Bright Young Librarians: Rebecca Baumann
I am the Head of Public Services at Indiana University's Lilly Library; as such, I oversee all public functions of the library, including reference, instruction, social media, and outreach. I also assist the Director and Associate Director with publicity, exhibition planning, and development. I supervise a team of the hardest-working, smartest, and wittiest women you will ever meet: Maureen Maryanski, Sarah Mitchell, and Isabel Planton.
Before I was in this position, I was the Education and Outreach Librarian; and before I became a librarian, I taught with the IU Department of English for seven years--so it is natural that I see librarianship as inherently pedagogical. Everything we do in Public Services, including reference and exhibitions, serves our mission to teach people how they can understand the past through handling rare books and archival material. In my six years working full time at the Lilly Library, I have personally taught over 600 individual class sessions on rare books and manuscripts, helping thousands of people have moments of wonder, surprise, and new understanding. Our programs of outreach and active learning serve not only IU students and faculty but also K-12 students, members of the community, and just about anyone else who wanders in and is willing to listen to us. All of this is to say that through my various roles at the Lilly Library, my role has essentially remained "teacher." At the same time, nothing makes me happier than remaining a student as well. I am extremely fortunate to be able to learn every day from some incredible bookmen and bookwomen, including Joel Silver, Erika Dowell, and Jim Canary. I also learn from the library itself, and you can find me (if you don't get lost) trawling the stacks for new discoveries on pretty much any given day.
How did you get started in rare books?
I came to IU in 2002 to pursue an advanced degree in English Literature. I got my MA and was floundering around in fits and starts with a dissertation, feeling increasingly disillusioned about my own future in academia. During that time, I worked as a student desk attendant at the Lilly Library and had my mind blown on a daily basis by the beautiful, rare, and interesting material passing through my hands and into the hands of our patrons. I started realizing that books as physical objects mattered. I was seeing texts that I had read and written papers about and coming to understand that their physical properties could tell me something about the people who wrote them, printed them, and read them. At the same time, I was stunned by how nice librarians were--that they actually wanted to share knowledge instead of hoard it. In the middle of the recession, feeling like there was no chance of ever getting a job in academia, I decided to enroll in the MLS program at IU with a specialization in special collections.
I'm sure it will come as no surprise to readers of FB&C that the classes taught by Joel Silver changed my life. Just imagine getting three-hour versions of "Beyond the Basics" every week, and feel free to writhe with envy! Joel taught me how to collate a book, how to make use of hundreds of reference sources for rare books, how to navigate this at times mazy profession, and, most importantly, how to make a life for myself doing what I love--thinking about, learning about, and sharing rare books and manuscripts.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
I fall deeply and passionately in love with something new on a weekly basis, but I can say that overall I tend to gravitate toward material that was cheap when issued. As much as I swoon over gorgeous and lavish hand-press-era books, what really revs me up are books and ephemera on cheap paper, crammed with tiny type, that show how much people wanted--needed--to read. I am drawn toward the machine-press era because I am very passionate about "books for everyone." I'm also obsessed with the formation of various genres of fiction, so I love the 19th century as the sort of cradle period of science fiction, weird tales, and detective fiction (and yes, I know there are much earlier precedents--don't @ me).
One of my favorite collections at the Lilly Library is "London Low Life," which includes broadsides, pamphlets, periodicals, and books dealing with the seamy underbelly of late Victorian London. We get to meet Boulton and Park, the men who were put on trial for dressing in women's clothes; Henry Wainwright, the brushmaker who hacked up his mistress and stored her head in a bag; and all sorts of scoundrels, rogues, and saucy ladies. I also love our deep collection of science fiction pulps, including complete or nearly-complete runs of Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, and Thrilling Wonder Tales. But I suppose my single favorite piece of the collection at this moment is our 1818 first edition of Frankenstein, around which I have recently been building an exhibition (see below).
What do you personally collect?
