Bright Young Librarians: Courtney Brombosz
What is your role at your institution?
I am the Research and Education Librarian at Yale University's Cushing/Whitney Medical Library.
How did you get started in special collections?
It's hard to really say when I got started. The simple answer is I went off to Indiana University to earn my MLS. There I met Joel Silver and was introduced to a world I never knew existed, but was meant to encounter. Before even pursuing the degree, I had always been drawn to books. As a small child, my parents were thrilled to have a child that didn't mind roaming aisles and aisles of used book shops, antique malls, and thrift shops. I would grab the older books off the library shelf before grabbing the newer editions. I would inhale the smell of musty books almost ritually. It's always been a part of me.
Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?
I attended Indiana University Bloomington and earned my MLS with specialization in Rare Books and Manuscripts. My experience was beyond any other I have had in higher education. I seized every opportunity afforded to me. I took every rare books course that was offered at the time, including but not limited to Rare Book Curatorship, Basic and Advanced Descriptive Bibliography, and History of the Book 1450-Present.
I took on student position in every department within the Lilly Library and gained a well-rounded understanding of the profession. I will be always grateful to every supervisor who allowed me to ask questions, took extra time to teach me advanced skills, and encouraged me to keep learning. I especially loved working in the Conservation Lab with Jim Canary and Jessi Kulow. They afforded me my first student position at the Lilly and I will forever be grateful they gave me that chance.
I was able to present to a number of visiting groups through my internship in the Public Services Department. I curated an exhibition exploring the impact Shakespeare made on our global culture, and even got to be involved in the Sylvia Plath Symposium and the Grolier Club visit. It is already apparent, but my experience was above and beyond any expectations I had entering library school.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
This is like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. So I'll have to pick a particular day in a library to share. The most emotional experience for me was during my internship at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I clearly remember the nerves and excitement as my supervisor brought me to the vault for the first time. I first got to see the quarto room, holding nearly 200 of the earliest editions of Shakespeare. Their mere existence is a miracle, but to be in a room with so many at once was overwhelming, to say the least. From the quartos, I was casually introduced to Queen Elizabeth I's personal Bible (The Bishop's Bible,1568). With the boards wrapped in elegant red velvet and adorned in brass Tudor roses, you could only fathom the way Queen Elizabeth I poured over those pages. It took a minute before I looked up to see the wall of 82 First Folios. It is still hard to explain the overwhelming emotion that washed over me as I saw this epic display, a sight only a few fortunate librarians and library staff have seen. Each book was unique like a fingerprint, sharing individual stories leading up to their gathering in this one room. After I took a few deep breaths, we headed below ground to see the majority of the collection. From Gloucester’s sword carried by Edmund Kean to original costume designs by Percy Anderson, the collection at the Folger will always be a highlight. And to top it off, this all happened on my 23rd birthday.
What do you personally collect?
My collecting habits have changed over time. The constant collecting point is books about books. While I love the classics (Carter, A.E. Newton, and everything in between) I cannot get enough of books about book forgeries or thefts. Anything I can get my hands on is an absolute joy. I have The Map Thief, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, and The Thieves of Book Row as great pleasure reads on my shelf. I've seen just about every documentary and movie surrounding this topic. A dream would be to have one of these forgeries in my collection one day. But that's extremely difficult since these items are taken out of the collection market. But maybe one day I'll be lucky!
What do you like to do outside of work?
I love growing in my yoga practice, practicing embroidery and crochet, and exploring homeopathic medicine options -- all of which also has evolved into a book collecting area. I have a family that takes up a lot of my free time as well.
What excites you about special collections librarianship?
I love that one is constantly learning about new topics in different areas of academia, culture, history, and more. Some may argue that you find that in all librarianship, but special collections is different. One minute you may be consulting a collection of etiquette books and the next day, you're going through anatomy books. You become a well-rounded individual which has a big impact on how you view your own role in the profession. Now that my role is outside of the special collection realm, I still use a lot of the tools I learned in my special collections roles. The biggest piece of wisdom imparted on me was from my mentor Joel Silver, Director of the Lilly Library. He is the most knowledgable and giving academic I've met. He made a point to never hoard knowledge or make others feel unworthy of knowledge. Now that I'm in a medical library setting, I see medical students holding their questions in, for fear of asking the wrong question. And I always think back to Joel and his willingness to share everything he knew (and I'm pretty sure he knows everything about everything). There are many things I have to thank Joel for, but that core effort of sharing knowledge will never leave me.
Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?
I do wonder how this current shift to an online environment will shift the way we use technology with rare books. We all know that while two copies of the same book exist, those two copies are in no way the same. Not much that I am aware of mitigates this exploration digitally. So I am curious to learn more about how this will be addressed through technology. I also would love to see the continued dissemination of knowledge within the field. There is no point in hoarding our knowledge (re: Joel Silver) so I'd love to be a part of those conversations a bit more.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
The Medical History Library here at Yale is incredible. I've only ever seen one other similar collection in person (The Wellcome Trust in London), but the collection here has an unfathomable breadth and depth. Melissa Grafe, the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, does an amazing job with her staff in utilizing the collections in a number a ways. There is a constant rotation in their art print collection in the hallways of the library. They work tirelessly digitizing materials that many researchers have found useful near and far. Personally, I am drawn to the macabre, creepy, and unusual items. The item that ticks those boxes for me in our historic collection are toxicology reports mounted in fancy wooden display boxes. They are for two different murder cases in the late 1800s in New Haven where two women were both poisoned in very similar manners. It was the first case to use toxicology as a form of evidence. I am reading a great book called Arsenic Under the Elms and it recounts the timeline and characters involved in the crimes. I'll stop there before I start diving into the countless copies of Andreas Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem in the collection. It's a dream.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
I am hoping to work with the Historic Library at The Cushing/Whitney to curate an exhibition looking at the transformation of medical education. So keep an eye out!