Bright Young Librarians: Erin McGuirl

Image provided by Erin Schreiner

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Erin McGuirl, executive director of the Bibliographical Society of America (BSA) in New York City:

Could you please introduce us to the Bibliographical Society of American and your role there?

I signed on as the first-ever full-time Executive Director of the Bibliographical Society of America (BSA) in 2018. The Society was founded over a century ago, and has changed a lot since then. Here’s an example: in the early years our journal, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America (PBSA) gave a lot of space to enumerative bibliography, the history of collecting, and global textual traditions. After the second World War the “New” bibliography shifted focus to analytical bibliography and textual editing, and Anglo-American printed books. We are still well known for the scholarship PBSA publishes in that vein.

I was brought on as Executive Director with mandates to expand and diversify membership, enhance programming, and generally activate the Society within its interprofessional bibliophilic and scholarly context. We are doing that in part by drawing on the strengths of our long past to build awareness of what bibliography is and does, demonstrating its relevance to folks studying textual materiality broadly conceived. Bibliography is expansive. It is about enumerating groups of texts and establishing or expanding areas of study; it’s about studying the book trade and collecting; it’s about manuscript studies and paleography; it’s about the history of libraries and cataloging practices; it’s about the really close looking that distinguishes editions from issues from states. But it is not any one of those things and all of those approaches are equally valid.

Thanks to the amazing folks I work with on the Council and Committees – I couldn’t have asked for a better President than former Beinecke Director Barbara A. Shailor – we have made tremendous progress. BSA membership grew by more than 20% last year; we expanded our Fellowship program and made the application process easier and more equitable for applicants; and responded with lightning speed to the COVID crisis by creating a series of virtual programs and mutual aid resources. There is a lot going on behind the scenes, too, including a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Action Plan that we hope to approve at our October Council meeting, a project to revitalize and expand BibSite funded by the Delmas Foundation, and a really exciting line-up of virtual programs for the fall.

How did you get started in special collections?

In my very early twenties, three things happened: in my senior year I got a job in the Middlebury College Music Library, then I applied for and got an internship at Artbook @ MoMA PS1, and six months later I got a job as the Assistant in the Classics (Rare Book) Collection at Columbia’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library.

I loved my job in the music library. I discovered so much roaming the closed stacks of the CD collection. The experience also helped me to pinpoint the Artbook internship as an interesting possibility (instead of a curatorial internship) when I was getting ready to leave school. I loved my time at Artbook because the books were really interesting – the store is still well known for carrying artists’ books and zines – and it gave me the job experience I needed to work in a special collections library.

I was incredibly lucky to land in the Classics collection, where I ran the reading room from 2008 to 2011. The collection is unparalleled and suddenly I was in daily contact with everything from proofs of Piranesi’s Carceri prints, the Grammar of Ornament, and the Bauhaus books to building trade catalogs and American viewbooks. I fell hard and library school seemed like the next step. The job paid terribly (I started at just under $27,000/year; my rent was a NYC-miracle at $650 a month in a Craigslist four-bedroom share), but my position was unionized and 1199 SEIU helped me pay not only for my MLIS at the Palmer School, but also for two courses at Rare Book School that I was able to count as credits toward my degree. Since then, I’ve been able to work with so many great collections both public and private, and now I’m bringing the love of bibliography that’s stayed with me since my first RBS course (Intro to Des Bib, natch) to a leadership role. I do not take it for granted that I have always been excited and satisfied by my work.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

I’ve seen so many fantastic things in the collections I’ve worked with, and not only in institutional libraries but in private hands, too. In 2016 I left my job as Special Collections Librarian at the New York Society Library to start my own business as a consultant to private collectors and institutions. I began working with Robert M. Rubin, a collector of Film Noir, Western, & New Hollywood screenplays and production still photographs.

Screenplays are bibliographical frankensteins. They are book-objects used to circulate the “same” text to multiple people in more than one printed copy. They are also manuscript-like, produced and circulated in multiple drafts over time, and most are never commercially published. Libraries tend to acquire them not for their value as stand-alone objects, but as part of personal or corporate archives. Scripts are fascinating as material texts for a number of reasons, especially when you look at them in draft form, but I love them because they were overwhelmingly produced by women tapping away on typewriters in Hollywood studio typing pools. Scripts take the male-dominated image of printing and burst it wide open.

