Bright Young Librarians: Aaron T. Pratt

Courtesy of Aaron T. Pratt

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Aaron T. Pratt, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.

What is your role at your institution?

I am the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Although the title of this endowed position associates me specifically with the well-known Pforzheimer Collection of English Literature, 1475–1700, I am more broadly responsible for all of the Center’s pre-1700 holdings. They run the gamut from cuneiform tablets to papyrus fragments, Ethiopian codices, and strong collections of European manuscripts and printed books: Chaucer manuscripts, a Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare Folios, &c. When I write that I am “responsible for” these collections, I mean that it is my job to connect them with a broad range of audiences—traditional researchers, students, other interested publics—while at the same time working to ensure their preservation for future generations. The usual curatorial combo. I’m also on the books as a lecturer in the Department of English, a position I’ve so far used to serve on a dissertation committee and lead a couple of conference courses with graduate students. It’s nice to be able to maintain an official foothold in what has long been my home discipline.

How did you get started in special collections?

I’ve always been fascinated by things. When I was little, that meant having an obsession with the dinosaur skeleton in The Berenstain Bears and the Missing Dinosaur Bone, repeatedly pouring over the discussion of canopic jars in Aliki’s Mummies Made in Egypt, and collecting: He-Man figures, baseball cards (I liked the cards more than the sport), keychains, whatever. Once I got to high school, I got deep into computers and the early internet, and, well, started collecting old computers. I then worked as a network and systems engineer at the end of the first dot-com boom and started out as a biochem major in college, after the bust. For better or worse, I quickly got sick of lab work and pivoted to rather different types of nerdery: film studies and the history of philosophy. When I made this move, I did so under the assumption that I’d take up IT work again after graduating, intending my deep dive in the humanities to be solely for edification’s sake. Hah.

The time I spent analyzing noir and horror movies at Ohio State was mostly toward an English major with a concentration in film, and the more general requirements of that major meant I had to read some canonical literature. At one point, I begrudgingly enrolled in a Shakespeare course, and the visiting professor who taught it—Alice Dailey, who is now at Villanova—was in the middle of a research project that focused, in part, on John Foxe’s Actes and monuments (aka The Book of Martyrs). When she introduced our class to it, the gory woodcuts and detailed descriptions of executions melted my brain, as did the fact that the earliest editions of Foxe were published as large, often multi-volume, folios. It was when confronted with the book as a book, first in pictures and then during an intimidating visit to OSU’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, that I became seriously interested in the media that transmit knowledge and culture. The imposing 16th-century tomes prompted me to ask, for the first time, some of the most basic questions of bibliography and book history: Who made the books people read and how did they make them? Who invested in their production, and who was in a position to buy and read them once they had been made?

Minus a detour as a bike messenger and another into the hellscape of tech startups, it has been pretty much been all ye olde books all of the time for me since then. I started collecting 16th- and 17th-century imprints with the tech money I was earning and then went back to Ohio State for a funded M.A. program where I learned what grad school was—when I started, I didn’t know anyone aside from my professors that had done an advanced degree in the humanities—and thought more about the books of the English Reformation. After those two years, I finally left Ohio to work on a Ph.D. with David Scott Kastan at Yale and started selling antiquarian books to support my collecting habit. Bookselling taught me a ton, though it did create a possible conflict of interest that meant I didn’t end up working very long at Beinecke Library as a curatorial assistant. Fortunately, Kastan and Kathryn James, the Beinecke’s Osborn Curator, agreed in 2012 to collaborate with me to start the Yale Program in the History of the Book, which is still running. Around that time, I also got really into early modern bookbinding practices and began to move away from studying godly books toward an effort to understand why English publishers invested in so many damn plays. In 2014, I was awarded a position in the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography and took my first class at Rare Book School in Charlottesville.

From Fall 2015 to Spring 2017, I was on the tenure-track at Trinity University in San Antonio teaching Shakespeare and continuing my research on English playbooks. It was a great gig, but when the Pforzheimer position opened up at the Ransom Center, I knew I had to go for it. By that time, it had become clear to me that I am more passionate about books—about the economic and labor histories behind them—than I am about literature, as such. That said, and as I always tell humanities grad students when I’m brought in to talk to them as an “alt-ac” guy, a curatorial job is one that I had started preparing for in a deliberate way by the time I arrived at Yale. It was definitely not an afterthought.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

I tend to get most excited by books that remain in early bindings or have their original pamphlet-style stitching intact—it’s something of a joke that I’m the stab-stitching guy—but more recently I’ve been banging the drum and arguing that we need to attend to later bindings and repairs if we want to understand how and why we’ve come to value old books in the ways we do today. So, in the spirit of appreciating all types of book use, there’s a copy of the 1570 English-language edition of Euclid’s The elements of geometrie that’s pretty wild. Naturally, it’s at the Ransom Center.

