Bright Young Librarians: Brenna Bychowski

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Brenna Bychowski, a catalog / metadata librarian at the Beinecke Rare book & Manuscript Library at Yale University.

What is your role at your institution?

I'm a catalog/metadata librarian in the Rare Book Cataloging Unit at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. We are responsible for the cataloging of printed materials, both new acquisitions and items from Beinecke's backlog. We approach the definition of "printed materials" expansively, including monographs, serials, cartographic materials, graphics, printed music, recorded music, realia ... essentially all materials that aren't digital or manuscript (and even then, there are exceptions). As a cataloger, I create bibliographic descriptions of these materials so users can find them in our online catalog. This not only includes providing relatively basic information, such as accurate title, author, publication, and extent statements, but also supplying additional access through subject and genre description, as well as copy-specific information, such as provenance. When describing a mass-produced monograph published this year, cataloging work can be relatively straightforward. But often the most interesting materials to work with present descriptive challenges. They might require more detailed description, such as the collation statements we create for early hand-press books, or they could lack many of the standard descriptive elements, such as ephemera that does not have a title, or a publisher, or any discernable date or location. Doing the research to fill in these gaps or figuring out how to craft an accurate, useful catalog record for an unusual item is what keeps me coming back to my desk every day. Our work is behind-the-scenes and often invisible, so it's also rewarding every time I hear that a researcher found new or unexpected sources as a result of my cataloging.

How did you get started in rare books?

As with many special collections librarians I know, I fell into the field sideways and completely by accident. I spent a summer as an undergraduate doing research at the Newberry Library in Chicago, and while I dreamed about being able to work at a library with such amazing materials, I didn't realize that special collections librarianship was its own area of practice. Then, when I began library school at Indiana University, Bloomington (where I took advantage of their dual degree program to also earn an MA in History), I planned to go into reference in an academic library, to help teach undergraduates to do research. But one of my classes took a trip to visit the Lilly Library (IU's exquisite special collections library) and within a few weeks I'd e-mailed the head of public services at the Lilly, asking if she would be willing to take me on as an intern. She kindly agreed, and over the course of a semester I curated two exhibitions, answered e-mail reference questions, gave exhibit tours to groups of fifth graders, spent a week in archival processing, and generally immersed myself in the collections. My internship led to jobs as a reading room attendant, a page, and a student assistant to the manuscripts archivist, as well as volunteering for one of the rare book catalogers. With the addition of the excellent special collections classes offered by my program, I quickly knew I wouldn't be as happy in any other kind of library. When I started applying for special collections positions, it was my cataloging skills that got me interviews and, eventually, a job. Once I began cataloging professionally, there was no going back to public services, though I try to channel my cataloging knowledge into reference, education, and outreach whenever I have the chance.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

With all the incredible books I've worked with over the past few years, I could make an extensive list. But I'll go with The Growth of Industrial Art, put out by the Government Printing Office in 1892. It's a massive book (51 cm tall) and lavishly illustrated. Each page traces the historical development of a particular invention through drawings of that invention, with many of the illustrations taken from applications to the U.S. Patent Office. It covers everything from furniture to musical instruments to farm equipment. There's even a page dedicated to "cork extractors" that includes a drawing of a man pulling a cork out of a bottle with his teeth, before advancing to more modern (and more efficacious) corkscrews. When I had the chance to catalog a copy, I was about six months into my first professional library job, at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., and up to that point I'd primarily been copy cataloging 21st century materials. Working with The Growth of Industrial Art was the first time that I was so taken with the book I was cataloging that I devoted a little more time to it than was strictly necessary. It absolutely delighted me (and still does).

What do you personally collect?

I have two main book collecting areas. The first is volumes of folk tales and fairy tales. I had a fabulous English teacher in eighth grade who did an entire unit on different versions and retellings of Cinderella that turned me on to the incredible power of these stories, and that year, I bought my first copy of the Brothers Grimm's Kinder- und Hausmärchen. I now have an array of tales from throughout the world, though I'm still weak in non-Western traditions. My collection also includes modern adaptations (representing a drop in the bucket of the riches available), which range from picture books to Y.A. novels to stories aimed at adults.