Rubin has many scripts with association value. Of the many association copies I’ve handled in his collection – Raymond Chandler’s copy of the script for Double Indemnity, John Wayne’s copy of The Searchers – the one that always stands out as the most powerful to me is actor Ernest Anderson’s copy of In This Our Life. Anderson was noticed by the lead, Bette Davis, when he was working in the Warner Brothers studio commissary, and cast in a pivotal role as an African American paralegal falsely accused of murder. He refused to speak his lines in the dialect that the directors and speech coaches demanded of him as a Black actor, and convinced Director John Huston that he should play the role as he saw fit. Anderson signed his copy of the script, and kept with it a photograph of himself holding it during production, a production call sheet, and his signed contract for the film. It’s a powerful testament to a turning point in a man’s life, and an under-recognized moment in American cinematic history. Anderson won a 1942 National Board of Review Award for his performance, went on to earn a B.A. in Drama and Speech from Northwestern University, and spent the rest of his career advocating for accurate portrayals of African Americans in film. Bravo.

What do you personally collect?

I collect Whole Earth Catalogs and their offspring – that is, books people made following the instructions in the article called “How to Do a Whole Earth Catalog” that appeared in the National Book Award winning Last Whole Earth Catalog (1971). I’m not an obsessive collector, I have fun with it. Recent acquisitions include a nearly complete set owned by someone who worked in the Whole Earth Truck Store and collaborated with Ken Kesey on the Last Supplement, and the Fall ‘71 “Healing” issue of the Canadian Whole Earth Almanac. The Almanac was printed by the Coach House Press in bright purple ink. Their printer’s device features an otter and maple leaves surrounding the motto “Printed in Canada on Canadian paper by mindless acid freaKs” [sic]. A favorite.

What do you like to do outside of work?

Oh, all kinds of stuff! Dance to 45 rpm records in my living room and encourage my partner to buy more. Watch movies. This year I’ve been able to spend more time with family in the Adirondack Mountains, and paddled my canoe and gardened to my heart’s content. Right now I’m reading Race, Sex, and Class by Angela Davis and listening to Katherine Hepburn read her autobiography, Me.

What excites you about working with a scholarly society dedicated to the study of books as objects material texts?

I’m excited to see a lot of positive growth and change in the Society. BSA membership is increasing and diversifying, our events programming is expanding, and every year we support a new group of research fellows with an even broader range of interests and disciplinary backgrounds. I work with so many great volunteers on our Council, Committees, and ad hoc working groups, and I think that the work we’re all doing is making bibliography seem more expansive and capacious as an intellectual approach.

Any upcoming publications or awards from the BSA that our readers should be aware of?

The Society just announced calls for our triennial Mitchell Prize for research in 18th-century periodicals and for Fellowship applications. We have two new categories of fellowships this year: one for midwestern bibliographers sponsored by the Caxton Club of Chicago, and another for early collections professionals sponsored by the Peck-Stacpoole Foundation. Applications to our New Scholars Program, which every year highlights research by folks who are new to the field, are coming due very soon on September 8, 2020.

Any programs at BSA (virtual or otherwise) that our readers should be aware of?

We announced this summer that our 2021 Annual Meeting – typically held on the Friday of Bibliography Week – will be held virtually this year. I’m excited! A virtual annual meeting means that no one has to travel to NYC in January (not a month known for its balmy weather in the City), and I hope that brings more people to the New Scholars Program, our general meeting, and our keynote lecture. This year’s speaker will be Dr. Derrick Spires, speaking on Liberation Bibliography, and we’re also planning a number of other virtual panels for Monday-Thursday. Stay tuned for more details as the year progresses!

Come September we’ll announce our program of virtual events for the fall/winter. Readers eager to see what we offer can check out recordings of our summer virtual programs on YouTube, or join our mailing list to be the first to hear about new events and other programs.