Bright Young Librarians: Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty

Wesley Chenault

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty, Associate University Librarian at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Ms. Evangelestia-Dougherty spearheaded Cornell Library's transition to Rare and Distinctive (RAD) Collections.

Please introduce our readers to RAD and your work on that very interesting initiative:

My Associate University Librarian (AUL) position at Cornell University Library (CUL) is newly created. From the very beginning, I wanted to implement a reimagined approach to special collections that cultivated a community of collaboration between curators and library liaisons. I also wanted to be inclusive of rare and “medium rare” collections in our subject libraries. My first eight months involved a lot of listening to librarians, curators, faculty and students. It also involved a lot of self- reflection on my own experience working at other Ivy Plus academic libraries…and a lot of contemplation. Cornell University is a very special place. We see all of our libraries as forming a constellation. I wanted to create a model for special collections that made all Cornell librarians feel vested and consulted -- not only archivists and curators. A model that draws us all closer to the core of our mission that goes beyond treasures in chambers or vaults.  In the world we live today, amidst calls for social justice and racial equity special collections are never meant to be neatly packaged. They represent a wide geographical and intellectual environment. As a power construct, special collections must be connected and always engaged in institutional conversations that interrogate historical questions of today. CUL needed something that allowed the true inclusivity and versatility of our collections to emerge.  

I created Cornell RAD as a working space and a gathering place for holistic dialogue and work around rare and distinctive collections to happen. Cornell RAD stands for Cornell Rare and Distinctive Collections. RAD explores the broad reach of our collections through a variety of programs and initiatives. It challenges the conventional interpretation of special collections as only non-circulating rare books, archives and manuscripts. Where many institutions grapple with definitions of “specialness,” RAD follows a more elastic model of the interpretation and is inclusive of distinctive collections. Distinctive collections may be circulating but play a significant role in shaping our institutional heritage as a library. Similar to our rare collections, our distinctive collections hold many stories and form our identity. The RAD initiative establishes their importance and strengths in ways that is both publicly acknowledged (#CORNELLRAD social media campaign) and unacknowledged or behind the scenes such as representation for liaisons at stakeholder meetings. For example, one aspect of Cornell Library’s intellectual legacy that deserves greater attention are our STEM related rare and distinctive collections. There is much to be discovered in Mann Library’s agriculture and life science collections. The same holds true for our engineering Llbrary. I have been working with Michael Cook. Head of Collection Development & Digital Collection at Mann Library and Jill Powell our engineering librarian to elevate STEM collections which are limitless in their potential.

How did you get started in special collections.

The library came for me before special collections. I attribute my affinity for libraries to my family. As a place of knowledge and nurturing, the library has always been like a second parent to me. My mother was raising my brother and I alone on Chicago’s west side. The Chicago Public library always figured prominently as a place for community gathering. My brother was 15 years senior to me and became involved in the Black Panthers and Operation PUSH. Organizational meetings were held at the library and he would double duty as activist and my baby sitter. Four years old and bored, I would slip away from the meetings and read the books. My mother understood the library’s power to bestow knowledge and to comfort. When she was working, the library was my after school hangout. When the summers were hot, no air conditioner at home and we needed a place to cool, there was the library. While my mother and I were homeless during a period in the 1980s, the library kept our intellect nourished and our bodies warm.

So, the Library came first -- rare and manuscript collections are an extension of that.

Chicago Public Schools had a requirement that we participate in the Chicago History Fair. Every sophomore had to create a project using primary sources. My partner and I focused on the history of the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. My roll call with special collections began with that first trip to Chicago Historical Society (Now Chicago History Museum). My concept of a library and the resources irrevocably changed from the moment, I had to leave my jacket and book bag in the cloak room. Out of sheer ignorance, I filled out the call slip simply “Everything about the Aragon Ballroom Please” and was given two pencils. The boundaries of class and ethnicity I sensed in the reading room was unfamiliar to me. No one looked like me in the room. I was invisible yet visible. There were pictures of important white men in the room. I thought, this is like People’s Court. The attendant approached me, “You can’t see everything about the Aragon…Are you a history fair student participant? I nodded and she suggested that I should look at photographs and architectural drawings. When the cart rolled out with my materials in these beautiful gray packages and large folders something changed. This space and these materials, the fact that I was wearing white gloves which until that visit, I only did so for church on Easter Sunday -- there was a hierarchical implication in this representation of the Library -- I had never experienced. I did not feel like a user but rather a subject in a king’s court. This place was exalted. These materials -- and the architectural drawings of the Aragon were phenomenal -- they were special. I think initially that is what gave me as Derida states “Archives Fever” and perpetuated my interest special collections.