I am one of those people who has collecting in her DNA. My grandparents collected everything from cheap books to beer cans to bottles of dirt, and I seem to have inherited that gift/curse. While I believe that one need not collect to be a great librarian, for me the development of taste and technique in my own collections is central to my personal philosophy and practice of rare book librarianship, and so I have a number of active collecting areas. My largest collection is of crime, science fiction, horror, and smut paperbacks from the 1940s-60s. I have over 1,000 of these, but my collecting parameters are eccentric at best--basically, the weirder the better. The gem of that collection is probably Panda Bear Passion by Orrie Hitt (you can Google the slightly NSFW cover). I also collect books and magazines related to horror film, and recently purchased issue #1 of Famous Monsters of Filmland, which is a bit of a grail item for me. I am also a huge fan of Centipede Press, and I collect as many of their loving reissues of weird and horror fiction as I can. I collect Arkham House books when I can find them; this collection contains my favorite book that I own, which is a third printing of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness with the bookplate of Thomas Ligotti, inscribed for me by Ligotti, my favorite living horror writer. Finally the collecting area which I most hope to cultivate in the future is a small cabinet collection of late 19th and early 20th-century volumes of weird tales. My most recent acquisition are a this area is a copy of Bessie Kyffin-Taylor's scarce and neglected collection of supernatural stories From Out of the Silence (1920), which I purchased from my favorite bookslinger, Jonathan Kearns.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I am one of those misfits whose life is almost entirely shaped by books. My hobbies are basically collecting books, reading, and... hmmm, let's see... thinking about books. I devour massive quantities of fiction in my free time: weird tales, horror, science fiction, crime, or anything that strikes my fancy. I am currently obsessing over the neglected author Rachel Ingells and considering putting together a collection of all her first editions.
Aside from books, I am a horror film fanatic. I have a collection of upwards of 500 horror, science fiction, and exploitation films--and I tend to forget that that is pretty impressive because I'm so focused on books. But if you want to chat about the lesbian vampire craze of the early 1970s, which kaiju would triumph in a battle royale, the nuanced history of Hammer Studios, or the relative likelihood of surviving fast versus slow zomibes, I am your ghoul.
I also have an incredible family: a wife who is as eccentric as I am (one of her hobbies is lock-picking, and she writes about the history of ectoplasm), two dogs (including a Great Pyrenees puppy), and five delightful and devilish cats.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
I am excited to see barriers being smashed. Rare books are for everyone, and my experience has taught me that there are so many people who are interested in learning more about rare books and the stories they have to tell. I am excited about so many new people coming into our field as librarians, booksellers, collectors, and fans. Social media allows us to share our interests and the beautiful and rare material we have with a much wider audience (shameless plug to follow the Lilly Library @IULillyLibrary and to follow me @arkhamlibrarian). Social media has helped me find other people out there in my own special niche of weird fiction: other people who go all gooey for books full of protoplasmic monstrosities, slithery tentacles, and ambulatory fungi. The potential for weirdos to find one another has never been greater, and for book people, that is a wonderful thing indeed!
I love reading about the history of book collecting, and one thing I've learned is that every generation of collectors think that the golden age has just passed and that the truly "great" books are now either permanently settled in institutions or prohibitively expensive. But what I see now is that the horizons of collectorship are limitless. We are just barely starting to scratch the surface of different kinds of material that can and should be interesting and possible for both libraries and individuals to collect.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
I am very fortunate to be in close contact with many future librarians. As adjunct faculty with the Department of Information and Library Science at IU, I teach three courses for aspiring librarians: The Book, 1450 to the Present is a survey of 500+ years of printing history and culture; Rare Book Librarianship is a course focused on professionalization, which introduces students to our field and prepares them for the job market; and Rare Book Curatorship is a course which allows students to explore the history of collectorship and begin to develop their own collecting and curatorial techniques.
In my teaching, I try very hard to balance an enthusiasm for the future, an appreciation of the history of our field, and an open-minded willingness to challenge long-held beliefs and expand the field in exciting new ways. Each year brings a more diverse and interesting batch of students into our profession, and I can tell you resoundingly that there is a fantastic array of "bright young librarians" coming up in the field. The best students--and there are many!--are those driven by an insatiable curiosity to learn and a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.
