Our series profiling the next generation of special collections librarians continues today with Will Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University.
How did you get started in rare books?
The short answer is that I got a job at the Newberry Library, one of the nation's great vectors of the special collections librarianship contagion. A slightly longer answer is that I started prowling the stacks at the University of Nebraska's Love Library as an undergrad, and reading Jorge Luis Borges, and the two things led logically to wanting desperately to work (or live, maybe) in libraries, with books and archives. I'll spare you the much longer answer.
Where did you earn your MLS?
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I'm a LEEPer, a graduate of UIUC's excellent LEEP online learning program.
What is your role at your institution?
My primary areas of curatorial responsibility are printed and archival collections in literature and Southern history, and archival collections in the history of economic thought. Collection development, instruction, exhibitions and other outreach efforts, and reference are all a part of my position. I also work collaboratively with the Rubenstein Library's Head of Collection Development, Andy Armacost, and our other curators for women's history and culture, African and African American history and culture, documentary arts, the history of medicine, human rights, and sales, advertising, and marketing history, finding materials that connect our areas of responsibility.
We're fortunate to have a wonderful staff here, and my job includes a great deal of work with many of them: discussing cataloging and processing strategies with our Technical Services staff; reviewing potential treatments for fragile or damaged items with conservators; planning acquisitions, class sessions, and exhibitions with curators and research services librarians in the Rubenstein Library and subject librarians in the circulating collections of Perkins Library.
Have you worked at other institutions as well?
I started as a page in the General Reading Room the Newberry Library and then moved into the reference department there before coming to Duke.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
Every time I meet with a class or group to show them materials, I find myself saying, "This is one of my favorite items in our collections" about something different. So I could go on and on.
It's hard to top the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which beyond its iconic status is such an immensely powerful teaching tool. I love showing this along with Whitman's manuscripts to students--the camera phones come out when they realize they're seeing the real thing, words Whitman scrawled (or helped to design, bind, and typeset) on paper he touched. A close second for me personally would be the 1930 Lakeside Press edition of Moby-Dick.
But then, many more modest items tell such interesting stories, too. For instance, we recently acquired a collection of memorial cards, including an example of a printed Victorian funerary biscuit wrapper. I showed this to a class and they were flummoxed by the existence of such a thing--flummoxed in a way that seemed to open them up to thinking about the reasons why it was made and persisted, and the history of the tradition. (This is what happened to me, too, when Ian Kahn first showed it to me at a book fair.)
What do you personally collect?
I dabble in many inexpensive things. Dream literature (both pamphlets of dream interpretation and books describing dreams themselves) and books/ephemera about card games are two of my most consistent collecting interests. Others include the writings of the Oulipo experimentalists, photography of books and art made from books, Nebraskiana, and a very modest Melville collection. How's that for eclectic?
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
The rare books, obviously: I love that working to provide access to and preserve these materials is our work. Dealers, collectors, and institutions are all finding fascinating materials, and being involved in the process of giving some of these things a home is rewarding. I think that the scope, policies, and definitions of institutional rare book collections, and ideas of what scarcity is and what investment of resources signify for institutions, have been shifting in interesting, hopefully democratizing and diversifying, ways in the last few decades, and it's exciting to be a part of that.
I'm always excited to open doors to people who haven't realized that our collections are available for them to use--that we want them to come and experience these things, one on one. Introducing students to our collections is one of my favorite things to do. It's thrilling to see a student latch on to the possibilities--and the detective work--inherent in research using rare books and other primary sources.
And there is no more satisfying experience, for me, than seeing something that I helped to acquire for the library put to use.
Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?
I always try to keep in mind Terry Belanger's famous reminder that much of this work is janitorial. It remains true, and important. No matter how much seems to change, we must do our best to make sure the books and manuscripts and digital artifacts will still be there and still warrant our care and attention a century from now.
That being said, there are many, many brilliant people working in this and allied fields, and they seem to be coming from a broader range of backgrounds and disciplines than in the past. The embrace of colleagues with backgrounds in information technology, digital humanities, and many other areas is heartening to see, and critical, I think, to the profession's health moving forward. There also seems to be increasing communication between archivists and librarians, and increasing recognition of the common cause both have with museums, historical societies, and other cultural heritage institutions. The involvement of faculty and students with library-based digital humanities projects, and projects using crowdsourcing to improve metadata for digitized collections, are both very encouraging for the future of special collections. It's hard for me to keep up, but I have this sense that the profession is full of energy right now.
Exploring and documenting the future of the book is a terribly exciting prospect: from born-digital electronic literature to rapid change in e-book formats to the continuing vitality and creativity found in small presses, fine printing, and artists' books, we are in for an interesting period. It is not as though the variety and amount of printed material to be collected has decreased--we've just had many more formats and interfaces put into play.
The ways in which digitization and the digital realm have impacted rare book collecting are also fascinating to me. It will be interesting to see how the dual imperatives for institutional collectors to find some materials that resist digitization and reward a personal experience with a unique object or collection, and others that invite large-scale digitization for global use--and ideally, items that can work well in both of these ways!-- will play out in the market and in the shape collections take.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
You're really opening Pandora's box here. The Rubenstein Library specializes in the unusual and interesting. Many of our collections work and play at the intersection of popular culture, historically marginalized groups, and scholarly interest.
We have thousands of zines created by women and girls. We have an African Americans in Film collection that features pressbooks, publicity stills, posters, and other advertising ephemera. We have the Nicole DiBona Peterson Collection of Advertising Cookbooks, some 3800 strong. We have the Edwin and Terry Murray Collection of Role-Playing Games, perhaps the country's largest institutional collection of RPGs. We have a Tijuana Bibles collection.
I've become very interested in the early works of literature (ca. 1860-1920) illustrated with real photographs and photogravures, and I'm snapping up as many of them as I can find and our budget can allow. I don't know how unusual that is, but I hope it's interesting.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
The Rubenstein Library's permanent space is currently under renovation, so we are beginning to plan for the grand reopening exhibit in that space in 2015. This will include some of our most treasured and important items--and the process of determining these is no easy task! I also have high hopes for future exhibits related to German utopian literature, comic books and art, and the relationship between photographs and writing, but dates for all of those are yet to be determined.
In the meantime, we still have many exhibits happening in other spaces. There's a great show curated by Duke graduate students scheduled for February-May 2014 entitled "Cheap Thrills: The Highs and Lows of Paris's Cabarets, 1880-1939." This will feature evocative illustrations from Parisian literary, satirical, and cultural journals, and there are plans for performances of original music based on the songs of the cabaret by students in the Music Department, as well.
"Defining Lines: Cartography in an Age of Empire," an exhibit of maps from the Rubenstein Library, is on display at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art until December 15, 2013. The exhibit was curated by Duke undergraduate students, and it's been wonderful to help them discover maps in our collections and see their pride in the finished product.
Another exhibit, "Beijing Through Sidney Gamble's Camera," curated by Luo Zhou, Duke's Chinese Studies Librarian, is currently touring a number of sites in Beijing. This exhibit features selections from the Sidney D. Gamble Photographs in the Rubenstein Library's Archive of Documentary Arts.