Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Isabel Planton, Public Services Librarian at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington:
I am the Public Services Librarian at the Lilly Library. My role in the library has been described as a "Jill of All Trades." I rather like that phrase because I think it captures the eclectic nature of my job. My primary responsibilities are reference and instruction. The Public Services Department stays very busy, hosting approximately 250-300 class and tours per year. Every day here is different. I never know what the "tone" of the day will be until the Reading Room opens, but it's always lively. Sometimes I'm preparing for or giving a class presentation. Sometimes I'm helping my colleagues set up for multi-room sessions or an after-hours event. Other times, I'm strategizing with colleagues about how to answer a reference email or answering patrons' questions in the Reading Room.
I just recently turned over supervision of the front desk and Reading Room attendants to my wonderful colleague Sarah McElroy Mitchell after seven years of having this as a job duty. I'm having a little trouble relinquishing control of the schedule! As much as I complained about making the student desk schedule each semester, I really enjoyed working closely with graduate students as their supervisor in that position. Luckily, I will continue to help with the supervision of the graduate students who work as Reference Assistants in the Public Services Department.
How did you get started in rare books?
When I started college at Ohio University, I had not even decided on a major. I was really quite adrift. Once I decided to get an English degree, I had to figure out what I would ultimately do for work. I went to one of those sessions for English majors titled something like "What do I do with this English degree?" and one of the options presented was librarianship. Until that moment, I had never considered librarianship as a career. Something clicked that day and it seemed like the right path for me. I talked to my advisor who put me in touch with two librarians at the Ohio University library. I met with both of them and decided to do an internship with Judy Connick who worked in Public Services at the Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections at OU. She was my first mentor and I credit her for launching me on this career path. After my internship, I stayed on as a student employee working with Judy for another year. During that time, I processed collections, worked through the backlog, and paged materials in a book vault that would plunge into darkness every fifteen minutes if I didn't remember to flick the light switch. I couldn't believe a place so strange and wonderful really existed and that I could one day work somewhere similar. Judy was passionate about working with rare books and special collections and it was infectious. She encouraged me to get my MLS and got me interested in the idea of eventually attending Rare Book School.
I came to Indiana University so that I could take classes at the Lilly Library. Some of my best classes during that time were the ones I took with Joel Silver and Erika Dowell learning about rare book librarianship and book history. However, I was still floundering around a bit about my future, trying to decide if I would be a special collections librarian or a public librarian. I took classes toward both paths. After I graduated, at the height of the recession, I quickly took a job in the Interlibrary Loan Department at the Wells Library (the main library) at IU. A few years later, a job in Public Services at the Lilly Library opened and I jumped at the opportunity. I started at the Lilly Library as a Reference Associate in 2011. I had a job upgrade within the department in 2016 and then was hired as the Public Services Librarian in 2017.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
This is very difficult. My enthusiasms tend to change depending on what I'm working on at the moment. Right now, I'm spending a lot of time with maps and atlases in preparation for some upcoming classes. I love the 1482 Cosmographia which is the first Ptolemaic atlas printed in Germany. It's one of my favorite books to show in class. I'm also currently a fan of the courtship and dating manuals in our collection. I recently put together a small exhibition of these materials and I had a lot of fun reading the advice, especially advice for women.
What do you personally collect?
I've never really had the collecting impulse when it comes to books. I grew up on library books and it never occurred to me to buy books to own until a few years ago. I love books but for some reason I don't have a personal desire to collect them.
What I do collect is vintage polyester shirts. I started collecting them in the late 1990s when I spent a lot of time shopping at Goodwill stores. Some have come and gone from my collection over the years, but I now have a small, well-curated collection after years of trial and error. I'm also an accidental collector of cat figurines. I have never sought out a single cat figurine in my life. People just keep giving them to me.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I enjoy biking, yoga, dancing, live music, reading, British TV shows, and skeeball. I was the state skeeball champion in 2017 (but the Bloomington league is the only one in Indiana).
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
I'm excited by the fact that the Lilly Library seems to become more relevant on campus every year. I've worked at the Lilly Library for seven years and I've seen a marked increase in class visits and use of our collections during that time. I know I must sound like a broken record at this point, but in my experience, the increase in use of special collections can't be over-emphasized. It's our greatest daily challenge and the best thing about the job.
There's never a dull moment when working with rare books. I love my job because it requires both mental and physical fitness, no two days are the same, there's always something new to learn or a new (or old) book to see, and I get to help a wide variety of people. I really believe there are more characters in the world of rare books and special collections. I enjoy being around the quirky, unique, intelligent people who are attracted to this work.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
I get to meet a lot of future Bright Young Librarians through the Department of Information and Library Science here at IU. Many students take classes at the Lilly Library towards the Rare Books and Manuscripts Specialization and work here in various student positions. I have really enjoyed supervising many of these students as desk attendants as they have come through the MLS program. Based on my experience working with the next generation of Rare Book and Special Collections librarians, I believe the future of the profession will be bright if we are able to continue mentoring new, enthusiastic students. We also need to share with them the institutional knowledge of our libraries. I worry that massive shifts in staffing might mean generational and institutional knowledge are lost with the retirements of key figures. There are smart, capable, driven students entering the field right now but I don't think we should discount the work of our predecessors. I hope to see a balance between institutional knowledge gained through years of experience working with collections and the fresh ideas of new and diverse colleagues in the field.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
I did an exhibition a few years ago on our Cycling manuscript collection. It's a small but fascinating collection of trade catalogues, photos, posters, and correspondence about bicycles. I learned a lot about the incredible popularity of bicycles at the turn of the last century. Many American towns (including my hometown) had their own bicycle manufacturing plants! I was also fascinated by the early adoption of cycling among women and the ways women's fashion changed to allow for safer cycling.
The finding aid for the collection is available here.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
I'm very excited about an exhibition I worked on with my colleagues Maureen Maryanski and Rebecca Baumann. It's a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the year 1968. We saw such great materials while preparing this exhibition and the end result is visually stunning. As I mentioned (above), I also put together a small exhibition of courtship and dating manuals for Valentine's Day. It's been quite well received, which makes me think that I should work on a larger project focused on these manuals in the future. I'm very much looking forward to our upcoming main gallery exhibition on the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein, curated by Rebecca Baumann and opening April 2nd.
[Image courtesy of Isabel Planton; photo credit Maureen Maryanski]