One of the things that excites me most about the future of our field is the increasing amount of conversation and collaboration between booksellers and librarians, and I hope that my own path will include an increasing amount of such collaboration in teaching, exhibitions, and other areas. Continuing a tradition started by Joel Silver, I invited Andrew Gaub of Bruce McKittrick Rare Books and Henry Wessells of James Cummins Bookseller to speak to my class of aspiring librarians last year. Their advice to aspiring librarians: "be curious and learn languages." I would add: "be a voracious and inquisitive reader of bookseller catalogues." We have so much to learn from our colleagues in the book trade, and my gratitude for what I have learned and continue to learn from them is boundless. People like Rebecca Romney and Heather O'Donnell of Honey & Wax Booksellers are doing incredible and inspiring work to help encourage future generations of collectors with their collecting prize, and I see more such scholarships and encouragements on the near horizon.
One of my personal goals is to find additional ways for librarians and booksellers to collaborate. Jonathan Kearns has graciously provided a beautiful introduction for my Frankenstein exhibition catalogue (see below), as well as providing a great deal of intellectual and curatorial support for the exhibition's conception and execution. I will be attending the London Antiquarian Book Fair (my first major fair!) with Jonathan this summer to start to see behind the scenes of what these booksellers do; they are my bibliographic heroes.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
All of it! Come visit us, and we will show you wonders. If I have to pick just one, I will select our incredible collection of detective fiction, the core of which comes from the library of John Carter, who pioneered collecting in this genre, especially with his bibliographical study of detective fiction in New Paths in Book Collecting (1934). The following year, Scribner's issued a catalogue devoted to the genre, largely comprised of books Carter himself had collected. If you want to weep, take a gander at the prices in that catalogue! The collection was immediately sold to a woman named Mrs. Van Gerbig. David Randall (who never let the truth get in the way of a good story, so take this with a grain of salt) describes the encounter in his autobiography: "The very day the catalogue was put into the mail a lady walked in, saw the books and promptly bought the entire group. She was not a collector... she just like to read detective stories, and here was a whole batch of them she had never heard of. Her husband had something to do with the police department, she confided, and after reading these she thought it would be nice to present them to the department's library." We'll never know how this plan went awry, but when Mrs. Van Gerbig died, the entire collection of 388 books was intact, and her lawyers sold them back to Scribner's for the same price she had paid. Scribner's immediately contacted Dave Randall, who had admired the collection when he was there and had now moved on to become the first Lilly Librarian. He was voraciously buying on the library's behalf; the year was 1958, two years before the Lilly opened. Randall took the lot. A handful of high spot items which Mr. Lilly had in his collection were traded for 134 wonderful titles.
I often have "we have that?!" moments regarding this collection: rare Fergus Hume novels, The Red Thumb Mark, Lingo Dan, Dorcas Dene in the original wrappers... I could go on all day.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
Yes! Our next major exhibition (which I curated) is Frankenstein 200: The Birth, Life, and Resurrection of Mary Shelley's Monster, opening April 2 and running through December 15. The centerpiece of the exhibition is our stunning copy of the 1818 first edition of Frankenstein in contemporary boards--an exceptionally fine copy purchased in 1939 by J.K. Lilly, Jr. from A.S.W. Rosenbach (who acquired it from the sale of the library of Frank Brewer Bemis).
The exhibition focuses on the way in which Frankenstein was monstrously and magically stitched together from other books. Mary Shelley, almost from her birth, was a voracious reader, and Frankenstein is a mad experiment of piecing together autobiography, travelogue, ghost stories, folklore, and orts of science, philosophy, and poetry that she had read, discussed with her circle of eccentric friends, digested, and repurposed into her own entirely unique intellectual child. The exhibition also highlights the work of Mary Shelley's parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and the circle of friends gathered at the Villa Diodati in the stormy summer of 1816 who all contributed seeds to the gestation of the novel: Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, and John Polidori. Within the novel itself, each character is shaped utterly by his or her reading, and our exhibition displays some of the books that molded the novel's characters as well as its author. The second half of the exhibition focuses on the way in which Frankenstein has become a nexus, a node, a universe unto itself, spawning and inspiring new texts, new ideas, and new monsters in a dizzying array of configurations that would baffle even the maddest mixer of potions, molder of homunculi, or splicer of genes.
I also had the thrilling (and exhausting) opportunity to write an exhibition catalogue, published by IU Press and due out in mid-April.
(Photo credit Zach Downey)