How did you get started in rare books?
While I was in the poetry MFA program at Columbia University, I got a job assisting the Rare Books Librarian at the New York Society Library. They were in the middle of a post-retrospective conversion project, and my job was to compare the card catalog to the MARC record; if there were discrepancies, I pulled the book to verify the information. I have to admit that I disappeared into closed stacks more often than was necessary to do my job. Although I had worked in libraries before (my undergraduate library, Poets House), the work I did for the NYSL really illuminated the history of library work and the value of cataloging. I felt that I was connecting people to books in a tangible way, that I was helping to give people the experience of discovery.
Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?
I enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh's MLIS program with the goal of becoming a library cataloger, preferably in a rare books collection. There were no rare books-specific courses, though, so I took on internships and volunteered anywhere that would take me to get experience. When I graduated in 2008, there were barely any jobs, and funding for positions was being cut everywhere. I was lucky to land an archival cataloging position with the Time Capsules Cataloging Project at the Andy Warhol Museum, where I got a crash course in archival processing. I had no experience in museums or archives before that job, but I think my work with rare books translated well to working with art and artifacts. I think all of these experiences gave me a really good special collections education.
What is your role at your institution?
I am the processing archivist in the Poetry Collection, the library of record for 20th- and 21st-century poetry in English. The collection was founded in 1937, but I am the first full-time archivist, so there is a lot of backlog!
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
Drafts of Paterson that William Carlos Williams wrote on his prescription pads. Williams was one of the first poets I loved, and I remember learning in high school that he was a doctor and would sneak in his writing between patients. To hold those fragments, to see the everyday reality of a figure that holds a mythological place in literature--that makes for a pretty good day at work.
What do you personally collect?
I collect books about botany. Of course, the visual component is a draw, but I am really fascinated by the development of botanical classification as well as the history of the use of plants in medicine and everyday life. After checking it out of the library three times, I finally bought Anna Pavord's The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
In an age when information can be rendered in the most convenient format--a newspaper on your phone, a paperback on your e-reader--rare books and archives let you stop and look. They give you a break, a chance to see what is in front of you. And they connect you to your own history, as a writer or a doctor or just as a human. You cannot help but think about the person who made the book, the person who wrote the letter. I like pulling out rare books and manuscript material because I watch people go from awe to intimacy. They will ask, "Can I touch it?" And when they pick it up and look at it, you can tell they are thinking about other people who have held it, and how it came to be in their hands. I think rare books librarians and archivists connect people to each other in that way.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
I think special collections are inherently interdisciplinary; even a collection with the narrowest collecting policy will appeal to interest outside the scope. To continue to broaden our relevance, we have to explore our capacity to serve unexpected needs and to inspire new inquiry. As a processing archivist, I think I do this by creating rich documentation for collections so that people can find our materials through multiple access points. In addition to traditional exhibitions and outreach, I think good cataloging and sharing of resources will be the best way to bring our collections to new users.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
The Poetry Collection prides itself on its inclusivity, and it represents a broad range of poetry. I am currently working on our Victor E. Reichert Robert Frost Collection, recently donated by Victor's son Jonathan. Victor Reichert and Robert Frost were close friends, and this material provides a really great personal view of Frost. The first collection I processed here was the Harry Jacobus Collection: Jacobus and Robert Duncan and Duncan's partner Jess started the King Ubu Gallery in San Francisco, which later became the legendary Six Gallery. We have a great variety of collections here, from James Joyce to Mail Art.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
We have loaned artwork and visual poetry to Art=Text=Art, opening at University at Buffalo's Anderson Gallery in September. We also loan items for exhibition around the world: Materials from our Dylan Thomas Collection are currently on display at the National Library of Wales and the Dylan Thomas Centre as part of a yearlong centennial celebration of Thomas; they will return for exhibition at UB next year. Some of our Robert Duncan and Jess artwork is on loan for the traveling exhibition "An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle," which started at The Crocker Art Museum, traveled to New York University's Grey Art Gallery and American University, and will move on to the Pasadena Museum of California Art in September.