Bright Young Librarians: Jayne Ptolemy

Image courtesy of Michigan Photography

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Jayne Ptolemy, Assistant Curator of Manuscripts at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

What is your role at your institution?

I am the Assistant Curator of Manuscripts at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, which collects and preserves primary sources about early America and makes them available to the public. In my role I help accession, process, and describe manuscript collections, as well as facilitate access to them through classes, talks, and other programs.

Our manuscript holdings are incredibly rich, with particular strengths in the American Revolution and military history, social reform movements, business and education, daily life, and so much more. If you’re interested in American history before 1900, come search our finding aids and I bet you’ll find something you’d be thrilled to see (and now you know someone to reach out to, to help make that happen).

How did you get started in special collections?

I fell in love with special collections and archives during my dissertation research, and I was fortunate to start volunteering with the Clements Library a few months after earning my degree. From there, I secured a position with the library’s reference team and eventually shifted to full-time work with manuscripts. It’s been an extraordinary way to celebrate everything I love about history -- the human stories, the puzzling questions we try to solve, the delight of discovery and understanding -- and I feel so honored getting to support other people’s research journeys.

Where did you earn your degrees?

I received my B.A. in History from Albion College and my Ph.D. in History and African American Studies from Yale University. I’ve been continuously learning about library science, early American history, and the ethical care of collections at the Clements ever since!

Favorite rare book/ephemera that you've handled?

I have a soft spot for things that evoke the people who created or handled the objects, so I love traced hands, ink thumbprints, marginalia, vernacular repairs to paper, lipstick kisses on letters… I really value those smaller, quieter moments in the archive that allow you to pause and try to imagine the people who previously held the same item. We have an exquisite 1790 children’s book, Hagar in the Desert, that has a handmade cover of floral paper, likely just something beautiful that the original owners had available to them, and its title page features a dramatic tear across it that someone carefully sewed back together.

As someone who has a number of children’s books that have taped pages or whose corners were lovingly chewed on, Hagar is a lovely example of young learners and how we make do to keep these books together for one more reading. If you’re looking for ways to help support the library’s mission to preserve treasures like these and responsibly steward them for the next generation, you can learn more about opportunities to “Adopt a Piece of History,” including Hagar!

What do you personally collect?

Unintentionally, I’ve been building my own curated selection of my kindergartener’s artwork over the years and I have a bright blue glass jar where I collect all the secreted little things I find in his pockets -- a marble, a puzzle piece, a small stone, a strange tiny lightbulb. It’s a constant reminder to me about how archives are actually built -- the things you personally love or need or can’t bear to throw away -- and it helps me connect to the family papers we hold at the library. They’re telling the story of not just the person who wrote the letter but also the people who cared enough to hold onto it, whether it’s out of love, spite, or pure necessity.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I enjoy sewing and art, and I especially love when I can combine my outside interests with what’s happening within the library’s walls. It’s been exciting to find ways to integrate needlecraft into class sessions and explore how that helps us understand some of the sewn materials you encounter in an archive. I’ve also started collaging and doing origami with facsimiles of material from the library’s collections, as I continue to reflect on how creativity helps us see and feel the past in different ways.

What excites you about special collections librarianship?

The undercurrent of yearning for personal connection in the field has always felt really powerful. You see researchers carefully studying the past to understand the people or the times that came before us, or to better understand themselves or their own world. You see library professionals deeply committed to working with people to help those stories get told, or conservationists carefully laboring to preserve the objects in a way that does honor to them and their history. You get to look closely and listen carefully yourself and think expansively about how to spotlight the humanity that connects it all together.

Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?

Here at the University of Michigan our librarians, archivists, and curators recently formed a union, LEO-GLAM AFT-MI Local 6244, and ratified our first contract. It’s been electrifying to connect meaningfully with peers across our campuses and really think and talk about our labor and work environments. So much has changed in the field in the past decade, that it feels especially important to work collectively to advocate for institutional support and evaluate what we need to do our best work to meet the changing demands of our users.

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

The Clements Library is a remarkable resource for the deep study of the early American past, so there is no shortage of fascinating, befuddling, and joyful materials to explore. Personally, what I enjoy are the little bibliographies library staff end up compiling, where we begin to curate our own lists of items that connect across collections.

I have a bibliography of kisses I maintain, where I note all the places I encounter people smooching pages to send their love, with examples spanning one hundred and fifty years (so far). Our digital image bank is also a lot of fun to search to see what comes up. I invite you to search for “cats,” “beards,” or “kisses” (!) -- or whatever terms might pull something up that resonates with you and brings you inspiration.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

2023 marks the Clements Library’s centennial, so we are excited to be putting together a physical and online exhibit spotlighting our own institutional history and the evolution of our holdings over the years. Keep an eye on our exhibits webpage for more details or explore some of the other resources!