Bright Young Librarians: Alyssa Carver

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Alyssa Carver, archivist with Douglas County Libraries in Colorado.

What is your role at your institution?

I am an archivist at Douglas County Libraries in the state of Colorado--and, as of a month ago, I am DCL's first "Head Archivist." The Archives and Local History department is fairly young, having only existed since 1992 (right around the time the county began its trend toward exponential annual population growth). We collect all sorts of material about Douglas County, which is not unusual, but the fact that we manage closed stacks, reference, and circulating local history collections might be surprising. At least it was for me! I have been with DCL for less than a year, hired on to a small team with lots of autonomy and very little structure. We have since reorganized ourselves into something that looks more like a 'department' in order to streamline collection management processes and be more efficient. At this point, a really big part of my job is just figuring out what all this means in the context of the larger institution, and trying to keep us afloat through a weird transition period. Because my background is in cataloging and processing, descriptive strategy and collection control is my top priority: that means everything from shopping for a new CMS to deciding which MARC tags should used in our bib records. Going forward, I'm also really excited about the opportunity to shape our collection development policy and make more deliberate, transparent curatorial decisions. Previously, I think our collecting method was much more passive and intuitive--after all, this was a small, close-knit, agricultural community not long ago. It's easier in that context to identify what's significant enough to preserve. Whereas now, we've got to figure out what's meaningful to a population 1,000% larger than it was a century ago and made up almost entirely of highly mobile, suburban-dwelling transplants. It's actually kind of an exciting problem to have.

How did you get started in rare books

To preface, I'd like to acknowledge that "rare" books is a slightly problematic term. I usually say something like historic or antiquarian books, or just special collections. And my reason is not just for the sake of being pedantic, but in fact totally related to my first encounter with rare books. My backstory is that I got into the field of librarianship so accidentally that for many years I didn't even realize that's what happened. It started during my freshman year of college when I saw a posting for a work-study job at something called the Yiddish Book Center, which was located near campus (in Amherst, Massachusetts). I thought, "Well, I like books," although I didn't know anything about Yiddish--like most people on the planet today. But the history of Yiddish literature turns out to be a perfect object lesson in why book history matters and illustrates the role that institutions play in collective memory-making. To summarize briefly: after WWII, the global population of native Yiddish speakers was greatly diminished and geographically displaced. And when that population aged and continued to decrease, there was a point at which it looked like Yiddish was a dying language. When the YBC began collecting Yiddish books in the 1980s, academics estimated that relatively few remained. Instead, the YBC collected more than a million volumes in the first few years. I don't know why, but for some reason they hired me and taught me Hebrew letters and kept me around for awhile. I was so naive then that it didn't occur to me that I was doing library-ish work, because I'd never seen special collections before and my idea of a library was a place where you borrow novels

Now I have come to appreciate the experience of working outside of the traditional academic library environment. It's important to recognize that value is always subjective and even the concept of scarcity is contextual. And we, professional librarians, archivists, and curators, need to remember that we don't automatically get it right. This is why I'm passionate about representation and diversity in the historical record, and it's the foundation of my approach to collection development. 

Where did you earn your MLS?

I got my MLIS degree from Pratt Institute, along with certificates in archives and museum libraries, in New York City. (I also have another MFA I got during that sad interim when I didn't know that a library degree would help me get a job working with old books.)

