My job title is Curatorial Assistant; I work under the Head Curator of Collections, as one of four members of the Special Collections Department. I work on exhibitions and loans, do the bulk of our rare book cataloging, process the odd (sometimes very odd) archival collection, teach classes, coordinate our annual Creative Fellowship, and act as the liaison to the local arts and design community.
How did you get started in rare books?
In the early 2000's, I was living in Boston and working in public education, as well as working with an awesome collective of people to start the Papercut Zine Library. We began with a few boxes of zines and comic books, creating our own custom cataloging system and hand-illustrated library cards. (The library still exists, and now has over 16,000 items in its collection!) Our collection grew rapidly through donations from zine authors, comics artists, bookstores and distros, and collectors; alongside the usual materials, donors would occasionally approach us with incredible ephemera and printed materials documenting social movements and underground music in and around Boston. We often couldn't accept these historical materials (we didn't have climate control, we had irregular open hours--while our values aligned with our donors', we frequently weren't the most appropriate home for these materials), but this planted a deep seed in me as I realized that 1. Someone desperately needed to be documenting social movements and subcultures, and the impetus had to come from the communities being documented, and 2. I wanted to build the skill set to do this kind of work!
I began researching MLS programs that year, with encouragement from an anonymous reference librarian at the Boston Public Library. Before that, I had only been vaguely aware of archives as a field. I wish it had been on my career radar earlier! After working in a number of community libraries and infoshops in New England and in the mid-south, earning an MLS, processing incredible working archival collections on-site at The Highlander Center (a popular education center in East Tennessee) and Bread and Puppet Theater (a political puppet theater in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont), and working as a tech services and reference librarian, I finally ended up in my current position at the Providence Public Library. Phew! It's amazing to have a job where I make use of all the disparate knowledge and skills that I've acquired through my atypical career trajectory.
Where did you earn your MLS?
I got my MLS at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a focus in archives. While I was there, I was fortunate to have a graduate assistantship working on the North Carolina Maps project, which still heavily informs my ideas about metadata and access points. I also spent a year working as the graduate intern in the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture at Duke University's Rubenstein Library. It was a fantastic experience, and exposed me to all the different aspects of hands-on archival work, from processing enormous archival collections to meeting with donors to helping researchers with extensive projects. (One particularly memorable project involved a researcher recreating an art installation from an artist whose papers are in Duke's collections; I somehow ended up pushing a book cart of half-dressed mannequin parts through the library, which remains a real career highlight.)
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
This is an impossible question to answer! I feel like I discover new and incredible things in our collections almost every day.
Some books at PPL that I return to over and over are early 20th century folios of pochoir prints by E. A. Séguy depicting nature-based and geometric patterns. Pochoir prints are made using layers--sometimes dozens or even hundreds of layers--of highly-detailed stencils, colored with super-pigmented ink using oversized pompom-esque brushes. The colors in these folios are unbelievably vibrant given their age, and the "wow" factor is high--everyone who sees them gasps! (We put together a really fun exhibit in 2015 where we had local artists look at these and other pattern books, and then use them as the basis for new creative work.)
What do you personally collect?
I live in a very small house, so my collecting capacity is limited. I do have a sizeable collection of antique bottles and sea glass; I'm a huge fan of historical trash. I like how much old bottles can tell us about the consumption habits and day-to-day lives of people in the past.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I'm an avid urban gardener, which currently means spending the bulk of my non-work daylight hours building increasingly absurd infrastructure to deter my neighborhood's marauding citified woodchucks. I raise chickens, which are an endless source of entertainment. I also love sewing and knitting, bike riding, and attending Providence's seemingly endless number of strange and wonderful arts events.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
I'm very excited about books as physical objects. I love the tactile experience of opening a book, and I love being able to share that with researchers, especially ones who are new to special collections research. (Favorite reading room moment in recent memory: someone opening a historic magazine and exclaiming, "I can't believe I'm allowed to touch this!") Through my experience at PPL, I've found that younger researchers and teens have a kind of reverence for physical materials, and they understand the specialness of unique items in a world of endless digital duplication. As long as we continue developing methods of effective outreach and increasing our collections' accessibility, I think special collections are in good shape moving forward.
