How did you get started in rare books?
When I was an undergraduate, I had a summer job at a local university library where I pasted labels on the spines of books and did inventory. That summer, the library acquired the collection of a nearby seminary which had closed its doors, and the director asked me to look through the books, determine whether the library already owned the titles, and find records in WorldCat or the National Union Catalog for the new materials. The books were mostly from the sixteenth through eighteenth century, and they were like no books I had ever seen before: the paper was thicker, the bindings were plain at first glance but showed signs of both wear and tooling, and the text was a fascinating mix of fonts, languages, and strange spacing. I was unable to read most of the books, and I was not particularly interested in the subject matter, the majority of which was church history and biblical commentaries, but the objects themselves were fascinating to me.
Then, my senior year in college, I took a class on the history of the book, which included a lab component. Two days a week we discussed readings and looked at materials from special collections, but on Fridays we went to the print studio and learned to make paper, set type, and create different types of prints. Our final project was to print and bind a book, which was added to the library's collection.
Both these experiences, where I got to think about books as objects and not just texts, led me to decide to apply to library school so that I could work in rare books and special collections.
Where did you earn your advanced degrees?
I earned my MLS, with a specialization in rare books librarianship, from Indiana University, where I was privileged to work at the Lilly Library and spend time with their amazing collections. I also have a master's degree in English from Western Illinois University.
What is your role at your institution?
I am the head of Quaker & Special Collections and Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts. Haverford has a small special collections department, so I do a little bit of everything: teaching, collection development, working with researchers in the reading room, overseeing student workers/interns and their projects, working with donors, planning exhibits, and administrative work. One of the things I love about working at a liberal arts college is the ability to be involved in so many different things.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
There are so many! I love the Microcosm of London, an 1808-1810 Ackermann publication that documents low and high life in London through text and aquatints. It is fascinating how, in such an expensive publication, time is taken to document asylums and prisons and other places that seem like odd choices for a plate book. Haverford is the home of one of the few extant copies of William Penn's Excellent Priviledge (1687), which includes the first printing of the Magna Carta in what is now the United States; our copy has great Quaker provenance, as well, having been owned by several generations of the Pemberton family. A bibliography describes it as "the worst specimen of Bradford's [the printer's] work I have ever seen," which is an interesting opening for conversations with students about how something can be important and interesting as an object without being beautiful. I am also very excited about a rare Zapotec catechism, published in Mexico in 1766, that we have recently acquired, around which one of our linguistics professors plans to design a class.
What do you personally collect?
I collect books illustrated by artists from the Whig and Powder school. These are mostly 1890s publications by illustrators such as Hugh Thompson and Charles and Henry Brock. This started as a working collection, because I was writing on how these illustrators changed the meaning of the novels they were working with through their illustrations, but I now enjoy expanding my collection. I also have a small collection of Roycroft Press books; I grew up not far from East Aurora, NY, where Roycroft was based, and in years past it was quite easy to find them in antique and thrift shops.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I love dance and theater, so I try to attend a variety of performances throughout the year; I also take a regular ballet class. I am an avid baker, as my co-workers can attest, so I spend time creating recipes and reading cookbooks and blogs. I can also frequently be found walking or hiking, cooking or dining out with friends, knitting, or playing trivia. As a relatively recent Philadelphia transplant, I have also been exploring the city's historical sites, libraries, and neighborhoods.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
I enjoy connecting researchers, especially undergraduate students, with rare materials, ones that change their perspective or lead them in new directions. This was something I learned early in library school: that while I love rare books, what I enjoy most about working with them is connecting people to them, and seeing how researchers use our materials in ways I might never dream.
One of my favorite things about my job at Haverford is that we have a number of faculty who integrate special collections materials into their classes throughout the semester, so I get to work with students over the course of their research projects and see how they grow as interpreters and readers of the materials, as well as how they put these materials in conversation with their classmates' projects and the themes of the course.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
Special Collections is a locus for many current trends in higher education, including an increased interest in material culture, an emphasis on visuality and visual studies, and a focus on locality and local resources. Simultaneously, we as a profession have become more open, expanding our collecting areas, especially in ephemera and popular culture; creating digital projects and repositories that allow users to remix and manipulate our materials; and focusing on outreach to new communities, while also deconstructing and rethinking what it means to collect and preserve materials. I think one of the keys for special collections librarianship moving forward is to evaluate how these changes have affected not just what we do day-to-day but also our missions and staffing, and how we can make sure these exciting new opportunities are sustainable. It's an exciting time to be working in special collections.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
Haverford is best known for its Quaker collections, which are world-renowned and amazing; I continually feel privileged to work with them. However, I wish people were more aware of some of our holdings beyond Quakerism, which are wide-ranging and eclectic. We have strong holdings in the anti-slavery movement in the U.S. We have a small but exciting collection of Shakespearean literature; collected by an alumnus who was inspired by his English professor, it includes both works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries as well as pieces that Shakespeare may have read. We also have the papers of Murray Freeman, a computer scientist who helped to develop standards for the internet as well as an excellent fine art photography collection, with particular strength in photos of and by African-Americans.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
We just took down one of my favorite exhibits that I've ever worked on, about Modernism, pacifism, and the Spanish Civil War. Fortunately, its digital component of student-created material lives on. Our spring exhibit is "Carl Van Vechten: O, Write My Name - Portraits of the Harlem Renaissance and Beyond," which features materials from our photography and rare books collections, and I'm very much looking forward to a student-curated exhibit next academic year on the history of astronomy and the telescope.