Bright Young Librarians: Sara Trotta
I'm the Librarian at the Congregational Library & Archives. We're a small staff, so everyone does a little bit of everything, but I'm primarily responsible for our published materials. I catalog our printed material, support research within the collections, and plan outreach activities. Currently, I'm managing a collection-wide inventory and a processing project to provide better description to some of the institution's core collections relating to mid-20th-century denominational merger and the published reports of a variety of 19th-century benevolent societies.
The Congregational Library & Archives was founded in 1853 as a library for Congregational ministers and has evolved into a research center collecting material on the history of the Congregational church from the Puritans to the present incarnation of the denomination in the United Church of Christ, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches and the Conservative Congregational Christian Churches. The history of Congregationalism is intimately bound up with early American history and the social movements in which Congregationalists actively participated such as abolition, temperance, and women's suffrage.
How did you get started in rare books?
When I was an undergraduate at Boston University, I took a course in modern American poetry; the professor brought us to the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center so we could look through the personal papers and rough drafts of the poets we were studying--Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop. For the first time, I felt like I was participating in a larger scholarly understanding of the material I was studying and like my work was serious enough to warrant a glimpse behind the curtain.
At Simmons, I took a course on the history of the book with Sidney Berger. His enthusiasm for the topic was infectious, and I was hooked. As my capstone project, I interned at the Congregational Library, assisting with the cataloging of local church history material and answering reference questions. I had the good fortune to graduate just as my supervisor moved on to a new job and was offered the position of Assistant Librarian.
Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?
School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
This question is so difficult because I find something new and wonderful in the stacks several times a week. One of my favorite things that I've come across is a copy of "The Theological Works of Thomas Paine" previously owned by someone who clearly hated Thomas Paine. Nearly every page contains angry marginalia, including the frontispiece where the caption "Thomas Paine" is followed by "aka the devil." I love getting a glimpse into a book's past lives and seeing how its previous owners interacted with it.
What do you personally collect?
I'm a casual collector of books on folklore, fairy tales, and urban legends. I'm fascinated by the way what are essentially the same stories get told over and over again just with different window dressing. What stays constant and what gets changed and why? I'm particularly fond of books with interesting publishers bindings.Outside of books, I collect magnets from my travels.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I like to spend my free time reading, doing yoga, and painting old furniture. I also have a soft spot for kitschy tourist traps. Last year, a coworker and I drove up to Portland, Maine, to go to the International Cryptozoology Museum.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
Special collections are inherently expansive. Every item in the collection can be engaged with on a variety of levels--its content, the physical object, all of the markings of its previous owners and the stops it made along the way to finding its place in our collection. There is always another thread to follow and something new to learn.
I love that I have the chance not only to share all the weird and wonderful things I find at work with people who are as excited by them as I am but also to show people that rare books are part of a shared historical record and this history belongs to them too. The Library is situated not too far off of Boston's Freedom Trail, so we have a fair amount of people who wander into our reading room, which is open to the public, to ask about some of the more well-known items in our collection. They're often surprised when I ask if they'd like to take a look and offer to bring the item down for them. I love that I'm able to feed people's curiosity and show them that their curiosity alone is a good enough reason to use our material.
Recently we had a group of middle schoolers come through for a confirmation class. I had brought out some Bible story trading cards from the collection to show them and was surprised by how interesting they found them. They were very excited to tell me about the trading cards their church printed and later sent us a pack to be added to the collection. I love that this job gives me the opportunity to facilitate this dialog between past and present and help others see themselves reflected in our collections.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
Without exception, everyone I've met working in special collections is incredibly passionate about their work and excited to share it with the world. There are so many conversations taking place about breaking down old barriers and increasing accessibility to and inclusiveness of our collections. I'm excited about the ways that rare books and special collections can be used to support the practices of public history. People deserve to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the historical record not only because it makes the record more complete, but also they then have a stake in its preservation. I look forward to seeing how our definition of who uses special collections and what is worthy of collecting continue to expand.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
Congregationalists liked to keep tabs on what other denominations were getting up to, and because the bulk of our printed collection is from the 19th-century, this means we've acquired a significant amount of material on Spiritualism, a religious movement based on the belief that it is possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead. We have a host of pamphlets by both advocates and critics which include discussions of Satanic agency and table-turning and discourses on government from the spirit of Thomas Jefferson as told through a medium 27 years after his death. Items from this collection are great to trot out for Halloween, but they also show how these different religious movements remained in dialogue with one another.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
It's in the very early stages, but we're planning an exhibition of the S. Brainard Pratt Collection. Pratt was a local businessman, president of the Bible Illuminators' Guild, director of the American Congregational Association and avid collector of Bibles and biblical literature. We'll be celebrating the completion of an inventory of the collection and showcasing conservation work done on two bibles Pratt illuminated himself. This collection boasts some of the Library's most unique and interesting items, from human bones to a spiritualist bible. Our intern, Brittnee Worthy, has done a tremendous amount of work uncovering the stories behind the items in the collection, and I'm very excited to share them with the public.
[Image provided by Sara Trotta]