My second focus is editions of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, which are the two books I've probably read more than any others in my life. Half the collection is translations, acquired with generous assistance of friends and family on their travels. The other half is English-language, where I usually look for editions with added scholarly content (e.g. the various editions of Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice) or with illustrations other than the originals by John Tenniel.  My collection also encompasses a handful of non-monograph Alice-iana, including an oversized deck of playing cards with notches in the sides for building card houses and an audio dramatization on both cassette and LP.

I also have an ever-increasing collection of vinyl records. Classical music is among my favorite genres, and there are many wonderful recordings that never made the transition to CD or digital. But I also enjoy the intentionality that putting on a record brings to the experience of listening to music. It especially encourages me to appreciate an album in its entirety, rather than just a handful of favorite songs shuffled into disparate playlists.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I am passionate about music (see the vinyl collection above), and it's a rare moment when I don't have something playing in my apartment (metal for baking, Disney for cleaning, anything and everything for reading...). Additionally, I practice multiple kinds of needle work: cross stitching, knitting, crocheting, and periodic attempts at shuttle tatting. I'm also a jigsaw puzzle aficionado, and the card table in my living room tends to cycle between in-progress puzzles and sprawled out stitching projects. In more social recreation, my friends and I enjoy arranging bad movie nights. We pick a movie that looks entertainingly terrible and then try to find a cocktail recipe that thematically goes with the movie. We've had movies fail, and cocktails fail, but I don't think we've yet had both fail together.

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

Quite simply, I love the materials I handle every day. Whenever I think I've seen everything my job has to offer, a surprise comes across my desk. Whether it is a Venetian incunable from 1487 or a souvenir postcard from Rialto, California in 1910, with a manuscript note discussing the weather, the sender's new embroidered shirtwaist, and the price of eggs, there's always something that draws me back into the history and the human connection of the items I catalog. When I describe my job to non-librarians, I like to say that working in special collections, as either a practitioner or a researcher, is like spending time in a museum where you're allowed to touch things. Rare book libraries treasure and nurture the intersection of materiality and intellectual content, and I find that the intermingling of, and occasional tensions between, these two facets of our collections drives and inspires the work that we do.

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

As our society is increasingly embroiled in struggles over the validity of competing facts and the narratives spun from those facts, all libraries are ever more necessary to level the playing field for free and open access to information. But special collections libraries are uniquely situated to provide access to the primary sources of our shared past. To fully embrace this role, however, we must be inclusive and broadly encompassing, in what we collect, the stories we use our collections to tell, and who we tell these stories to. As I know from all my interactions with my fellow special collections practitioners, our field is filled with the passion and talent to find these diverse materials and to make them accessible to the present while preserving them for the future. Special collections are for everyone, and we should strive to ensure that all facets of our work, from acquisitions, to cataloging, to outreach, send this message clearly and unambiguously. This goal is a challenge, but it's one the field is increasingly embracing to wonderful result

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

I'm currently cataloging a fascinating collection of books and serials relating to the history of spies and the intelligence profession. It was collected by Walter L. Pforzheimer, who worked with the OSS in World War II and eventually became a lawyer for the CIA. The materials cover a range of topics and genres, including plays about Benedict Arnold, French pamphlets about the Diamond Necklace Affair, German monographs on the social implications of outlawing prostitution in Berlin, and even one book that was mysteriously blank after the title page. Prior to working with this collection, I would never have guessed how many journals, magazines, and newsletters the intelligence profession has, and many of these titles have not been previously cataloged. I created an original record for a CIA newsletter a few weeks ago, and when I told my boss, he said, "Maybe there's a reason it hadn't been cataloged before..." But the CIA hasn't come to take me away yet, so I think my cataloging is safe?

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

The current exhibition at the Beinecke is called Text and Textile. It highlights what I mentioned before, how special collections libraries are perfectly placed to explore the intersection of materiality and content. It examines the importance of textiles in literature, labor history, and fashion history, using materials that span the Beinecke's collections. It also features printing on textiles and paper as textile.