Bright Young Librarians: Elizabeth DeBold
My official title is Curatorial Assistant. We currently have two curators--a Curator of Early Modern Books and Prints and a Curator of Manuscripts.
Curatorial responsibilities range across all aspects of the Folger's Central Library, so I work both directly with them on their many projects as well as liaising on their behalf with other Central Library departments. In the past year I've helped in developing exhibition materials, presentations, and digital humanities initiatives, as well as supporting their duties providing general collections care, selecting new items to acquire, and working with library patrons and the public locally, nationally, and internationally. Luckily, I've always enjoyed jobs where I get to wear many different "hats" and work on multiple projects at once. During a typical week, I may be proof-reading exhibition labels, planning staff trainings on collection disaster preparedness, working on the logistics for a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, coordinating a digitization project, answering reference questions, pulling and preparing collection items for a curator-led tour, reviewing upcoming auctions, and/or consulting with our conservators about treatment possibilities. I never know what will come up when I walk in the door on a Monday!
How did you get started in rare books?
I built my own major in Medieval Studies as an undergraduate at Skidmore College, and it was through this interdisciplinary course and the support of the several wonderful medievalists who supervised me that I was first able to work with rare books and manuscripts.
If I had to pick a moment when I realized I wanted to work with special collections as a career, it would be when my main advisor sent me in her stead to the Bodleian Library to transcribe a manuscript on the life of a German female mystic that she needed for her own research. I was studying abroad in the UK at the time, but hadn't had the opportunity to call up any rare materials for my courses at that point. I have a vivid memory of sitting in Duke Humfrey's library, absolutely floored by where I was, what I was holding, and the possibilities extending from that manuscript. I have experienced other moments like this since then, working with materials from letters written during the Civil War to obscure 20th-century religious pamphlets to the first printed books, which re-affirm this path to me, but everything first crystallized for me there.
I went on to library school and had later, formal training in special collections librarianship, but without my undergraduate advisor's enthusiasm, trust, and guidance (not only in that instance but in many others), I may not have had the experiences that put me where I am today.
Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?
In addition to my B.A. in Medieval Studies from Skidmore College, I have a Master's in Library Science with a concentration in Archives and Records Management and a Certificate in Non-Profit Leadership from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
As others have said, it's so hard to pick just one! We have so many incredible collections and items at the Folger, and I feel extremely spoiled and gleeful every day.
If I absolutely had to choose, one of my favorite items in our collection is a small bound volume containing 25 small watercolor drawings on mica, depicting costumes and hairstyles worn by the 19th-century actress Fanny Kemble while performing mostly Shakespearean roles. The faces of the paintings are left blank, and the owner would have been able to place the transparent mica sheets over a portrait of Fanny to see how the costumes looked on her. It's incredibly unique and detailed, and I think says a lot as an object about the cult of celebrity, as well as the continuing rise of women in the theater. It also gives us another glimpse of what costuming looked like at the time.
Besides the beauty of the paintings, I love this item so much because I think it's such a strong representation of other types of collection items that we have here in addition to our printed books and manuscript collections. A lot of people don't realize that in addition to the latter, we have some fascinating objects, costumes, figurines, and other sorts of items that illustrate the growth of Shakespeare-worship over time, and the ways that people interacted with and consumed the content of his plays.
What do you personally collect?
I have unintentionally become a collector of assorted pinback buttons--they always seemed like a good souvenir to me, so I have different ones from places I've traveled, or that have been given to me by family members, or that I've even found on the ground. My favorite is from an organ festival I attended a few years ago (the instrument, not body parts!) I also love the late children's illustrator Trina Schart Hyman, and have bought a number of her books over the years. If I had the funds, I would definitely collect her artwork more actively.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I'm really lucky in that D.C. is such a great place for music--I currently sing with a local chorus, and when I'm able, take advantage of the excellent performances at Strathmore and the Kennedy Center. I'm also taking some time outside of work to improve my language skills. I'm focusing on Latin at the moment, but planning to brush up on my reading knowledge of German and French as well. I'd also be lying if I didn't say I like to just hang out on my couch with my cats sometimes!
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
One of my favorite things about my job is being able to spend time in the stacks and handle items from such a wide variety of periods and people, that are important and valuable for so many different reasons and in so many different ways. I also really enjoy being able to dip into others' research through answering reference queries--it doesn't matter what I'm working on, I'm always learning something new and interesting, every day. What more could anyone want from a job?
