Bright Young Librarians: Amy Hildreth Chen

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Amy Hildreth Chen, the Special Collections Instruction Librarian at the University of Iowa.

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How did you get started in rare books?


My junior year at the University of Iowa, I was reading the New York Times in the cafeteria when I ran across an article discussing Emory University's acquisition of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, at the time the largest collection of twentieth century Anglophone poetry in private hands. When I decided pursue a PhD in English a year later, I remembered the article and decided to apply to Emory due to the collection.


I wound up working in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL, now the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library) for a total of five years, three of which I spent assisting Kevin Young, the curator of the Danowski collection. During this time, I received a well-rounded education: I learned to process collections, create exhibitions, manage the daily influx of acquisitions, talk to donors, and visit with rare book and manuscript dealers. I also brought my library work into the classroom as I designed and taught four courses for the English department focusing on special collections holdings.


Due to these experiences, I knew I wanted to seek a career in the field. The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) allowed me to become a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alabama, where I devoted two years to coordinating their instruction, exhibition, and outreach programs while writing a book about the Wade Hall collection. Wade Hall collected American books, manuscripts, music, and quilts; his collection is the largest at Alabama and the most eclectic. Sadly, Wade Hall passed away this fall, but my work honoring his collection should be forthcoming from New South Books in late 2016.


Where did you earn your advanced degree?


I have a PhD in English from Emory. My official areas of expertise are twentieth century British, Irish, and American poetry as well as archive theory. My dissertation discussed the American market for twentieth-century literary collections.


What is your role at your institution?


I became the Special Collections Instruction Librarian at the University of Iowa in June 2015. The department split Colleen Theisen's role as Outreach and Instruction Librarian to allow her to focus on Outreach while giving someone new the opportunity to manage the rapidly expanding Instruction program.


Now, I oversee the daily ins and outs of booking, preparing for, and teaching classes, although I certainly don't teach them all on my own. To give you a sense of the scale of our program, this fall we taught 119 classes as a department. What I like most about my job is the mandate I've been given to develop innovative curricula using rare materials.


I also run Archive Journal's Twitter feed and help edit the Notes and Queries section with Gabrielle Dean and Lauren Coats.


Favorite rare book/ephemera that you've handled?


I work equally with rare books and manuscript collections, so can I cheat and name two?


My favorite rare book is Josef Albers' Interaction of Color (1963). I taught a session for Anne Herbert's Color Theory class nearly every semester I spent at Alabama. During one visit, Anne mentioned that Yale used the text and images in the book to create an app. So when Sue Hettmansperger from Iowa's School of Art and Art History just happened to request a session on Albers, I asked her if she'd be willing to stretch her concept of the visit to include a discussion of the app. She graciously agreed. We had a wonderful time analyzing how each plate achieves its surprising effect and then comparing the physical version to its digital adaptation. I appreciate the book's beauty as well as how it lends itself to a variety of curricular approaches.


My favorite manuscript is Lucille Clifton's typescript of the Book of Days, the poetry collection left unpublished at the time of her death. Every one of those poems is striking. I find the poem "birth-day" especially devastating: "what we will become/ waits in us like an ache."


What do you personally collect?


I collect poetry broadsides from the institutions where I've been employed. Broadsides represent my interest in poetry and visual art and they are a nice way to chart the timeline of my life. I have quite a few broadsides from Emory as well as a few from Alabama. But, appropriately, the first broadside I picked up was "There is a Gold Light in Certain Old Paintings" by Donald Justice. I was given it for free when I attended a memorial reading at Iowa in 2004. Now that I've come full circle and work where I used to study, that broadside has a place of pride in my living room.


What do you like to do outside of work?


I continue to pursue my academic research and I do some creative writing as well. When I need to turn my brain off, I practice Pilates. My husband and I also like to try out new restaurants.


What excites you about rare book librarianship?


I believe rare book librarianship, and special collections as a whole, is at the vanguard of research and teaching in higher education. Jacques Derrida may have popularized the concept of the "archival turn," but rare book librarians and archivists are the ones who get the credit for the profession's development in the past decade.


Since I teach where I went to school, I have an intimate perspective on this shift. I watch how courses I took over a decade ago that didn't come to special collections now dedicate two or more sessions to working with rare materials. It's an honor to participate in this more inclusive vision of special collections.


Thoughts on the future of special collections/rare book librarianship?


It's going to be great. Colleges and universities realize that using rare books and manuscripts in the classroom generates richer educational experiences. Students light up when they read a letter from the past or hold a book from centuries ago. That delight helps them tolerate some of the challenges that naturally arise when working with our materials. As individual teaching faculty become more aware of what's possible pedagogically, their interest only grows. The key for us is to continue to build sustainable instruction programs that offer quality curricula to our campuses while balancing the preservation needs of our holdings and working well with our colleagues in other sectors of the academic library.


More broadly, the future of special collections librarianship also depends on the future of higher education. As we shift to new methods of inquiry in the humanities, and more people move into alt-ac roles, staying cutting-edge in instruction and research depends on continuing to embrace and incorporate diverse perspectives.


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


I must highlight the strength of our book arts collection. It supports UI's Center for the Book, but it's so rich that students from other universities regularly visit the collection. My colleague Margaret Gamm does a fantastic job selecting new acquisitions. The most recent arrivals get a place of pride in our reading room, where students and faculty often stop in to pursue what she's bought. I love thinking about how humanities researchers and artists use the same materials differently.


Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?


Iowa just remodeled the main library to create a state-of-the-art gallery. In January 2016, our first exhibition will focus on James Van Allen, who pioneered magnetospheric research in space. After that, our next shows include an exhibition on Star Trek and a show devoted to Shakespeare's First Folio, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library.