work on other significant collecting areas, in a department of talented and dedicated professionals. I’ve only been at Oregon State for about a year and half, and it has been tremendous fun to learn the collections over that time--every day is a new surprise in the stacks.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?
It’s impossible to choose. In one day I can handle early printed books, mid-twentieth century pulps, modern artists’ books, and more--each one of those can be a new favorite . I’m as excited by a World War II poster as by an incunable. Generally, I’m partial to 19th and early 20th century ephemera, the Wiener Werkstatte, 18th century science, anything with historiated initials, and the book arts work of Julie Chen.
What do you personally collect?
Publishers’ bindings have long been a favorite of mine, and they’re affordable, which helps. I love to collect them because they can be hiding anywhere, and most of the time it is easy to find them in great condition. I love the art and design of the Arts and Crafts period, and I have a growing collection of periodicals from the Roycrofters and others from the period. I am enchanted by an early 20th century children’s periodical called John Martin’s Book, and am trying to complete that collection. I also have a little “medium rare” collection going that I add to whenever I see something odd or unusual from the period of about 1850 to 1930.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
The joy of discovery is addictive, and something I love to share with others. Finding some wonderful detail-in a book or illustration or letter or diary-is the magic of this profession; I try to teach students the art of looking closer to enable them to have that joy too. Teaching gives me great delight, and I am constantly learning too. The never-ending variety of both the collections and the work also fuels my energy. Sometimes I keep track of everything I do in one day--last winter there was a day when I deciphered a paragraph of 16th century handwriting, taught a class on natural history and illustration, held two Nobel prizes, answered a reference question using correspondence between two famous scientists, marveled over an artists’ book with an undergraduate, selected rare books for an upcoming display, worked with a donor, and made a big exciting purchase for the history of science rare book collection. I still can’t believe I get paid to have such fun.
Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?
I hope to see an age of radical access soon, where we pour energy into making our collections as discoverable and usable as possible. We’ve worked hard to digitize and to inform others of our collections. But researchers often find it difficult to locate our materials, and discovery tools that make that process as easy and rewarding as possible are really needed. There is such inspiring potential at the intersection of rare materials, linked data, digital humanities, and beyond, and I feel lucky to be part of this profession at such a transformative time.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you’d like to draw our attention to?
One area we’ve been paying a lot of attention to developing is the broad history of alternative health and nutritional medicine. To my knowledge, very few institutions are concentrating on alternative health, and our collections already had significant strength in this area to build upon. The cornerstone of our history of science collections, the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, have a significant concentration on natural health and alternative approaches to healing stemming from Pauling’s interest in vitamin and mineral therapy and orthomolecular medicine. In other rare book collections, we already had early modern herbals, almanacs, books of folk and botanic medicine, domestic medicine manuals, formularies, and city and national pharmacopoeia. We’re currently trying to fill in the gaps from the 16th through the early 20th centuries, and paying special attention to “vernacular science” in the 16th and 17th centuries, late 19th century patent medicines, and the use of vitamins in the early 20th century.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
We’re in the early planning stages for an exhibit featuring our History of Atomic Energy collection. It’s one of my favorite collections at OSU--it holds thousands of items covering all aspects of nuclear history and the atomic age: scientific, political, economic, technological, cultural, and social elements. Among other strengths, the collection has a section of fiction, poetry, drama, and music that contains some particular rarities, including comics, unpublished plays, and sheet music that I’m excited about having on display. Materials in this collection are always attractive to students, both visually for their content, so I can’t wait to feature it in our gallery.