Our series profiling the next generation of special collections librarians and curators continues today with Richard Ring, Head Curator and Librarian of the Watkinson Library, Trinity College, in Hartford, Connecticut.
How did you get started in rare books?
My interest in rare books began in graduate school at the Ohio State University (I was an M.A. candidate in English from 1994-1996), when I studied William Camden's Britannia in all of its editions, from the small first Latin edition of 1586 to the great 4-volume folio edition edited by William Gough published in 1806--which I actually checked out of the OSU library in 1995! (You know a book-nerd when you see him staggering under a stack of thick volumes, each the size of a cookie sheet, across the quad). Mostly I was fascinated by how the text grew over two centuries, first in Camden's hands, and then in those of his successors.
I disliked the hyper-theoretical discourse that was so prevalent in the early 90s, and it was clear that the life of a literary scholar was not what I had imagined (i.e., puffing a pipe in a book-lined office). Seriously though, I wanted more practical work. One of my professors suggested I speak to Joel Silver, then Curator of Books (now Director) of the Lilly Library at Indiana University, about going into rare book librarianship. I visited Bloomington, Joel took me on a tour of the stacks, and I was hooked. I went to IU for my MLS and spent every minute I could in the Lilly, doing anything they would let me do, and it was the most fabulous experience.
What is your role at your institution?
My title is Head Curator & Librarian of the Watkinson Library--but put simply, I am the head of special collections. The Watkinson is a library within a library. It was a separate institution for 85 years before it was conveyed to Trinity College in 1950, and folded into the Trinity College Library. Think of a small liberal arts college suddenly receiving 130,000 volumes, most of them rare or special! Those books were merged with Trinity's rare books, and currently we have over 175,000 volumes. So it is a huge rare book collection relative to the size of the school (2,200 undergraduates and less than 100 graduate students). We have our own endowment and Board of Trustees, but it is still a division of the College Library. There are not many places like it.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
It changes, depending on what I've recently bought. I like a broad range of stuff, and I'm always looking for unique things that would make a good paper project (or even a thesis) for an undergraduate, as well as making sense with our existing strengths. Currently I am enamored of 19th c. games, especially those dealing with history and interesting manuscript material.
What do you personally collect?
I don't collect for myself--only for the institution.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
I like that every item we have contains, inherently, many stories; I like that there are thousands upon thousands of items, and millions of stories, and that I get to try to tell some of them every day to a (mostly) appreciative audience. Most of all, I like to create an environment where curiosity, inspiration, and discovery is contagious and electrifying. One way I've done this at Trinity is through my Creative Fellowship Program for undergraduates. Here is the program website and here are our two Fall Fellows. We are funding four Fellows this spring.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
If we play our cards right, it can be the sexiest part of the library world with the most physical growth potential. If you want more of my ideas, you'll need to meet my consulting fee.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
Another impossible question, but I love that we have a collection of British and American Valentine's Day cards back to the 1840s, and several hundred British playbills from 1790-1830; If you want to know what's happening, what we're buying, and what I like, see my blog The Bibliophile's Lair.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
In the spring I like to have student-curated exhibitions, to show off during Commencement and Reunion Weekend. Every fall I teach a course in the American Studies department on museum and library exhibitions, and my students curate their own shows "soup to nuts," - not just telling a story with artifacts, but also fundraising, planning and budgeting for an opening event and producing a published catalog. This fall I had 13 students, and each one did their own show, so I called the collective exhibition "Lucky 13." The shows will be on display through June 15 (each student has one case in the library, and an online extension using an Omeka platform will be up soon).