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

By the 1990s I was in college and working in the library for extra money. My mother wanted me to be an attorney so for a while I worked in law libraries. Tobin A. Sparling, a law librarian was my supervisor. He was the former Curator of Rare Books at New York Public Library but recently transitioned to law librarianship. I was so fascinated by Tobin’s accounts of working with rare books, that he encouraged me to go to library school for archives and special collections. Tobin was also an out gay librarian working in a law library … in Texas which was very brave at the time. He taught me to be unafraid, and to use my identity as a Black woman to inspire my vision of librarianship. We spoke at length about possibilities for library school and he suggested Columbia University or The University of Chicago. However, when I applied, Columbia returned my application fee because they were discontinuing the program. The University of Chicago had also discontinued their program. I turned up quite unexpectedly at Beverly Cook’s office at Chicago Public Library asking to volunteer on the papers of Chicago’s first African American Mayor Harold Washington. Beverly too encouraged me to attend library school and said Simmons College in Boston was great for archives. The suggestion of Simmons was significant because it was the school that Vivian Harsh, Chicago Public Library 's first black librarian attended. After moving to Princeton, New Jersey, and working in the rare book and manuscript library there, I decided to take the trip to Boston and applied to Simmons. It was amazing. Under the tutelage of Jeanette Bastian, my advisor for the archive track, I read and re-read everything I could about decolonizing archives and collective memory. Simmons had a strong reputation for pairing students with special collections internships. This strategy was very successful and taught me that it is the archival theory you learn in class that holds together the practice you learn in the archive.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

That is a difficult question and one that I’m asked quite often. People like to assume that there is a favorite or a needle in the book stacks. A major perk of working at great libraries is that you get to handle great things.  For me it is about the experience and primal connection I received from the book, artifact or document I am working with. My experience with it has to push me to a better understanding of myself or the profession. Over the years, I have come across so many collections that are the source of my inspiration. They are provocative and, on some level, infused with humanity and humility. Pressed for examples, when I worked at Princeton, they have such rich literary manuscripts. The Sylvia Beach Papers were always a fascinating read. Oh, the life she led. Within her papers were Richard Wright’s corrections on the typescript “The Man Underground.” Also housed at Princeton were the archives of Charles Scribner and Son and of course the F. Scott Fitzgerald papers were there. His letters to his daughter “Scottie” always moved me because I never really had a father. Within each letter, Fitzgerald would give her advice. And of course, soon she too would be fatherless I felt very sad for her. I think Princeton was the place that taught me the importance of related collections. They have amazing literary and publishing collections. Each one is a link between this network of the “lost generation.” At Columbia when I was the Lehman Curator, it was one single letter from Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, to New York Gov. Herbert Lehman in 1933, who was governor of New York at the time. Vanderbilt had visited Germany in 1933 and witnessed Hitler’s “so-called bloodless revolution” he wrote, “Although I saw no real atrocities, I did witness a number of ruthless incidents. Those in authority were quite free to tell me, the Jews much be persecuted and the French punished.” At Yale my favorite was the Frank Russell Burhnam papers which provided deep insight into an American scouter’s experience in South Africa during the Second Boer war. Upon processing his papers, I discovered hints that led me to believe Burnham held somewhat bigoted views toward people of color. Another dimension of curiosity was added when I discovered that Burnham’s cousin, Charles Edward Burnham, was one of the founders of the NAACP.

There are so many and what makes one particular collection more memorable than the other is the unique way I engage with it that embodies memory for me. When I was Director of Collections and Services at the Schomburg Center, it was the James Baldwin Collection. I recall how hospitable Baldwin’s sister was to us during the appraisal visit. She had his same eyes and kindness. A wonderful lunch was arranged during which she made fascinating references to Baldwin. Later while appraising, I was deep in a box of correspondence. There were letters between Baldwin and Maya Angelou. I had to maintain a keen concern for time and suppress the impulse to read. More recently here at Cornell, Kroch Asia Library’s Yongle Dadian or Yongle Encyclopedia is my favorite. It is extraordinary that we have six of the 400 surviving volumes.  These are all great collections that somewhere between my own personal and professional history and memory they have stood out.

What do you personally collect?