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

This is so difficult! And I feel like this is disloyal, but my favorite items are going to be from Penn State Special Collections (my previous employer), because A) DCL's collections are smaller and more contemporary, and B) I'm still in the process of getting to know the collections here. I have two favorites from PSU. One is a book of decorative monograms that I became very fond of after using it for a couple of typography classes: A New Book of Cyphers: Containing in General All Names Interwoven, & Revers'd, by Alphabet, by Benjamin Rhodes, 1723. It's a lovely book, not especially remarkable for an 18th-century specimen, but there's something so visually arresting about the emblems. Even the students who couldn't be bothered to look up from their phones for any other fantastic artifact would get excited about this one. And the first thing anyone does with this book is look up their own initials. The other most beautiful thing I've ever gotten to play with was this deck of cards designed and illustrated by artist Laura Davidson: all hand printed, painted and gilt, tucked into a handmade wooden box. ("Flora and Fauna," edition of 20, 2008.) She transformed the card suits into fruits and insects and set them in these dreamy garden scenes. It's hard for me to explain my love for this, aside from it being lovely and delightful, but I think it has something to do with the fact that it's reinterpreting something familiar in a contemporary and unabashedly feminine way.

What do you personally collect?

Oh no, this is another hard question. I am such a collector at heart that I really have to keep myself in check to make sure I don't turn into a full-blown hoarder. One of the rules I force myself to follow is that anything I collect has to be A) cheap and B) small (preferably). This rule is practical for many reasons (like moving around a lot in my student years and not really having money), but I am also generally fond of ephemera and often attracted to things that other people don't like (meaning, I am specifically interested in something because no one else is). I have been collecting zines and zine-like stuff since I was a teenager: low-budget comics, poetry chapbooks, flyers, religious tracts. I like to collect local ephemera when I travel. And subject-wise my interests are pretty broad, but I've noticed they tend towards interesting design elements, illustrations, alphabets, symbols, and anything that consists of listing things in any kind of order: encyclopedias, slang dictionaries, guides to the mystical properties of gems and crystals, descriptions of other collectors collections, etc. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

Someday soon I hope I get the hang of this management stuff, because it's a lot of work right now. In theory, I'd like to take advantage of the fact that I live in the beautiful state of Colorado but at the moment I reside inside an archival vault. (Okay, I may be exaggerating a little.)

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

I think rare books and special collections speak to me because they focus on materiality and specific artifacts. I'm not a Luddite--and I deeply appreciate technology that allows us to communicate and access information all over the world--but I crave the fixity of physical things. Which sounds weird to say, because of course objects deteriorate over time. But at least they are static enough, fixed in time long enough, to examine from different angles, to discuss, to withstand interrogation from different points of view. I guess I am skeptical of information that lacks a defined form.

Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship, particularly in public libraries?

Because I am new to the public library environment, I'm still trying to figure this out. In a general sense, I think that special collections ARE the future of librarianship (in terms of collection material, not services). As other resources become more universally available and more homogeneous, it's the unique, local collections that will become more significant, more central to their respective communities. On the other hand, I worry about the financial stability of public libraries in less affluent districts than the one where I work. Special collections are expensive to maintain and complicated to explain, and I think this makes them vulnerable to administrations struggling with budget cuts. (Or the library can't afford any special collections or archives to begin with.) One of the things that I hope young and/or early career librarians are learning is how to advocate: for themselves, their collections, their patrons' needs. I cannot stress enough how important this is for any special collections program to succeed. You need to be ready at any moment to explain your budget requests, argue for your value, defend your facilities requirements, and translate your librarian-ese into language an executive director or trustee can understand.

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

I'm still discovering what's hidden in the far corners of the stacks, but there are some wonderful surprises. At my last job, I worked primarily with graphic design collections, and in that context "brand book" has a specific meaning, quite different from the brand books here. These are essentially directories of registered cattle brands for all the ranches in a region or specific area. I have become sort of fascinated by these--they're like visual dictionaries of alien hieroglyphics! You might have been able to predict by now that this is exactly the kind of thing I would nerd out on, but I surprised myself by being so interested in something related to cattle ranching (which is not my area of expertise, in case that wasn't clear.)  

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

I'm still figuring out how we do exhibits here! I have exactly one display case and what's in there right now is a thematic grouping of Visually Interesting Stuff I Found While Cleaning Out The Vault. Working on some ideas about seasonal rotation and the possibility of community involvement (highlighting student research or history projects) so... stay tuned?