Bright Young Librarians: Matt Bird
What is your role at your institution?
I am the Special Collections Manager at Vigo County Public Library in Terre Haute, Indiana--a position I have held since June of 2016. VCPL is an Indiana Class A public library serving a county population of 108,000. Terre Haute may sound familiar as it is the birthplace of the Coca-Cola bottle, Larry Bird's collegiate basketball career, the brothers Theodore Dreiser and Paul Dresser and the title "Crossroads of America"--due to US 40 and US 41 intersecting!
My position entails duties I never dreamed of while completing my MLS. I manage a staffed department, so there are the standard personnel management duties I will not bore you with. My additional duties are far more interesting and varied. They include assessing rare materials and delegating repair to conservators we work with, public outreach via tours and artifact show-and-tells, donor relations, assisting others on the management team with tent pole initiatives, and maintaining an open dialogue with local government and non-profits. My department also serves as a depository for select government records and local newspapers on microfilm--historical and current--so there are database and equipment contracts to maintain.
How did you get started in rare books?
I attended a rural high school where I enrolled in vocational printing classes each year. The print shop took customer orders to make stationery, usually via offset presses but occasionally we would set type and print on a Heidelberg. The class was part of an Indiana vocational initiative at the time to develop trade skills in secondary education so that students would have a portfolio upon graduation. As I started college, I had already established a background in printing.
Then, as an English major, I started to collect first editions of assigned course texts and the interest continued to grow. Since I had collected comic books from the age of ten and obsessed over different printings, condition and preservation best practices, it was a natural transition.
I didn't realize that the field of bibliography and book culture was always present until I finished my MLS and looked backwards. For instance, during an undergraduate summer course focusing on modern American literature, the class read Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I picked up a first edition from a local antiquarian book store. During class, as we discussed passages, I noticed that portions of the text from the assigned paperback were augmented, missing or replaced. When the professor realized I had a first edition he stopped class and committed to a quick collation as he explained Eggers was famous for adding and subtracting content in various editions.
Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?
I went to Indiana State University and majored in Printing Management for a short time before the degree program folded due to low demand. I switched to English. As I approached graduation, I found out that a fellow student was entering the MLS program at IU-Bloomington. I attended an event at the Lilly Library--"Treasures of the Lilly" I think--and after seeing firsts of Milton, Franklin, a Caxton Chaucer, First Folio, and the Gutenberg I was hooked. It felt like my experience from high school until that event, coupled with my collecting hobbies, led to the rare books specialization at IU. I enrolled in the MLS program.
Since I had a full-time job in cellular sales, I commuted on my days off from Terre Haute to Bloomington for the better part of three years to attend classes. I genuinely loved the experience. Part of that experience was the librarians at the Lilly. Their enthusiasm for the subject was contagious. For example, upon starting, I only knew of Joel Silver as my named advisor on a piece of paper, not for his body of work and importance to the field. We met to discuss the program and I asked if I could have a quick tour of the stacks. He postponed a meeting by ten minutes and gave me a quick tour. That gesture stuck with me as he took the time to accommodate a new graduate student even though the demand on his position and schedule was/is enormous. The passion the Lilly Library staff exhibit toward education within the field of rare books/materials is truly amazing. I still model my approach in teaching and talking about book history after Joel Silver, Erika Dowell, and Cherry Williams. The courses I took with them modeled knowledge, patience, and inclusion in teaching subject matter.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
Taking courses at an institution like the Lilly Library allowed me to handle items such as a Dunlap Broadside, Thomas Jefferson's first census, first editions of any novel I was assigned in undergrad, etc. The most memorable material I handled was in a manuscripts course, taught by Cherry Williams--now Director of Distinctive Collections at UC--Riverside. We were given a box each, told to look through the materials and give a report to the class at the end of an hour. My materials happened to be from the Kurt Vonnegut collection. In several folders were receipts and terms negotiated for payments/royalties from film studios for the rights to his works. I loved it because I worked for a number of years as a projectionist, cinema manager, and cinema marketing officer.
What do you personally collect?
