Our series profiling the next generation of special collections librarians and curators continues today with Sean Visintainer, Special Collections Librarian and Curator of the Herman T Pott National Inland Waterways Library at the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.
What is your role at your institution? Please introduce us as well to the St. Louis Mercantile Library; a unique library that I'm not sure all of our readers will be familiar with.
I am the Curator of the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library, a special collection at the St. Louis Mercantile Library - University of Missouri at St. Louis, and also a special collections librarian at the Library. The Mercantile Library is the oldest existing general library west of the Mississippi River, founded in 1846. From its inception the Mercantile has been a membership library, which includes borrowing privileges, discounts on research fees, publications, and attendance at our many yearly exhibition openings, lectures, colloquia, book signings, and other events. The Library's core collection focuses on St. Louis and regional history, westward expansion, exploration and science, the American river and rail experiences, rare books and the book arts, and the humanities.
Being part of a small staff with large ambitions, my day-to-day duties are fluid and varied, which makes my work exciting and challenging. I work on collections processing and description; website design and editing; collection development; both in terms of rare books and archival collections; donor and board relations; presentations and talks; exhibition design; and special events and programs logistics. Lately, I've been working to develop the University of Missouri system's new digital library instance, which has been at times interesting, daunting, and educational, sometimes all at once.
How did you get started in rare books?
While attending the University of Missouri at Columbia for my MLS, I took a class on special libraries, which turned out to be really eye-opening in terms of the possibilities of employment in the field. We students got to tour the operations of architectural libraries, federal libraries, law libraries, medical libraries, corporate libraries, and many more institutions, but the libraries that really grabbed me were the special collections and rare books libraries. There is something incredibly evocative about holding a rare book or historic archival item in your hand - it is a tangible and powerful link to our culture and history, and to the trials, travails and issues faced by our ancestors. I knew from the first moment that I stood in one that I wanted to work in a rare books and special collections library.
Have you worked at other institutions as well?
I did some graduate work for the HOK Architectural Research Library, and I worked as a board member for the Rupununi Learners Foundation, an organization dedicated to increasing literacy and environmental conservation in the Rupununi region of Guyana, South America. Libraries are a big part of the Rupununi Learners Foundation's literacy efforts. If I weren't in the special collections and rare books field I could be perfectly happy working on literacy and digital divide issues in the developing world.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
It is tough to say that I have just one, but a few items stand out to me. The Mercantile's material with the broadest appeal is probably our signed Audubon double elephant folio Birds of America. The Birdshave the size, value, beauty and provenance to really awe viewers. From our inland rivers collection, I really love Zadok Cramer's early river guides, The Navigator, released yearly in the early 1800s. These books existed before much mapping and description was available for America's inland rivers, and they contain a lot of really interesting content, from local history and lore, early maps, travelers' information, and even an early mention of the Lewis and Clark journey. Not only river guides, but also drivers of immigration, facilitators of commerce, travel guides and historical artifacts, the importance of these books really bellies their modest appearance.
What do you personally collect?
I've been collecting as many auction and bookseller catalogs and bibliographies as I can get my hands on - a direct effect of my director, friend and mentor, John Hoover. I also collect St. Louis and regional history, cookbooks and travel guides. Travel guides are particularly interesting to me, because the information can be so ephemeral - post-civil war Syria, for example, will be a much different place than it was ten years ago.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
There will be some really cool technological possibilities coming down the line that could directly impact rare book librarianship. For example, a colleague recently introduced me to Clavin, which might one day be used for applications like geotagging and mapping old travel narratives, or 19th century city directories. With more books being digitized every day and more useful technology being invented, I suspect that the future of special collections and rare book librarianship will look very different than it does today. It is a lot of fun to try and keep up with everything that is developing in the digital world, and to plan future possibilities for use in our Library.
Of course, digital representations, even with all their bells and whistles, can't compete with a real, tangible object. I love researching and purchasing materials for the Library's collections. There is something indescribably enjoyable about locating a work that I've been on the hunt for, or turning something up that I wasn't aware of, and knowing that it will strengthen the Library's collections.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
As described a bit above, I think it will be imperative for rare books librarians to keep abreast of everything happening in the digital world, with an eye towards how to utilize those happenings in the future.
I also think that with the time for physical research at the Library likely diminishing in the future, two things are important to keep in mind for the future: 1) keeping stats of digital use could end up being a large justification for the department or library down the line; and 2) outreach, especially in terms of programming and exhibitions, will be another great way to justify the continual acquisitions of rare books and related materials.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
Both of our transportation libraries are top-notch. We are and deserve to be on the "to see" lists of any serious researcher, author, media company or publisher working on rail and river transportation. My director has spent many years assembling a fantastic Indian captivities collection as well - the library has a sizable amount of these documents, in book and manuscript form.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
We've got pretty full exhibition calendar for the upcoming year. In January, I'll be opening an exhibition with our railroad curator, Nick Fry, called Most Marvelous Machines, which will tell the story of steam travel in America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nick will also be putting together an exhibition about the railroad industry's impact on and support of American elections, Whistle Stops: Campaigning by Train. We've also got in the works exhibitions related to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis next year; Mapping St. Louis,about the early mapping of the city, and From Chouteau to Scharf, which will showcase the early printed histories of the city.