I'm the Rare Book Research Librarian at Wilson Special Collections Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In this role I oversee reference and teaching with rare books from across Wilson Library's collections. I do a lot of instruction and also train our graduate students in special collections pedagogy and teaching with primary sources. I'm a big advocate for active learning, object-based inquiry, and undergraduate research using rare books, and I love to see students that I've taught return to the reading room as researchers. I'm also the go-to person for reference questions relating to rare books, descriptive bibliography, and literary studies. Since UNC is a public institution, we have a diverse population of patrons, including on-campus faculty and students, visiting researchers, and the general public. I love all my patrons equally, but I would say my favorite set of researchers is UNC's graduate students. Putting doctoral and masters students in touch with resources that change the course of their scholarship--whether for digital projects or traditional dissertations and theses--is one of the best parts of my job.
How did you get started in rare books?
After finishing my PhD in English at Emory University, I knew I wanted to work in special collections and to teach with primary sources. I had taught using literary manuscripts at Emory's Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library and also with the Library of Congress's digitized collection, Voices from the Days of Slavery. I saw how working closely with these kinds of materials changed my students' approach to learning--they came alive and opened up to the subject matter in a way that traditional classroom teaching just didn't achieve. My a-ha moment came while I was on a visiting fellowship at Library of Congress's American Folklife Center, doing research related to my dissertation. I was surrounded by archivists and librarians doing incredibly important work that had an ethics and an impact that I envied. I remember Todd Harvey, the reference specialist there, telling me that I should get my MLS and become an archivist, and something just clicked. So, I applied to library school and was offered an assistantship through UNC's School of Library and Information Science program. I was lucky to be placed as the assistant to the Rare Book Librarian, John Vincler, who showed me the ropes with rare books, encouraged me to attend Rare Book School, and was a wonderful mentor. I made myself valuable by teaching as many instruction sessions as I could while soaking up knowledge of the history of the book and descriptive bibliography. A full-time position opened up just before I graduated, and I was able to stay at Wilson Library as a professional librarian. So, I didn't become an archivist, but I found a neighboring home in rare books.
Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?
School of Information and Library Science, UNC-Chapel Hill.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
Wilson Library has this little book of hours printed by Thielman Kerver in an agenda format. It's a small, thin, little book that's about the size of a smart phone, so you can just imagine it in the hands or on the body of an early modern reader. Some of the text has been lightly excoriated, with one line of ink down the middle of a series of pages. It's still completely readable, so I like to imagine that whoever owned it--maybe it was a woman--was a perhaps little radical and wanted to keep this illicit text legible. Whoever they were, I love to imagine this book moving about with its original owner in their world.
What do you personally collect?
In my house we have lots of books, but most of them are not collector's items. I do have a small collection of twentieth-century Irish books--mostly poetry and a little drama--including some lovely Dolmen Press editions.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Outside of work I love spending time with my husband, Lucas, and our three-year-old daughter, Matilda. On weekends we all go to the farmers' market, to the park, and to the fabulous Chapel Hill Public Library. When I have a moment to myself, I read fiction or jog in our neighborhood. I'm also trying to become a gardener, with my daughter's help, of course.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
I am most excited about the ways rare books can be objects of empathy and can connect people living today with human beings who lived in the past. There are so many ways this connection can happen, whether its understanding that someone made the paper and someone else composed the type in a hand-press-period book, or realizing that a book belonged to a reader who lived through a certain moment in history. My favorite example of this is when a student of mine articulated that a tiny Civil War era hymnal was carried on the body of a young man who went into battle. Through this object, she imagined his fear and his pain and that he was a living, breathing person. Rare book objects allow us to touch history, but my hope is that they also allow us reach out the people of the past and understand a small part of their experience.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
I think special collections is moving toward greater access and is beginning to build a greater diversity of researchers. The work that this new generation of researchers will produce--or that they are producing now--is really exciting to me. We've been a restrictive space of inquiry designed for a small set of scholars for so long. But we're beginning to reach people from different backgrounds whose perspectives are going to bring new dimensions to scholarship based in special collections.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
One of the most under-utilized collections at Wilson Library is our W. B. Yeats Collection. Before it came to us it belonged to George Mills Harper, who during his lifetime was the foremost scholar on Yeats and the occult. Aside from that, it really is an ideal collection for Irish modernists doing book history, with lots of different editions by Yeats and his circle and lots of material relating to the Cuala Press and the Abbey Theatre. If you want to get a material sense of the book in Yeats's world, it's a fantastic collection.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
Yes! This summer we are hosting "Reconstructing Frankenstein's Monster: Mary Shelley's World in Print." In addition to being a fascinating exhibition, it's also been curated by a class of UNC undergraduates taking Jeanne Moskal's English 295 honors course. I've had the privilege of working with these students this spring, helping them make their choices and perform research. It's really a showcase of the power of undergraduate research in special collections.
[Image provided by Emily Kader]