Speaking of outreach and accessibility, I'm incredibly lucky to work at PPL alongside colleagues who share my belief that preservation is futile if it isn't also tied to accessibility--that we save items so that they can be used, even if the two activities can seem at odds. I'm also delighted to work somewhere that doesn't prioritize specific kinds of use--a tattoo artist or a teen clothing designer is just as welcome to view our rare materials as a scholar. Use brings materials alive, as they're touched, incorporated into new scholarly or creative work, and brought into conversation with contemporary ideas.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
As I mentioned, I believe that special collections have a really, shall I say, special place in a tech-heavy world. In PPL's outreach, we often refer to the "immersive research experience", which I think is a huge selling point for our collections. Because of the slower pace of special collections research, our users can spend whole afternoons absorbed in a particular visual or intellectual topic. Also--and I especially find this with our visual researchers and artists--it's very valuable to see information within its broader context, instead of isolated like it would be in online search results. It's a much richer experience.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
I think that one of the most underutilized collections at PPL is our sizeable collection of books and periodicals about textiles and the textile industry. (It's largely uncataloged, which we hope to change soon, but for now users tend to hear about it through word of mouth.) It was built up as a technical collection for people working in the textile industry, and now is a fantastic record of the history of the New England textile economy. It has information about machines and their operation/ repair, and about fibers, dyeing, and weaving. It includes fiber samples, color samples, and some fabric samples; it also has loads of information about particular mills or mill owners. (Many of the textile magazines were read by mill operatives, and they have announcements sections in the back that were like inter-mill gossip sections: what mills were bought or sold, which workers were promoted or passed away. Truly fascinating! The machinery/systems books written for mill owners, on the other hand, are almost completely silent on the fact that machines were operated by people--workers are barely mentioned, if at all.) I've seen contemporary textile artists work with this collection, digging up weaving patterns or natural dye recipes; it is also a fantastic resource for people interested in the history of regional manufacturing.
I'd also love to draw your attention to a recent project that I spearheaded: this past summer, PPL published a comic book called Lizard Ramone in Hot Pursuit: A Guide to Archives for Artists and Makers, written and illustrated by Providence artist Jeremy Ferris. Jeremy and I worked together closely for many months, discussing how archives work, what visual research looks like, useful access points for visual researchers, and common barriers to effective research. Because Jeremy is a hilarious genius, he somehow managed to translate all of this into a comic book that's as fun to read as it is informative. The comic book was designed it to be useful to our researchers, but also general enough that it could be useful at any archives, special collections library, or historical society. A bookmark-style local insert (illustrated by Providence artist O. Horvath) offers Rhode Island-specific information on local repositories. I think it's an amazing outreach tool for reaching visual artists in a medium that's familiar and accessible, and acknowledges the ways that many artists think and work.
You can read the whole comic book online here; that webpage also includes a link to a print-ready version of the book that you can download and take to your local print shop, and a template for those wanting to make their own local inserts. It's like a mini toolkit for archivists and special collections librarians!
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
In addition to ongoing, smaller exhibits, PPL has an annual exhibition and program series. Our 2018 exhibition, "HairBrained," will focus on hairstyles throughout history--braids, curls, facial hair, wigs--and the ways in which hair defines and reflects culture, self-identity, agency, and politics. We're aiming to represent a variety of cultures and time periods in each exhibit case; items will range from historical postcards to an issue of The Black Panther newspaper, from early 20th century costume books with stunning color lithography to a 1726 history of pirates. You can see the exhibition at the library during the months of March-June 2018. Hair is a surprisingly complex and rich topic, and I anticipate the exhibition being both fun and challenging!