Bright Young Librarians: Jason W. Dean

Our series profiling the next generation of special collections librarians and curators continues today with Jason W. Dean, Assistant Librarian and Head of the Special Formats Cataloging Unit at the University of Arkansas.


How did you get started in rare books?

While I was still in library school I volunteered in the research library at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, which is to my mind one of the great undiscovered American book places, as Nicholas A. Basbanes calls them. I am constantly indebted to the great library and archives staff there that allowed me to try my hand at many different things - cataloging maps and rare materials, writing about Diderot's Encyclopédie, and working with the papers of the Hardinge Family and Eliot Porter. However,  my real "start" in rare books was as the cataloger at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.  The library there holds a significant and largely unknown collection - the American color plate collection, collected by William S. Reese. This collection is an under-researched gem, something I am trying to address in my own writing and scholarship. The time I spent cataloging those items was very much an education by necessity in rare books and bibliography. I am fortunate that my current position is broad enough (and the administration supports my varied interests) that I can continue doing work in special collections as well as my other responsibilities. This means I continue thinking about and working with rare books in my present position - something I'll discuss more below.

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

I earned my MSLIS at Syracuse University, and I am currently in the PhD program in history here at the University of Arkansas, looking at the history of the book in the American West with Elliott West and Beth Schweiger. I am really interested in using books as context for history, and looking closely at the material evidence that books are. Placing these objects in the context of their own time enhances the users' understanding of the object itself, its intellectual content, and the wider context of ideas. This contextualization is so important to me, I think, due to my background in art museums, where the contextualization of artworks is a key element in art historical scholarship.

What is your role at your institution?

I am assistant librarian and head of the special formats cataloging unit at the University of Arkansas Libraries. Our unit handles media, theses, and dissertations. Recently, I've been tasked with cataloging items for our amazing Arkansas Collections and a rare book collection in conjunction with my "work next-door neighbor," special collections cataloger Mikey King, in addition to the head of special collections, Tim Nutt. It's lovely to wear lots of hats - something I did at my previous two institutions. I am immensely grateful to my supervisor and the library administration for supporting me in my varied professional and scholarly interests.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

Any time I hold a one of a kind item, it's such a thrill. That said, at this very moment I am researching the life and works of a botanical illustrator named S. Fred Prince in conjunction with Sarah Burke Cahalan at Dumbarton Oaks. We are presenting a paper on Prince, his life, his work, and our research methods at the RBMS preconference in Las Vegas this year. I've detailed many of my favorite things in my old tumblr in a series called Neat Things I've Cataloged. Those were mostly things I worked on at my previous workplace, though.

What do you personally collect?

Far too much! It should be no surprise that my wife and I have an overflowing home library that includes several fine press books, signed books, and so on. Our home library reflects our varied interests in history, writing, education, and art. Outside of our overflowing bookshelves, we also collect the work of artists Allison V. Smith, Craig Varjabedian, Shannon Richardson, Scott Barber, and the work of John Kristensen and his Firefly Press.

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

Like I said above, the thrill that comes from handling, thinking about, and chiefly sharing the amazing items in rare book collections. Handling these items really puts our profession in a much larger picture - that we are simply caretakers of these items for the next group of patrons and librarians, and so on. It makes one feel very humble to have these things entrusted to you.

However, the real excitement for me is in the sharing of these items. The experience reminds me of a Mark Rothko quote:

A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent.

These books only live when they are used, talked about, and appreciated. I remember singing a song as a child about how love is only something if you give it away - and that is true for rare books as well. It's all well and good to store and preserve these titles, but they have no real "life" unless we speak up on their behalf - as they aren't standing up and dancing on the shelves!

One of the great thrills for me of late has been interacting with other rare books and special collections folks on twitter - it's the best community I've found online, frankly, and I am so happy to be a small part of that.

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

The importance of special collections and rare book librarianship comes for me in the material object. I understand and am committed to the creation and description of digital surrogates, but to my mind the key to the successful future of special collections and rare book librarianship lay in the physicality objects in this realm. Perhaps I am in danger of repeating my above response, but without an analog copy of the items in these collections, how will we provide digital surrogates of these items? All of this reminds me of one of my favorite New Yorker covers.

I recently watched William S. Reese's talk about the Zinman Collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia, and an extract from that talk seems very germane:

One argument for the necessity of using original sources is the notion that the original artifact lends an immediacy to our understanding of the text. We handle and observe firsthand the aesthetic of a place and time, providing context to text.

Though he might disagree with Reese's quote, John Overholt did a lovely job of talking about this advocacy in his Five Theses on the Future of Special Collections. In the article Overholt asserts that special collections "cannot survive merely as a prestigious ornament to the university; we will need to articulate the centrality of our collections to the university's mission." Of course, John is right on-point on this - the items in special collections - rare books, manuscripts, &c are indeed lovely, but their real value is in their physical nature. Paper, binding, marginalia, associations, notes - so many of these have direct bearing on scholarship done both inside and outside the academy. I suppose my rejoinder to John's point is to re-emphasize the unique nature of these items, and tie this uniqueness to scholarly activities, and directly to the university's mission and goals.

Of course, there are a myriad of challenges for the preservation of, and access to, born-digital materials, something we will contend with as professionals for the foreseeable future. Here at the U of A library, the university archives are a part of special collections, so that makes the born-digital concerns of great interest to special collections librarians and collections.

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

I recently completed working with a group to complete a digital project we called CAPA, or, the Colonial Arkansas Post Ancestry Project. Arkansas Post was one of a myriad of posts and settlements established by the French to legitimize their claims to the Mississippi River. As such, it's far older than most people might suspect - Henri de Tonti established the post in 1689. The project is based largely on the personal papers of Dorothy Jones Core, held in special collections here. Core was interested in the genealogy and ancestry of those French and later Spanish families that lived at or were associated with Arkansas Post. Her life's work dealt with researching and collating the disparate primary source materials that deal with French and Spanish colonial activities in North America.

There is a large body of secondary material, chiefly by Judge Morris Arnold, alumni of the law school here at the University of Arkansas, and recently retired FISA and federal appeals court judge. However, the majority of the items in the CAPA collection are primary source materials, and as such we have digitized many items not previously available online. Our work in establishing controlled forms of family and place names, as well as in transcribing and translating these documents will make CAPA a key resource for users examining either genealogy or early Euro-Arkansas history. This part was especially challenging, as the Post was first French, then Spanish - with the resulting written record being a unique melange of those languages and spellings. Bringing a level of consistent description and access through the creation and application of controlled vocabulary to places and names was both challenging and fascinating to me as a librarian and a historian. Of course, having one of the largest repositories of Arkansas related materials one floor down made that work far easier.

Of course, these materials are only part of a much larger collection of manuscripts, from those of J. William Fulbright to the noted architect E. Fay Jones.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

On display right now is Isaac C. Parker's personal copy of the Constitution, which was recently donated to the library. Also recently opened were the papers of retired Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers.