Bright Young Librarians: Devin Fitzgerald

Courtesy of Devin Fitzgerald

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Devin Fitzgerald, Curator for Rare Books and the History of Printing at the UCLA Library Special Collections in California.

What is your role at your institution?

I am the curator for Rare Books and the History of Printing at UCLA Library Special collections. This title means that I am responsible for connecting our collections of printed books with communities of users, as well as developing new communities around unexplored or unappreciated corners of our holdings. I spend lots of time teaching, and finding people to talk to, while also trying to listen to the stories our materials tell.

I’m also partly responsible for collection development, which I take to mean that I am charged with addressing silences in our collection. We like to think of this as ‘canon-busting,’ which means we’re broadly engaged in helping to highlight the value of materials that have been excluded or undervalued by developing plans for new acquisitions and conversations.

How did you get started in special collections?

It’s hard to pinpoint a certain moment when I became involved in Special Collections. When I was young, I spent lots of time in the Lebanon (NH) public library battling dyslexia with tutors. When letters finally started resolving themselves into words, sometime during third grade, I turned into an obsessive reader. Those earlier experiences meant that I always viewed libraries as places to solve the problems that interested me – and by the time I was in graduate school for Chinese history – I was an avid user of old books.

Despite my time in libraries, I never really imagined myself working in a library. That’s because even though I was in a PhD program, I thought that I needed to go to library school to get into a library. As a first-gen student who had spent time living on a mattress in a friend’s garage attic, the price tag attached to an MLIS, made that option unrealistic. So, library work remained a distant dream.

The real turning point came in 2015, when I was accepted into Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography, a fellowship that was designed to train academics in material approaches to the book. Since it came with three courses at the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, I made the rather idiosyncratic choice to pursue something as far away from East Asian studies as humanly possible: western descriptive bibliography. I took descriptive bibliography – and hated/loved every minute of it. As is often the case with me, the more idiotic something makes me feel, the more interested I become. I decided to start collating everything. After finally graduating to become a lab instructor, I realized that I had accidentally emerged as someone with a unique portfolio of skills in East Asian and Western bibliography.

While interdisciplinarity sounds good in practice, it had one unintended consequence: people didn’t really know what to do with me anymore. I failed on the job market for a couple of years. I tried to stay afloat by selling books. I snapped up every chance to do anything with collections. I worked as an adjunct and scrapped pennies. People were incredibly generous with me – and I was fortunate that my partner had a job that let me slowly remake myself into a library person. In the end, my extensive support network kept me sane, and I managed, with help from many people, to get hired by UCLA.

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

I’m finishing my PhD at Harvard. My advisors, Dr. Mark Elliott, Dr. Michael Szonyi, and Dr. Ann Blair have all been exceedingly patient with my writing and intellectual development.

I am also a first-generation student, who benefitted from lovely mentors as an undergraduate at UMass-Amherst, including Sharon Domier, Al Cohen, and Peter Gregory.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

I have two books in my office that I absolutely refuse to return.

The first is a wild late Qing (the last dynasty in China, 1644-1911) collection of examples of stele inscriptions. The book was compiled by Niu Yunzhen (d. 1758) – and it’s a splendid example of mixed printing techniques. Niu collected rubbings of excavated texts. He had these rubbings shrunk down and engraved on boards. Rubbings were taken from the boards and cut and pasted into a xylographically printed book, which served as a guide to ancient inscriptions and epigraphy. I use the book to discuss Chinese printing whenever I can get the chance. Rubbing (also called ink squeezing) is a technique that didn’t exist in the west, and the pasted in inscriptions really show the sophistication of some Chinese printers.

The other book I have in my office is a stunning copy of the famous bilingual Arabic-Latin Gospels, published by the Medici press in 1591. I love this book for lots of reasons. It demonstrates a real achievement in European printing in Arabic, something that surprises many people. It also has fantastic woodcuts. But what I really like about the UCLA copy is its marginalia. Someone in the seventeenth century went through the book and collated it against an Arabic language manuscript copy of the Gospels.

What do you personally collect?

I collect several different sorts of things. Since I struggled greatly during my primary education, I have a soft-spot for ratty school-books, both Western and East Asian. I particularly like things that show students behaving badly – either by defacing their books or by using them in unintended ways.

In addition to these tattered books, I have a small collection of objects related to the history of printing. I have about 10 Chinese and Japanese woodblocks, piles of paper specimens, and a few flongs.

Finally, I also try to get anything by LA Latinx book artists. Right now, that’s mostly just zines – but I’m thinking about getting more serious about this area.

What do you like to do outside of work?

Outside of work, I am involved with HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), which my partner encouraged me to try out. Just recently, I became the highest ranked Rare Book Librarian-Longsword fencer in California…I also spend lots of time moving, at a gym, at yoga, or dancing while I clean. 

For real fun, I am always practicing different languages (always two or three at once, always poorly). Right now, I’m working on Persian, since we have a large collection of Persian manuscripts at UCLA. I have also agreed to give a paper in Spanish next November. While I read Spanish, trying to remember how to speak the language is giving me my daily bellyful of humility and burning shame.

What excites you about special collections librarianship?

It’s hard to say what thing excites me most in special collections librarianship – it’s more about the constant feeling of wonder I get when I see all the things. If I do my job well, I am confronting my ignorance on a daily basis, and I’m working to process the experience of ignorance into collections of materials and pedagogical experiences that foster inclusive thinking. Working in the UCLA collection is like working in a lab for the humanities – and I’m always trying to make things explode – hearts, minds, ideas (Hopefully not books)… I think maybe it’s actually that destructive-productive process that I value most, because it helps people come to terms with histories in ways that foster humility and critical reasoning. If people leave the library with bigger hearts, wider eyes, and feeling a bit amused at their lack of knowledge, I’m content.

Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?

It’s hard to think about the future right now. In a month or two, many of us who are fortunate enough to have jobs will be returning to decimated budgets, and likely several months without much contact with patrons. One way I’ve been working through this reality is by attempting to balance the specific demands of my institution (UCLA) with my commitment to communities of people who care about books.

To make this slightly less abstract, I’m part of lots of different organizations – BSA, RBS, APHA, RBMS, UCLA – and I’m partly responsible for making sure people in these groups have access to the materials and ideas that they to encounter in order to be productive/happy (or sane). Since we’re all digital now, the borders between groups and responsibilities have gotten murkier –  not that I’ve ever cared much who is a member of X institution. So, for me, this is a moment to productively break down the borders between institutions. I hope that many academic institutions use this moment to let people know that academic libraries, like public libraries, are here to foster communities of knowledge and respond to what people need.

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

UCLA has great collections of Ethiopic materials, Armenian books, and we’re famous for having an Aldine or two and a few Islamic manuscripts.

Those collections aside, I am immensely proud of two new collections that I’ve brought in this year.

One of my major areas of collecting has been in Manila imprints from the seventeenth and eighteenth century. When I arrived, UCLA did not own a single book printed in the Spanish Colonial Philippines – now we have about 20. I wanted to start collecting these materials as a way to demonstrate our commitment to including collections related to the histories of Filipino-Americans before their arrival in California.

The second collection that I’ve built focuses on Chinese books used and read in early California (1854-1900). If readers have 10 minutes to spare, I just recorded a video on this collection for a conference.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

Well, our centennial exhibition was being installed in March. I was also in the middle of writing labels for an exhibition on “Teaching with Rare Materials,” which we were hoping would showcase our diverse holdings and our commitments to using donor support to make direct impacts in the classroom.