Bright Young Librarians: Jamie Cumby

Courtesy of Jamie Cumby

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Jamie Cumby, Assistant Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts in the History of Science collection at Linda Hall in Kansas City, Missouri.

What is your role at your institution?

My official job title is Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts here in Linda Hall's History of Science collection. I do a little bit of everything, from outreach and instruction to cataloging to collection development. Having started my job in the midst of the pandemic, I have yet to do any face-to-face work with researchers, but I have been a part of some fun remote reference calls. I've also begun working on a project with Linda Hall's incunabula, revising our catalog records and making entries into the Material Evidence in Incunabula database. Broadly, my role is to support the ongoing work of the department, in collaboration with fellow Bright Young Librarian, Jason Dean.

How did you get started in special collections?

I had my first taste of special collections in a class session when I was an undergraduate. At the time, I was a Philosophy student, and I had never really thought about the book as anything other than as a vehicle for text. Needless to say, that one visit to special collections completely blew my mind. I remember sitting and staring at one of the Elzevier duodecimo editions of Descartes and thinking, for the first time, about what the experience of reading it would have been like in the seventeenth century. That exposure to the material culture of the book prompted me to sign up for the Book History class that Ruth Rogers teaches every other year at Wellesley. It was such a well-designed introduction. Every session took place in the reading room using books from the collection, except for sessions we would have with Katherine Ruffin in the book arts lab. In addition to a fantastic crash course in the history of handpress books, I got to make paper, cast type, set type, and then ink and print a broadsheet, which I still keep in my office.  

Though I had initially registered for the class for fun, I started to realize that something significant was happening to me while working on my first independent research project using a book from the collection. I threw myself into the work in a way I had never done before, like I'd gone into a trance. I would arrive when the reading room opened and left when it closed. That summer, I was lucky enough to be hired as the collections assistant. That first taste of professional experience confirmed my growing suspicions; I decided that, if I had a ghost of a chance of doing this kind of work for the rest of my life, I was going to take it. Both Ruth and Marian Oller, the assistant curator, were extraordinarily supportive of me, and together we worked on a plan for how I should approach my career. Their early confidence in me is what really got me started. Without their encouragement and mentoring I absolutely would not be where I am now.

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

I began my masters in Book History at the University of St Andrews in 2013, which, at the time, had a Material Bibliography/rare books cataloging component taught by Bright Young Librarian Daryl Green. My masters thesis led me to continue at St Andrews for my PhD, working with the book history group there. After finishing my PhD in 2018, I started my MLIS at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign through their online program. I have been taking classes part-time while working, but should be finally, officially credentialed this time next year!

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

This is very nearly an impossible question! When I'm spending any amount of extended time in the stacks, it seems like I fall in love with a new book every day. I've been feeling that way particularly acutely this week, since I'll be getting out five of our Ratdolt editions for a virtual class.  But if I absolutely must pick, I keep coming back to a tax form, printed in 1543 in Lyon by Denis de Harsy that I worked on at the Archives Municipales de Lyon.It was part of an edition of 800, printed as the city reorganized its tax system in the midst of a broader effort by the French royal government to revise its revenues. It is an early example, particularly for France, of a printed bureaucratic form, and it is exactly the kind of functional, ephemeral print that fascinates me. Part of why I love it so much is how unlikely it is that it survived in the first place.  In fact, before I found that copy, I had been ready to write off the edition as lost. Another reason comes from where it survived, bound up in a volume with a few hundred manuscript tax forms collected in the same year. So we see this new approach to managing bureaucracy next to the manuscript conventions it would eventually replace, treated much in the same way because it was still the same kind of document. I love things that blur the lines between manuscript and print culture, especially print that is meant to do something, be completed by hand, or serve a function (outside of reading) in ordinary life.

What do you personally collect?

