Bright Young Librarians: Courtney Asztalos

Courtesy of Courtney Asztalos

Courtney Asztalos, curator of plastics and historical artifacts at Syracuse University.

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Courtney Asztalos, Curator of Plastics and Historical Artifacts at Syracuse University.

What is your role at your institution?

I am the Curator of Plastics and Historical Artifacts at the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) at Syracuse University Libraries (SUL). I maximize student and faculty engagement with SCRC holdings of rare plastics artifacts and collections by creating and delivering interactive instructional sessions and curating exhibitions. I photograph and inventory artifacts for inclusion in the Libraries' Plastics Collection Website and arrange for optimal storage of the objects. I also work with donors to further develop the collections.

Tell us about the plastics collection:

The Plastics Collection at Syracuse University Libraries serves as a research and programming resource to advance the study and understanding of plastics in modern society, including its role in chemistry, technology, industry, marketing, health, art, design and other fields. The Plastics Collection includes books, periodicals, manuscripts and over 5,000 plastic objects produced from the late 19th century to the present day. The collection holds a variety of early plastics made of celluloid, thermoset plastics such as Bakelite and Catalin and plastics made popular after WWII. The archival collection contains material related to important plastics companies and pioneers in the field of Plastics. The collection expanded dramatically in 2008 when the National Plastics Center and Museum located in Leominster, Massachusetts closed and transferred its collections of artifacts, books and manuscripts to Syracuse University (SU). This acquisition expanded the Libraries’ already significant holdings in industrial design, science, and technology.

How did you get started in special collections?

As an artist, my own work has been collected by several Special Collections libraries before being employed in this field. I remember admiring Special Collections as spaces that supported artists actively through artist book collecting. My undergraduate education in Studio Art and Photography at Florida State University frequently brought us to the Special Collections there. I was always so inspired when handling and seeing the materials. Prior to graduate school, I worked in various roles, ranging from art handler to Curatorial Assistant for Performing Arts Curator Raelle Myrick-Hodges at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in New Orleans. I left New Orleans to pursue a Master's degree in Art Photography from the Transmedia Department at SU. Before, during, and after graduate school I often coordinated, curated and organized contemporary art exhibitions in a variety of spaces. I was awarded the opportunity to teach courses both as a TA and as the sole instructor of record during my graduate program and post-graduation when hired on as an adjunct. This teaching experience was invaluable. While in graduate school, I was awarded a semester-long artist-residency program in Los Angeles, where I gained experience at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) as a curatorial intern working with Edward Hayes Jr., Curator of Exhibitions. Working in these various roles at both the CAC and MOLAA prepared me to thrive in an environment where staff at smaller institutions wear many hats. After the semester residency program in Los Angeles, I was especially drawn to SCRC as a grad student researcher because it was a hybrid between a museum and a library—notably with the Plastics Artifacts Collection and photography collections. I completed a semester of independent study as a research assistant for our former SCRC Director, Dr. Lucy Mulroney. Post-graduate school, I was hired as a media preservation assistant working with describing, photographing, and rehousing the physical media collections at SCRC's Belfer Audio Archive. I also began to teach history of photography instruction sessions at SCRC. Once my contract was up for the media preservation assignment, I was then hired to photograph artifacts for inclusion in the Plastics Collection website before being hired on in my current position. I’ve been in this role for a year now and am so grateful to be here—SCRC is such a vibrant place to work. On top of having such amazing collections, the staff here are so friendly, helpful and knowledgeable about the unique collections here—their enthusiasm is energizing.

Favorite rare book / ephemera / plastic that you've handled?

Favorite plastic artifact from the Plastics Artifacts Collection? There are so many—it's so hard to choose! I love anytime I can interact with the Albany Billiard Ball Company billiard balls, union daguerreotype cases, celluloid combs, Bakelite Corp. artifacts, Henry Ford’s soybean-based fiberboard license plates and many of the historical plastic samples with unique packaging. I enjoy reviewing plastics product literature—i.e., Catalin product pamphlets and Lucite Boudoir catalogs. We are also just digitizing for inclusion in our online collections the Antique Comb Collectors Club Newsletters, written and edited by a rotating group of dedicated and curious antique comb collectors from 1987 to 2014. The network of "combers" is fascinating and shows a truly unique community that gathered around the history of hair ornaments. For teaching, I love pulling our Baby Brownie Kodak camera designed by Walter Dorwin Teague and "Residential" saucers designed by Russel Wright. Teaching with these artifacts allows me to also share materials from both Teague's and Wright's manuscript collections and talk about how the Plastics Artifacts Collection intersect with our Industrial Design collections.

What do you personally collect?

8-track tapes! I love the combination of image, sound, and (plastic!) form.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love working on creative projects—individually and collaboratively. I love listening to music, traveling, reading, and cooking.

What excites you about special collections librarianship?

Teaching with the collections and fostering curiosity and creativity. I love empowering students to investigate, interpret and explore plastics' material culture—it is such a crucial time to connect with how our cultural relationship with plastics began and evolved. By illuminating, sharing, uncovering, and encouraging hands-on instruction with our materials, each session is an opportunity for students to consider how this material shaped the 20th century and reflect on their relationship to plastic.

Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?

As technology advances, there is so much potential to work with departments across campus in new and exciting ways. As VR and 3D printing technology advances, I look forward to seeing how the field will combine this technology with instruction and digitization. I've enjoyed a partnership with SU Art Instructor Jacob Riddle in collaborating with his Digital Fabrication students to 3D scan plastics artifacts and "remix" them in VR and 3D printing. I've also been very excited to partner with Syracuse Chemistry of Artifacts Project (SCOAP) from SU’s Department of Chemistry. SCOAP is identifying the chemical composition of our plastics artifacts using the nondestructive technique of Raman spectroscopy. There is still much to figure out in the future on how to integrate plastics conservation in a Special Collections context.

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

I’m a huge fan of our fabulous collections and could go on… For now, I will point to the plastics-related Foster Grant Collection—it includes product literature, catalogs, photographs, as well as early correspondence related to the Foster Grant Heart-Lung Pump between Dr. Sigmund Wesolowski, Dr. Herman Sugarman, and Robert Ward. If you like the Foster Grant Company, then you can also find in our Plastics Artifacts Collection many Foster Grant sunglasses, molds, and material samples used in the manufacturing process of eyewear.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your Library?

Syracuse University is celebrating its sesquicentennial next year, and our University Archivist Meg Mason is curating “150 Years of Tradition at Syracuse University” to open Fall of 2019! I'm currently working on an exhibition about Edwin Bushman—a Plastics Engineer and pioneer in the fields of acrylic and fiberglass products—for our Plastics Pioneers Reading Room.