From a professional standpoint, I'm excited about where the field is going as much as what it is. I'm excited about what new and different materials are finally getting the recognition they deserve as "special" and worthy of attention, preservation, and care as much as the works of someone like William Shakespeare, as well as focusing on how best to collect and document different movements and populations that have heretofore been ignored by the archival record. I'm excited about working with my fellow early career librarians, who are so enthusiastic about the new and different ways in which we can provide better, deeper access to materials, and who are finding their way to careers in special collections librarianship from more diverse backgrounds. Some people (most of them non-librarians) talk about the "death" of the physical book, and besides this being completely untrue in general, it feels especially untrue for special collections--technological advancements are only making our collections and activities richer and improving our understanding of these items, their history, and what we're able to say about them and how we're able to connect with them. That's incredibly exciting.
Finally, of course, I love the sheer thrill of working with items of historical and cultural significance. It's just cool to look over and see a script of Henry V signed by Laurence Olivier, or know that the book you're holding came off of William Jaggard's press in 1623.
Thoughts on the future of special collections?
I hope that we continue pushing, as a profession. Pushing our collections into the public eye, encouraging access, and promoting new ways of thinking about and engaging with our materials. Since I got my start with rare books through academics who were passionate about using rare materials and spoke so highly of libraries and special collections, connecting younger users with rare items is deeply meaningful to me. Teaching primary source literacy is so important in building a foundation not just for scholarship, but for living in the world and knowing how to think and interrogate information that comes our way. Special collections librarians have as much of a duty as any librarian does to promote our collections and teach patrons different ways to engage with the materials.
As mentioned above, I also think that we're operating in a time where what is "special" and what deserves to be collected and preserved has undergone a radical redefinition. I hope we continue to talk about how we can increase the diversity of our holdings, our patrons, and the field of special collections librarians in the profession. We need to create opportunity and space for groups that have been traditionally been excluded from the archives and special collections libraries on a variety of levels, including patrons outside of the academy, people of color, and marginalized communities.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
One part of our collections that I always love having the chance to interact with is what we call our "case files." Henry and Emily Folger had the hearts and souls of librarians, and kept really well-documented records of most items they collected. Henry kept much of his correspondence with dealers and auction houses, as well as his annotated catalogs and even shipping ephemera, while Emily did an enormous amount of cataloging and bibliographic work that resulted in a personalized card catalog. It's enormously helpful in shedding light on the provenance of items that they collected, as well as providing a fascinating glimpse into the daily lives and thoughts of wealthy collectors who were deeply invested in the book trade at the turn of the 20th century. I've enjoyed getting to know Henry Folger's personality a bit more through his letters and telegrams, and been grateful for knowing more about where a collection item came from and why it was originally included. If anyone comes to work at the Folger and sees a number beginning with "cs" in an item's catalog record, this means that we may have a case file available. Unfortunately it doesn't guarantee that there are any notes or materials about the specific item, but there may be something.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
We have so many exciting things to look forward to this year, especially since it's the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Our current exhibition, America's Shakespeare, is up until July 24th. This exhibition provides a detailed look at the many ways Shakespeare has influenced and been used in American life, from the Revolutionary War to the present day, and includes a wide range of items from our collections such as costumes, video clips, and finger puppets. In the beginning of August we'll open Will & Jane, an exhibit focusing on Shakespeare and Austen as famous authors who have become cultural idols. The exhibition will compare how we talk about such figures, merchandise them, and consume their content in their afterlives.
Finally, we have several ongoing tours and exhibitions. One is called First Folio!: The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare. Since January, we've been sending out some of our copies of the First Folio to universities, historical societies, and museums in all 50 states, DC, and Puerto Rico to go on display to the public. Chances are there's one near you! The response so far has been incredible, and we've been really grateful for all the programming the host sites have done around the Folio.
The other is a permanent, digital exhibition called Shakespeare Documented. This is the largest and most authoritative collection of primary source materials documenting Shakespeare's life, and was formed in partnership with almost thirty institutional partners across the world. It provides detailed images, transcriptions, and information from noted scholars, and provides incredible levels of access for the world to these documents, many of which are digitized for the first time.
We have so much going on that's accessible even if someone can't make it to D.C., so I hope your readers will all take the opportunity to visit the Folger website and explore what we have!