Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Allie Alvis of Smithsonian Libraries in Washington DC:
What is your role at your institution?
I am the Library Technician of the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History Rare Books, part of Smithsonian Libraries and located in the National Museum of Natural History. Although my job title sounds relatively straight-forward, what I particularly love about my role is that no two days are alike: I've done everything from transcribing a 15th century manuscript passage for a rocket scientist, to finding the provenance of a specimen associated with Teddy Roosevelt for an ornithologist! My more run-of-the-mill duties include staffing the reading room, fetching materials, and fielding research questions, but also extend to packing and shipping rare books and maintaining our workflow as a book moves from conservation to cataloguing to digitization.
How did you get started in rare books?
I have always had a deep love of both books and "old stuff," so it feels like my start in rare books was somewhat inevitable. But my bachelor's degree in Linguistics at the University of Kansas (Rock Chalk!) really made the pieces start fitting together for me. I was particularly interested in the historical development of the English language, which meant that I was looking at a lot of scans of manuscripts in Old and Middle English. Growing up, I was a bit of a Renaissance art snob, and tended to ignore medieval art somewhat, but looking at it through a bibliographic lens was like flipping on a light switch! Desperate to do more work with manuscripts and early printed books in person, I came across the Material Culture and the History of the Book Masters of Science (MSc) program at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, which leads me to the next question...
Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?
I have two rare book related advanced degrees, which go hand in hand: the Material Culture and the History of the Book MSc is what made me a book historian and medievalist, but my Information Management and Digital Preservation MSc from the University of Glasgow is what made me a rare book librarian. Having access to the outstanding special collections of both universities allowed my love of manuscripts to bloom, as well as my understanding of the context in which the collections exist today.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
I have changed my answer to this question three times - from the first manuscript I got to handle by myself in the reading room of the University of Edinburgh, to the first time I held in my hands a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio at the University of Glasgow, and to the privilege of spending one-on-one time with the incomparable Hunterian Psalter - but the manuscript I keep going back to is Edinburgh MS 39, a c. 1430 English book of hours, use of Sarum. The intricate and distinctively English border decorations make every page of this manuscript candy for the eyes! It also features a 1958 rebinding by the English bindery of Douglas Cockerell and Son, the work of which is one of my chief research interests. The sympathetic rebinding in exposed oak boards is wonderfully charming and compliments the aesthetic of the manuscript beautifully. To me, it is the Platonic ideal of an illuminated manuscript.
What do you personally collect?
I collect pre-1900 miniature books, as well as normal-sized books that show interesting aspects of the history of the book, especially bindings. I also collect postcards of books and libraries! I'm beginning to sense I'm a bit of a one-trick pony...
What do you like to do outside of work?
As you might have guessed from reading some of my above answers, my research interests reach far and wide beyond the boundaries of natural history, so I like to do a lot of independent research outside of work! Right now I'm working on an article about Douglas Cockerell and Son, and how their work impacted the history of book conservation. I also maintain a very active personal-professional social media presence on Twitter and Instagram, both under the username @book_historia. In my spare time, I do a quite frankly unreasonable number of jigsaw puzzles.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
Is it cheating to say "everything?" But really, from the most mundane circulation tasks to the fanciest donor relations events, I love caring for and sharing our collection. Working with objects that have outlived their creators many times over really brings home the temporary nature of our roles as caretakers of heritage, and the importance of introducing the next generation to their significance. One of my favorite things in the world is seeing peoples' faces light up as they enter our reading room for a tour for the first time, or when I open a book to a beautiful plate for them.
The same goes for witnessing the unbridled joy of a researcher that finds what they need! An aspect of natural history rare book librarianship in particular that excites me to no end is the fact that Smithsonian curators are using our old books to do new science. The rule of priority, as described in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, states that the oldest available (i.e., published) name of an animal taxon is the correct formal scientific name; simply put, the oldest published valid scientific name of an animal is the one that has priority when describing the animal. This means that our collection gets a nice workout when scientists are looking to name a new species, and we get to see a lot of happy faces!
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
One of my passions as a book historian and rare book librarian has been, and continues to be, access. The special collections field has come so far recently in trying to make itself more visible to researchers beyond those that occupy the ivory towers, but I think it has a long way to go. The book world is at a very interesting crossroads at the moment between digital and physical, although I think the dust is beginning to settle somewhat; I hope that special collections continue to take advantage of using digital tools to provide access to physical books and increase general awareness of special collections libraries as a resource. Social media is one of these tools that I am particularly vocal about, and I'm lucky enough to be a member of the Smithsonian Libraries' social media working group, which maintains a fabulous presence across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr, just to name a few platforms. Making the effort to meet potential researchers where they are counts for a lot, particularly if the researchers are a bit nervous about using collections for the first time.
But taking it a step further, I hope that the underlying biases against what were once seen as "non-traditional" users of special collections continue to dissipate. Increased access means bringing in new audiences who have never had the opportunity to make use of our collections, and may therefore use them for research or inspiration in fields beyond what some of us are used to. Nothing pleases me more than the collection being used in a productive manner, even if that manner is unfamiliar. In order for special collections to survive and thrive in the future, we need to embrace these new audiences and treat them with the same respect as we have always treated our researchers. I am excited to see where these emerging avenues will take us!
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
The Cullman Library holds rare books relating to the divisions of the Natural History Museum, which means our beautiful plate books of bugs, birds and botany get a lot of play. But we also hold a number of works relating to the Department of Anthropology, including a wealth of 19th and early 20th century material in Native American languages. Although their content sometimes reflects a disturbing colonialist attitude towards indigenous peoples, the books are an incredible linguistic resource for the language revitalization of groups that have traditionally been oppressed, as well as for linguists and anthropologists interested in the development of language and the cultures that surround it.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
We have two new fabulous exhibitions opening in the fall! The first, coming this October, is titled Game Change: Elephants from Prey to Preservation, and traces the shift in public attitudes about elephants from the big game hunting of the 19th century to the critical conservation concerns of today. The core of the exhibition is items from the book, manuscript, and photograph collection of Russell E. Train, the founder of the World Wildlife Fund and second administrator of the EPA, which is now housed in the Cullman Library.
The second Smithsonian Libraries exhibition, opening in November, is the culmination of our 50th Anniversary year of celebrations, and is called Magnificent Obsessions. Since the Smithsonian's founding in 1846, the Libraries have benefitted from passionate book collectors who developed specialized libraries on their topics of study, from design to wildlife to aerospace engineering. The gifts and bequests of these donors have helped develop the Smithsonian Libraries into a world-class resource, and this exhibition is focused on telling the collectors' stories through the volumes they acquired. With such a variety of books to choose from, this is going to be an incredible show!
Photo credit: Paul Newman