Books about books. When I started the MLS program at IU, I started buying general interest books to read more about library history and book culture. Then I turned my eye toward rarer editions, everything from fine press books to first editions of novels featuring aspects of book culture. The comic books, movie posters, guitars, 35mm film prints and screen prints I collected beforehand were pieced apart and portions sold to finance my new collecting interest--and make room. I took Joel Silver's Reference Sources for Rare Books course and I added his weekly lists to my purchasing agenda and started working through it. I am gleefully at the point now concerning volume that I am sometimes surprised I have certain titles. For instance, I had been saving to purchase the two-volume first edition of Holbrook Jackson's Anatomy of Bibliomania only to run across it on one of my bookshelves and I have no recollection how I ended up with it. That feeling is disorienting and amazing at the same time.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I teach. I am lucky enough that the Honors College at Indiana State University allowed me join their ranks. I get to take subject matter I am passionate about, design courses and teach undergraduates of all levels. Two of my staple courses are on book culture--titled Clay to Kindle: A History of the Book--and on film--Summer of 1982: A Critical Look at the Greatest Summer of Cinema. It is a rare opportunity, which I am thankful to have, where I get to work in special collections in a public library and teach in academia. If any spare time pops up, I am hunting first editions or conducting market research for KJB Theaters, a local cinema chain headquartered in Terre Haute.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
Opportunity. In a way, I think the shift in academia that started thirty years ago or so--to purge the humanities of printing history/context, the study of bibliography, and the importance of the physical book--left a void that is gradually being filled today, to the benefit of our current field of professionals. The public is interested in what we have to offer. You need look no further than a television show like Pawn Stars where you can see the number of segments featuring rare books and ephemera progressively increase season by season. The public loves interacting with history though many simply do not know where they can.
There is so much opportunity in the various fields within rare book culture that librarians can shoot for the moon as long as they let their passion drive them. Whether it is engaging and communicating with potential donors to plan collection expansion, podcasting, public information sessions, representing the field to local schools, etc. you can completely forge the career you want. While I certainly have personal bias toward physical collections, digital consortiums and repositories are fantastic tools for cementing purpose and relevance to communicate the value of our profession. Changing from niche to normal is within our grasp because of this opportunity but we have to pay for it with ingenuity and sweat equity due to budget fluctuations and cuts. In an ideal world, the money would pour in, but instead we have to create and adapt.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship, especially in public library settings?
There is certainly a place for special collections/rare book librarianship in public libraries. The key to sustainability in our area is being proactive. As libraries face continued budget cuts and the conversation inevitably turns to local need and the economy, public librarians working within special collections need to forge as many connections within the community as possible to make it harder for boards and administration to justify offloading collections to historical societies and universities--or flat out selling them.
A proactive stance is where librarians engage the community by visiting classrooms, giving tours and lectures to community groups about specialized holdings, and educating the public about the value of primary resources. Interpersonal engagement and positive attitudes are key components. The more local connections cemented, the harder it is to remove special collections in lieu of something like a community daycare center. Public libraries need to look for public outreach personnel who have interpersonal skills, just like sales people, to sell the value of collections and the institution to the larger community. If public outreach is not at the forefront, then special collections in many public libraries will be cut.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
Absolutely! We have several and I am always finding something new. We have a fascinating collection of rare materials donated in the early 1900s by a wealthy bibliophile/Alpine climbing enthusiast--Henry Fairbanks Montagnier--with family ties to Terre Haute. Montagnier donated a collection of rare books and maps in the areas of literature, history, and Americana.
We also have the papers of Jane Dabney Shackelford, a local teacher known for writing one of the first children's books featuring African American characters in positive portrayals. In the Jane Dabney Shackelford collection, we have several rare first editions of novels by Zora Neale Hurston--inscribed by the author, all with dust jackets intact. It was by happy circumstance that our NEA Big Read selection last year was Their Eyes Were Watching God. My department curated an exhibit with the incredibly scarce first edition of Eyes as the centerpiece.
And last but not least, we have materials from the early 1900s when famous landscape architect George Kessler created a plan for Terre Haute to have an "emerald necklace" of green spaces and parks. Unfortunately, only a portion of the plan became realized, but it is fascinating to see what could have been.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
We are finishing prep on an exhibit detailing the history of brewing in Terre Haute. While Terre Haute is undoubtedly more famous as the birthplace of the Coca-Cola bottle, the city pins other feathers to its cap thanks to a rich brewing history. Local breweries pioneered the twist--off bottle cap and first implemented bottling dates. In 1935, Terre Haute boasted the largest brewery bottling line in America at the Terre Haute Brewing Co. And of course, the famous Champagne Velvet--the pilsner with the "million dollar flavor"--was created and brewed in Terre Haute.
Image courtesy of Matt Bird