My collections run largely on what I like at the time and intuition. It also has to not be fussy and possess an absence of pretentiousness. I used to collect antique Santos dolls. Then something about my life changed. I will collect something and just stop or re-fit it into some other collecting area. As a bibliophile, I know I am a trope and fully acknowledge that everything I collect has possible connections to books and my own heritage and history. My closet filled with vintage clothes and ethnic jewelry is my fashion genealogy because they remind me of my mother and grandmother. I adore my Margaret Burroughs print collection. The strong Black maternal figures in each print bears resemblance to the women in my life.  I always employ a sense of looking back at the past and mixing that with accents of the present. Sometimes what I collect has no intellectual intention -- like my collection of handmade ceramics, mid-century furniture and colorful textiles. All of that happened quite unintentionally while browsing through New York neighborhood flea markets. I would become preoccupied and stay for hours buying outsider art or African masks. Artists’ books and books that function as sculpture is what I am focused on now. I have examples from Robbin Ami Silverberg and Clarissa Sligh. I am always carefully curating and editing because living in large cities like Chicago and New York put a premium on space. Now in Ithaca, where I have a large space, collecting could potentially become a little undisciplined! Someone may have to pull me aside and say, “Curator appraise thy self.”

What do you like to do outside of work?

Moving to Ithaca marked the end of my life as a city girl. At first there was this tension between the urban Tamar and this new nature loving farmers market going Tamar. The first several months, I was leading this double life of Ithaca is the professional me and NYC was the personal me. I went to the city every two weeks for liberation and that became exhausting.  This is a beautiful place. The positioning of Cornell University against this backdrop of gorges and mountains is one of the things that makes it so special. I live in this beautiful house in this historic neighborhood. Every day, no matter what season I wake up to a postcard. This is my community now. I began staying here more and taking trips to local crafts shops. The farmer’s market is amazing, so I began doing something I had long abandoned which was cooking. I go to the market and get duck eggs, swiss chard, rhubarb, mushrooms. After a visit to the abundance of Finger Lakes wineries, I go home and experiment cooking with flavors. The librarians here imbue altruism and are very socially conscious. They work at co-ops, they make cider, they blow glass.  They drop baked goods off at your door. They are very genuine, kind---unbuttoned. It is so refreshing. I was once a Black birder and Ithaca has inspired me to work with raptors again. Sights and sounds of subway trains, jack hammers and singing street vendors have been replaced by brilliant birds, apple orchards and glorious hot air balloons in the sky. The morning soundtrack of this environment is very different from the city. One day I went to NYC and noticed that after several hours I had enough and was ready to come home to Ithaca.

What excites you about special collections librarianship?

I am genuinely excited by the number of special collections professionals who now realize the importance of diversifying and decolonizing their collections.

George Floyd’s tragic and untimely death resulted in a global outpouring of frustration and rage. In response to this social unrest, we are seeing special collections repositories make unprecedented public declarations that they will now focus on making African American history collections a priority and therefore accessible.  But we still must be cautious of “white savior dynamics” around well-intentioned promises to underscore the need for “woke” special collections; the need to hire Brown bodies; the need to insert brown voices in special collections. I am excited about the evolution among special collections librarians, but this work cannot be achieved in a vacuum. Our efforts toward a racially inclusive special collections becomes more tenuous still when we fail to include communities of color in our decision making. Your perception of being woke or inclusive may be skewed without the necessary cultural competencies. In some special collections repositories, Black and African American manuscript collections are objectified and split from engagement with the people who created them. Others are siloed as one dimensional oversimplified narratives of “slavery” or “civil rights.” Black literary and music collections have become valuable research commodities- such collections are viewed as palatable to potential funders who may be white. However, there are multiple points of entry into in the Black experience -- literature and music are only two of them. If the present of Black collections is only marginally better than the past, what does the future for them look like? So just as I am genuinely excited, I am also genuinely worried that this professional renewed sense of advocacy for Black rare and distinctive collections will be short-lived and ultimately foster a false sense of breaking down systematic barriers and achieving radical change.

This is a key reason why I whole heartedly embrace the transition toward distinctive collections that many academic libraries – including Cornell are taking. Distinctive collections offer a place setting at the table for rare collections but also a place to promote their fusion with area and global studies collections and digital collections. At Cornell University Library, we recognize the importance of our rich Asian and Africana Collections and find their richness and complexity essential to interpretations of our cultural heritage documentation.

Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?