I'm afraid I've moved around a little too much in the past ten years to do any serious collecting in my own right. Most of my collecting energy goes into my work!  My personal library is mostly either practical books for research, or sentimental things that I enjoy. I'm a bit of a pack rat when it comes to ephemera I find out in the world, which started when I was a teenager picking up interesting fliers at shows. Otherwise, I just try to keep on hand books that I'll want to refer back to and editions that I like. Now that I'm more settled, maybe I'll finally get my dream collection of printed forms off of the ground, but, for now, my personal collection development policy is guided by whatever catches my eye and the zine publishing patterns of artists I like.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I taught myself embroidery a few years ago and I like to make cross-stitch projects for friends.  I'm really pleased with my most recent one. It’s a "hell is other people" sign for my friend’s entryway, and I made the border from a few different images in a nineteenth-century German pattern book. I also really love movies and I have an ever-expanding list of things I want to see. A few years ago, as a joke, I decided to watch 500 movies in 500 days. I have a bad track record of letting things that I start for fun take over my life, so I finished the project but not the sprawling "to watch" lists I made for it. As a sort of outgrowth of our film habits, in quarantine my girlfriend and I started working on the concept and scripts for a horror series that may or may not ever see the light of day. Regardless of what ends up happening with it, it's been exciting to exercise some creative muscles! And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our two beautiful, insane cats: Buster and Fredson Bowers.

What excites you about special collections librarianship?

I think one of the really incredible aspects of our job is how accessible it can be.  Working with physical objects gives us so many opportunities to connect with people. A book is a familiar piece of technology -- more or less everyone has an idea of what a book can do - but books are intimate in addition to being functional. It’s very meaningful that books, almost more than any other household object, tend to survive in the long term. Presented in that kind of a context, a person doesn’t need much background to start to understand the value of what we do or to feel connected to a book in front of them. There is also a wonderful, demystifying effect when we explain books in terms of the mechanical processes that made them. It can transform something that might otherwise seem dry or intimidating into a technical marvel, the product of a dynamic, chaotic, crowded workroom. Nobody needs to feel intimidated by what we do or feel excluded from it. In the words of John Overholt, everyone is “special enough for special collections.”

On a more personal level, I also love the ambidextrousness of our work. One of the early things that helped me decide to pursue this as a career is the opportunity we have to learn new things. It is a joy every single day to get up and do a job where curiosity is rewarded.

Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?

COVID has brought into sharp relief what is and is not accessible in our collections when reading rooms are closed. While not all of the conversations between researchers and librarians have been productive or thoughtful (i.e. that infamous why can’t you make a universal catalog tweet), there is a lot of good, critical attention being paid to institutional priorities, description, and digital resources. When digitization priorities are governed by the same sort of focus on high points that has plagued collection development in the past, we exclude a lot of the good work that has been done to diversify collections. And beyond more straightforward questions around what is and is not digitized, or what is lost in creating digital facsimiles, I am looking forward to what I hope will be a renewed focus on description. This needn’t only cover copy-specific features like bindings and readership evidence, but can look more broadly at subject headings, references, or other animating details that can point users in new directions.  

Also, and this is by no means a new trend, I am excited about the growing momentum around diversity the field, both in terms of the books we collect and the people who work in special collections libraries. It has been gratifying to see our field respond to national conversations about race and racism, particularly when those conversations go beyond “collect more people of color.” What I hope we will see in the near future is a concerted effort to reassess not just collection development policies, but also to take a critical look at internal institutional practices that push librarians of color out of the field. 

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

This has been said before, but Linda Hall's astronomy collection is pretty unbelievable. It's an area of deep strength in the collection that consistently amazes me. It extends from the classics of western astronomy, often in interesting and important copies like our fine-paper Siderius Nuncius, to nonwestern print and manuscript books, to books that demonstrate women’s interaction with and contributions to the field. One of the coolest recent acquisitions in that last area is really two things: a set of cards to teach basic geography and astronomy, printed in 1795 in London, and the other is a manuscript book that copies a number of images from those cards, though possibly a later edition. The manuscript was compiled in 1841 by a woman, Charlotte Brooke Pechell, as a study tool, and is a great example of not just popular astronomy and education, but a cool case of print and manuscript interacting!

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

With COVID rates being what they are, there are no plans for exhibitions in the library for the foreseeable future. We do, however, have a brand new digital exhibitions page as of this August. Right now, it includes 18 exhibitions from the past 30 years.

Some of our materials are currently on loan for exhibitions outside of the library, if you are in the Kansas City area and want to see them in person. The deck of cards and the manuscript I mentioned previously are at the Toy and Miniature Museum, where they are part of a really interesting exhibition on gender and STEM toys. That will be on view through September 2021. Our copy of Dürer De symmetria is at the Nelson Atkins Museum alongside some of his contemporaries in a show about Renaissance figuration through January of 2021. We've also leant the volumes containing extinct birds from our royal octavo Birds of America for "Audubon and the Anthropocene" at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, which ends this coming November.