At the level of the edition, this book is not easy to beat: it was printed and published by John Daye, the London stationer also responsible for Foxe’s Actes and monuments; translated by Henry Billingsley, who later became Lord Mayor of London; and edited by the polymath, John Dee, whose “Mathematicall praeface” and supplementary material throughout are impressive. Dee was probably also the one who encouraged Daye to include the folding pyramids and diagrams the book is probably known for best. If I’m remembering correctly, all of these remain intact in the Center’s copy, and there’s a lot else to love that’s specific to it, too. On the title-page, an “H. G.” has declared themselves the volume’s posessor in a clean italic hand, stating further that they paid 22 shillings for it. Another early hand has then added, “Butt [the book] is now worth 30s”—at least I think it’s an “s” for shillings—suggesting that this Euclid was already a collectible book in the 17th century. Inside, the text includes extensive manuscript annotations in Arabic, Greek, and Latin. (Someone, please come and study these annotations.)

And then there’s the Euclid’s more recent provenance. It came to the Ransom Center in the 1960s in a history of science collection put together by a proper scientist, Herbert McLean Evans. (Among other achievements, Evans helped discover Human Growth Hormone and vitamin E.) Then, around 1990, the book was one of many stolen as part of an inside job. Although the ostensible culprit, Mimi Meyer, had been kicked out of the Center in 1992 under suspicion of theft, no pilfered books were located until 2001 and none were returned until 2004, after the FBI’s investigation had concluded and Meyer pled guilty. All said, the Center got around 300 of its books back, including this Euclid. Although the inscription and annotations I’ve described made the book’s leaves pretty distinctive, the thief nonetheless decided to strip the book of its binding and rebound it, unceremoniously, in grey fabric. While plain cloth on a 16th-century book would usually signal that it was valued more as a reading text than a historical artifact, in this case, where the binding was meant as a disguise, it tells us much the opposite.

What do you personally collect?

I have a reasonably substantial collection of 16th- and 17th-century books, mostly English ones. I started out with an orphaned first volume of the 1583 edition of Actes and monuments and other books that develop or make use of Protestant interpretations of the Book of Revelation. As I got more into bookbinding and the nitty-gritty of analytical bibliography, I started collecting more for material features than content. Predictably, I’m into stitched pamphlets and books in down-market bindings, but I also really like editions of mass-produced books like psalters and New Testaments that challenge some of bibliography’s basic categories. Now that I’m responsible for collecting on behalf of an institution, my book collecting has slowed way down.

But, I’m kinda nuts when it comes to VHS. As anyone who knows me well will attest, I can go on and on about the changes that VHS, Betamax, and various forgotten video formats brought about in the ways people viewed, understood, and made motion pictures. I started collecting tapes in college, stopped for a good chunk of grad school, and got back into it in the last several years. You can tell I come to VHS as a bibliographer by the fact that I like having multiple copies of the “same” release that show differences in packaging, labels, cassette stock, previews, and other content. Like most VHS collectors today, I’m also into genre movies that were made specifically for release on home video formats, especially ones that were shot on video rather than film. Most of my collection is stored on a set of shelves that have a thick shade over them to prevent fading, but there’s one I keep in my rare book cabinet: a copy of African-American filmmaker Chester Novell Turner’s 1987 masterpiece, Tales from the QuadeaD Zone. I purchased it from a collector who got it directly from the original Oklahoma video store Turner sold it to when he was driving around the country peddling copies of both it and his first movie, Black Devil Doll from Hell.

What do you like to do outside of work?

As my VHS collecting hints, I watch a lot of movies—both high- and (very) low-brow stuff. I’ve also been trying to make more time to listen to newer punk bands, and I look forward to being able to go to shows again.

With a more flexible schedule while working at home during the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been running a lot. I used to be a big cyclist, but a couple of nasty head injuries have mostly pushed my exercise out of traffic and onto the sidewalk.

What excites you about special collections librarianship?

Almost everything—even most of the emails. In particular, though, I like the importance my institution places on communicating with the general public. It’s a great privilege to be able to write and speak to so many different audiences about early books and manuscripts, and I really enjoy the challenge of doing so in ways that are simultaneously accessible and rigorous. I try, always, to honor people’s attention by offering at least a little something that’ll test their assumptions, encourage them to think twice.

Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?

I won’t repeat what others have written in this space about the importance of bringing more diverse voices and collections into our institutions, because, well, they’ve done it better than I could.

What I will offer here is a somewhat different word of encouragement to administrators at special collections libraries: you can only benefit from working to define your institution’s identity as much by the expertise of your staff—staff at all levels—as by your collections. It’s true, of course, that libraries exist to facilitate discovery by those who visit and access materials in reading rooms, classrooms, galleries, and online, and in that sense collections have to be central. It’s also true, though, that bringing people in depends on the interpretive work that staff do every day, and I think one of the best ways for an institution to distinguish itself is for it to speak loudly and with a distinctive set of institutional voices. A number of places have been doing this well in recent years, and I think a healthy future for special collections libraries will depend, in part, on there being more of it.

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

An envelope containing the nipple hair of Henry Nelson Coleridge, collected by his wife, Sara, in 1843—the year he died. Sara was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s daughter.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

Sadly, our galleries are closed for the obvious reason, but we have high hopes that we’ll be able to reopen our current exhibition, Gabriel García Márquez: The Making of a Global Writer, in coming months. Assuming we are able to resume in-person visits, the current plan is to extend the show until the beginning of January 2021. In the meantime, you can see some of it online.