Our Bright Young Things series continues today with Kaitlin Manning of B & L Rootenberg in Sherman Oaks, California.
How did you get started in rare books?
My journey into the trade was anything but straightforward. My first love was Shakespeare, and after college I pursued classical acting (inevitably picking up some bartending skills along the way). I started feeling pretty dissatisfied with that lifestyle, so I decided to transition into the visual arts. Though my undergraduate major was in Art History, I knew I wanted more training and expertise in a specific field. I was lucky enough to secure a spot at the Courtauld Institute where I completed a Master's degree in Medieval Art, with a special emphasis on illuminated manuscripts. While writing my dissertation, I went to the London book fair for a little inspiration and, frankly, to get out of the library for a few hours. It was there that I met Howard Rootenberg, who got me thinking about turning my academic interests into a career in rare books. Five months later I was working for him!
What is your role at B & L Rootenberg Rare Books & Manuscripts?
I was interested in working with the Rootenbergs because I wanted to learn the business from top to bottom. I do everything from packing and shipping to cataloguing and attending book fairs throughout the year. Now that I understand the business and the culture a bit more thoroughly, I am also starting to develop a social media program to engage with the broader community. As images are becoming more and more important to what we do, a big part of my job has been learning to photograph our inventory and think about ways to promote it. At our last few book fairs we featured illustrated, digital versions of our catalogues, and I think we will continue to do so in the future.
What do you love about the book trade?
I get to learn something new every single day. The first book I catalogued here was a British treatise on kidney stones, and I just finished researching a rare seventeenth century book on heavenly phenomena. I never know where my day will take me. There is so much to learn, so many rabbit holes to fall into, that there will never be a point when you can "know it all." That, to me, is a pretty exciting line of work.
Favorite rare book or ephemera that you've handled?
Handling first editions of the major scientific breakthroughs - Newton's Principia, Copernicus' De revolutionibus, and Darwin's Origins, to name a few - have certainly been awe inspiring moments; but the art historian in me is always drawn (pun totally intended) to exquisite images. One of the first rare books I handled in grad school was a copiously illustrated Apocalypse at the Wellcome Collection in London. I think that was the one that hooked me.
What do you personally collect?
Nothing at the moment, though I would love to start. At each book fair I will have my heart set on some Japanese prints, only to be lured by the pull of some bizarre ethnographic study, which then gets me thinking about travel and voyages. In short, I'm still looking for that "gateway" book.
Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?
Now that it's looking like this whole internet thing isn't just a fad, and with technology continually replacing itself like some asexual swamp frog, the times are, clearly, a changin'. I think it's easy to project fears and anxieties about the future of the trade onto young people (particularly those who grew up with the new technology) by arguing that they just aren't interested in what we do. Frankly, I think that's unfair. The challenges of bookselling and reaching new customers may be different than they were fifty years ago, but the tools at our disposal are also more powerful. Unfortunately, the multitude of digital platforms out there can seem overwhelming, and I think it prevents a lot of booksellers from really investigating the potential power of social media, particularly in terms of expanding the community and sharing expertise. But although maintaining an online presence is becoming more and more important to what we do - and indeed, to EVERY business and institution out there - I think it's equally important not to swing too far in the other direction; I am still of the opinion that personal contact will always carry the day. In a way, this is a great metaphor for the rare book trade itself. The era of the "e-book" might be here to stay, but words on a screen will never replicate the experience of interacting with the real deal.
Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?
We have been talking about putting together a catalogue of books related to chemistry (with images, of course!) in the coming months. We will be attending RBMS in Las Vegas at the end of June, and then hopefully a relatively quiet but productive summer before gearing up for Boston in the autumn.