Bright Young Librarians: John McQuillen

Our series profiling the next generation of curators and special collections librarians continues today with John McQuillen, Assistant Curator of Printed Books at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

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How did you get started in rare books?

I started my Master's degree in Medieval Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas wanting to work on Early Medieval art in the British Isles. Talking to the professor after my first class on Romanesque Art, she asked if I needed a campus job and sent me to her husband, the Curator of Special Collections at Bridwell Library. I got a job as his curatorial assistant and started working with Reformation pamphlets, Methodist printing, English bibles, and Kelmscott and Ashendene Press books and ephemera. Most importantly, though, I was introduced to the physical study of medieval manuscripts and incunabula (of which Bridwell has an incredibly strong collection), and I never looked back.

Where did you earn your advanced degrees?

After my MA, I decided to pursue a PhD in Art History at the University of Toronto focusing on fifteenth-century books: their decoration, binding, and use, and the changes to libraries and book production networks when printed books entered the manuscript world. Describing the books in our collections is integral to my work at the Morgan, and my visual expertise as an art historian has attuned me to the visual nature of printed books, their decoration, bindings, and signs of use.

What is your role at your institution?

In the Printed Books & Bindings Department I am largely responsible for items in our collection from the 15th-16th Centuries, although all curators are often called on to work with items out of their specific area. There is the daily work of acquisition, cataloguing, research, answering reference requests, discussing conservation needs, and exhibition preparation, but I truly relish talking to classes and tours and bringing rare materials out for them to see. It is always fun watching some visitors wrap their heads around the fact that I am actually showing them something 500 years old.

My most long-term project is expanding the catalogue descriptions of our incunabula and blockbooks in order to bring them up-to-date with contemporary standards and practices and to highlight the copy-specific aspects of the books. The collection is just less than 3,000 items, and although many--like our three Gutenberg Bibles--are quite well known and researched, many, many more have important bindings, inscriptions, provenance, and signs of printing history and use that have gone relatively unpublished. I hope that my efforts will bring even some of these characteristics to the attention of other scholars and researchers who will deepen our understanding of this important period in history.

Since the Morgan is both a library and museum, we have a strong exhibition focus and strive to bring book materials and works on paper alive for museum visitors. We have a rotation of highlights from our permanent collections that changes every four months and is set in glowing light of Morgan's original 1906 library. I am responsible for choosing the printed items, a binding, and at least one piece of printed Americana for these exhibits. Also on display are highlights from our Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, Literary and Historical Manuscripts, and Music Manuscripts and Printed Music collections. I have only been at the Morgan since October 2012, and preparing these rotations has helped me greatly to learn the breadth and depth of the collections. Additionally, we present about twelve exhibitions from our own collections as well as loans from other institutions each year in the galleries. I am working on two loan exhibitions for summer 2014 and fall 2016, as well as my own exhibition on William Caxton, the first printer in England, for summer 2015. The Morgan's Caxton collection is quite extensive with about 70 items, including the first and second edition of The Canterbury Tales, as well as the only extant complete copy of Sir Thomas Malory's Le morte d'Arthur.

Have you worked at other institutions as well?

Aside from Bridwell Library, where I was a curatorial assistant and then the Special Collections Cataloguer, I was a Graduate Fellow at the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies (CRRS) in Victoria University at the University of Toronto. I worked in the CRRS library for four years, where I assisted researchers and visiting scholars, helped organize CRRS conferences and events, worked on the newsletter and mail-outs, and worked with the Victoria University library cataloguing department to more fully describe and organize some of the rare book collections.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

My favorite book at the moment is a 1527 copy of a Martin Luther New Testament, where the Four Gospels have been combined into a single narrative of the Life of Christ with full-page, multi-scene woodcuts visualizing the narrative. Another full-text edition of the Gospels from 1527 has been bound into our copy, which is still in its original 16th-century binding, but this edition was translated into German by Hieronymus Emser, a vehement opponent of Luther. I find it fascinating that whoever wanted these texts bound together did not really care which side of the Reformation the translator supported, and it inspires interesting questions about contemporary book use and readership. Of course, I never get tired of looking at the Gutenberg Bible, and I think I am developing extra muscles from hefting those volumes off of the shelf. I also recently found a small book-shaped flask from Noel Coward hiding amongst the octavo Psalters in the 1906 library shelves; it was empty.

What do you personally collect?

Frankoma Pottery. The company was founded in the 1930s by John Frank, an art professor at the University of Oklahoma, and it used the local red clay of Oklahoma for dinnerware and sculpture. My family is from Oklahoma and already had a lot of this material, but eBay is turning out to be my undoing. I also take small rocks from places I visit: Iceland, Maine, Palm Springs, Ireland, the Adirondacks, etc.; I can (largely) remember from where they all came. If I had more space in my apartment, I would go after original Guinness and early 20th-century travel America posters.

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

I guess it goes without saying: the books themselves. That's why most of us are in this field, right? Whether I am recataloguing an incunable or answering a research question about the first edition of the Icelandic bible, every historical artifact gives you the opportunity to learn something new, that is, if you ask it the right questions. What excites me about the field is trying to convey this historical wonder to audiences, whether in a tour setting or an exhibition case. It is frequently difficult to cram all of your interest and excitement over an item into a brief exhibit label, but I always hope that a visitor would find something that excites or inspires them in one of the books or through one of the labels.

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

I will answer this from my own point of view as a rare book curator at an art museum, as opposed to a library. As with many other professions, the nature of rare book curating is changing with advents in technology and a public whose relationship to reading, books, and history is also changing. We have the same challenges as many art museums and cultural institutions in a world where the arts must compete with a burgeoning array of leisure-time activities, and we work hard to keep our collections alive and relevant to an ever-changing society. I think to ensure the future of rare book curating--whether in a museum or library--we must maintain a perpetual and relevant dialogue between our artifacts and our public through multiple means of bringing these items to life for our visitors.

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

We hold the entire extraordinary archive of the Paris Review, including ephemera and all correspondence. Perhaps most unusual, or just non-typical, items for a library is the large collection of realia, including Arturo Toscanini's baton, Alice Liddell's childhood ring, Martha Washington's wedding dress, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's quill pen, among many other literary and historical items.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

Currently, there is Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul on view until 26 January 2014 and Bookermania, on the Man-Booker Literary Prize until 5 January, as well as Leonardo da Vinci drawings and manuscripts from the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Italy until 2 February. On 24 January 2014 an exhibit showcasing the original manuscript and watercolor drawings of The Little Prince will open. For the complete listing, please visit