How did you get started in rare books?
When I was a graduate student in art history, I worked as a curatorial assistant on an exhibition called The Art of the Book, 1000-1650, at the University of Missouri's Museum of Art and Archaeology. We planned to show materials from the museum's collections, but we also made arrangements to borrow from the special collections at the university libraries. I was sent to special collections, a place I had never visited before, to scout items from the catalog that might be suitable for the exhibition.
The first piece I looked at was a fragment of Bede in Insular script from the ninth century. Even though I had just come from the vaults of a museum, I felt completely awed by this experience of being one-on-one with the oldest manuscript I'd ever encountered. My MA work focused on medieval manuscripts and early printing, so from a research perspective, I felt like I had stumbled into a treasure trove.
Over the course of that project, it dawned on me that libraries could offer me a chance to combine my research interests with my desire to work with people. When a para-professional reference job opened in the special collections department a few months later, I applied for it and was hired. I've been working in libraries and archives ever since.
Where did you earn your advanced degree?
A few years after finishing my MA in art history at the University of Missouri, I went on to complete an MSIS at the University of Texas with a certificate in special collections and archives. Austin is so rich in archives and libraries, and I was fortunate to be able to work in some really diverse and fantastic collections and learn from wonderful librarians and archivists. Just as I was finishing my last semester in Texas, a job opened here, and I jumped at the chance to come back.
What is your role at your institution?
We have a small staff, so all of us do a variety of things. My roles are to do reference, instruction, outreach, and web development. In daily life, that means I help instructors devise assignments and activities that introduce students to primary source research, lead course sessions, assist students with the research process, and take shifts on the reference desk. We have a wide range of courses that use the collections here - in any given week I might find myself presenting on comics, medieval manuscripts, propaganda, posters, or the history of information technology.
I also curate exhibitions and help to coordinate partnerships with other campus and community institutions. Recently I've been active in helping to organize a cross-campus working group of librarians, archivists, and curators, with the goal of integrating our collections more fully into the university's curriculum. We also partner with the campus Life Sciences and Society Program to curate an exhibition based on their yearly symposium topic, which challenges all of us to think about our collections in different ways. I've worked on exhibitions and digital projects related to food science, epigenetics, and science communication since I've been here. Last year, I curated an exhibition on narrative and sequential art from the fifteenth century to the present, and I was approached by Exhibits USA to package it for national tour. It's currently in the marketing phase, and I'm looking forward to continuing that project!
On the digital site of things, I manage the Special Collections web site, digital exhibitions, and social media (Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook). My most recent project on social media is our weekly Beautiful Math series, which looks at intersections among the arts, sciences, and mathematics. And I'm in the process of revamping our digital exhibition system.
That sounds like a laundry list, but it's what I do! The variety of my day-to-day work is both challenging and invigorating.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
Impossible to choose. I probably have a new favorite every week, and I love that about my job. I do tend to love things that have value as artifacts in that that they have interesting marginalia or give us some sense of use or ownership contexts. I love manuscripts of all periods, especially illuminated ones, but ordinary ones are also interesting for many different reasons. I love correspondence, although I don't work with it much in this position, but I have in the past.
Right now I'm also fascinated with the history of illustration and printmaking processes, and how words and images interact on the page. That interest includes everything from early printed books to graphic novels. I've gotten very interested in the early woodcut novelists, especially Frans Masereel, from seeing examples in the collections here.
What do you personally collect?
I don't collect anything for myself. I'm surrounded by so much stuff at work that I often feel a need for minimalism when it comes to my own household. With two small children, I don't do very well at it, but I try.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Spend time with my family and work in my garden. I also knit and read, when I get a rare moment to sit down by myself.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
You truly never know what you'll find when preparing for a class, or researching for an exhibition, or just paging something in the stacks. I love being surrounded by history and beauty every day. But I think what excites me the most is seeing all the different ways our researchers and students use the materials in their work. There is no better feeling than teaching a class session full of students who are engaged with what they're studying and are eager to know more, or helping a researcher find exactly the missing piece they were looking for. I hope to bring about the same type of "aha!" moments that happened to me in the reading room here.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
I think the future for all of us (libraries, archives, and museums) is to become more open, collaborative, and community-oriented. We're all in the process of shifting our roles from being the gatekeepers to being the guides and facilitators, both in person and online. I welcome these changes and am excited about where we're headed.
At the same time, higher education is changing. I suspect those of us in academic institutions will find that our roles will change too. For example, the number of classes and students in Special Collections here at Missouri has tripled over the past decade and is still increasing, leading us to prioritize teaching as a big part of what we do. Being able to demonstrate growth and utility is vital. It's going to be more and more important for us to be able to explain why we and our collections are a valuable educational resource.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
One of the strengths of the collections here is a large group of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British pamphlets on religious and political subjects. There are thousands of them, and many are very scarce. We'll be starting a project to identify unique materials from that collection over the next few months. The Fragmenta Manuscripta collection is a group of medieval manuscript fragments assembled in the seventeenth century, which supplements the mainly textual medieval and Renaissance manuscript codices in the collection. That's the collection that contains that Bede fragment that got me started down this path in the first place. We have a substantial collection of comic books and artwork, including a nice collection of underground comics and early graphic novels. We also have the collection of a nineteenth-century French lawyer, Jacques Flach, which has lots of unique materials, and we have the papers of the American playwright Lanford Wilson.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
We will be mounting an exhibition of work by comic artists with ties to Mizzou this fall. There's a great comic community here, with people interested in comics as literature, art, history, and journalism. We'll try to get that community involved with what we do this fall.
In spring 2016, we'll have two exhibitions. One will deal with climate change and the Anthropocene, which is next year's Life Sciences and Society Symposium topic. The other will celebrate the centennial of our library building, and will also incorporate materials from the Missouri Historic Textile Collection and the University Archives.
(Nominations for Bright Young Librarians, Booksellers, or Collectors are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)