I believe that through working with rare and distinctive collections one can find a lot of meaning in their work. By the nature of archives and history, we have a tremendous amount of power and agency to do something truly transformative in our world. Sometimes, unaccountably, we drop the ball. With so much of the world concerned with social justice, as professionals we need to remain vigilant and remind ourselves of the permanence of collecting and the paramount weight this responsibility brings to our work. Reflecting on my own experiences in special collections, I know that there is an undeniable relationship between what we do and who we are. When I first entered the profession there was a lot of to use librarian Fobazi Ettarh’s term – vocational awe. Lots of bow-tied curators and directors around wine and cheese. We discussed the materiality of our collections but rarely their social impact and potential to inform and incite justice and change. Our special collections inspire creativity. They encourage innovation. They are advocates for excellence. They promote awareness and appreciation.  We must support and mentor emerging leadership in this profession. However, under the current system of a reliance on precarious employment- we face insurmountable challenges. Our new professionals need opportunities to learn about the latest developments and engage in critical professional dialogue. We can no longer exploit their work and leave them behind. Our professional future lies with them and they are key to our relevance and survival. We must be committed and deliberate of our support for them.

Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?

The rare and distinctive collections at Cornell University Library are among the most phenomenal I have ever worked for. One must consider every library and the composition of its collections within the context of its geography and pedagogical mission. Cornell has a deep connection to science, the humanities, and the environment both institutionally as well as in the broader global sense. Unlike its Ivy League counterparts, Cornell is a land grant institution. In 1868 our founder Ezra Cornell said, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”  These historical threads are woven into our collections. Curators have always been at the center of our collections. They are the bread and butter of what makes rare and distinctive collections work. Through generations of sound curatorial vision within Cornell Library, an abundance of skill and labor has gone into the foundational establishment and contemporary engagement of our collections. Our Fiske Icelandic Collection, on Icelandic literature and civilization is internationally prominent as a rare resource for the study of the medieval Nordic world. Kroch Asia Library’s Charles W. Wason Collection on East Asia and the John M. Echols Collection on Southeast Asia meticulously contain rare and distinctive materials which demonstrate Cornell’s institutional commitment to outreach in Asia.  While we do not neglect the flagship collections that formulate our RAD identity at Cornell, their themes of social justice also permeate our modern manuscript holdings in human sexuality, hip hop and witchcraft. The collections within Cornell’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management, Documentation and Archives reflects the broad field of labor and is structured around organizational narratives, unions and community based labor activism. These examples demonstrate that our rare and distinctive collections are a part of a diverse and evolving intellectual dialogue.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

I am very proud that the last official event we held at Cornell Library was a reception for Story / Lines: Visual Narratives in Japanese Pop Culture. It was curated by Daniel Mckee and Aparna Ghosh, assistant curators in our Kroch Asia Library. Story / Lines takes the viewer through the history of manga, Japanese comic books, starting from origins of the term and early examples of the visual narrative, and culminating in the massive cultural phenomenon that manga today comprises. Under the Cornell RAD initiative, our exhibits are beginning to focus on collaboration between library units. This will extend our exhibits beyond the boundaries of one library unit and consider how the subject could relate to many other collections and contexts across the CUL system.

Earlier this year, our Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives, held an exhibit All Labor Has Dignity: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Labor Movement curated by Labor Archivist, Steven Calco. The exhibit highlighted Dr. King’s involvement with unions and will now “travel” to our John Henrik Clarke Africana Library to be re-curated by Eric Acree, Director of the Africana Library and Curator of Africana Collections.

This holistic approach to Cornell library exhibits moving through a sequence of curatorial interpretations and their connection to a the larger CUL community will be most demonstrated in our upcoming exhibition on historic textiles. When the American Textile History Museum closed in 2017, its library holdings came to the Kheel Center. The collection Marcie Farwell, our inaugural Gordon and Marjorie Osborne Textile Industry Curator, came up with the brilliant idea to propose a library wide exhibition on textiles. Each Cornell Library will have an exhibit which will illuminate the history of textiles as interpreted by their subject expertise and collections. The Rare and Manuscript library will focus on the many rare books which contain textile samples and illustrations. Mann Library will present the science behind textiles – observations on the role of silkworms in the production of textiles. The Kroch Asia library boasts breathtaking samples of Asian textiles. Our Law Library Special Collections will cover the legalities of the textile industry. Each library will offer a parallel series of lectures on textiles. Essentially, our RAD collective is drawing strength from the totality of our holdings which allow for a collective narrative that enlightens researchers and contribute to a comprehensive exhibit of textile history.