Bright Young Librarians: Steven Galbraith

Our series profiling the next generation of special collections librarians and curators continues today with Steven Galbraith, Curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York.

How did you get started in rare books?

After earning my MLS from the University of Buffalo, I began my career as a reference librarian at the University of Maine at Orono. There I studied with Linne Mooney, who is now Professor of Medieval English Palaeography at the University of York. She introduced me to palaeography and codicology. At the same time, I was studying Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene with an amazing mentor named Burton Hatlen. These two experiences were fundamental. Five years later I was finishing my dissertation on Edmund Spenser and the History of the Book and beginning a career in rare book librarianship that has taken me to The Ohio State University Libraries, The Folger Shakespeare Library, and now to RIT's Cary Graphic Arts Collection.

What is your role at your institution?

As Curator of the Cary Collection, I manage a special collections library documenting graphic communication history. This includes acquiring new material, working with donors, curating exhibitions, and hosting events. Overall, I try to be an effective ambassador for our library. One of the great joys of my job is teaching a course each year called "Tablet to Tablet: A History of the Book." We start the semester with cuneiform clay tablets and end with whatever technology the students have in their pockets. 

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

This is a very difficult question. I've been lucky to handle a number of extraordinary artifacts. The Folger Shakespeare Library has two legal documents that once belonged to William Shakespeare. Holding manuscripts that Shakespeare once held in his hands is pretty incredible. On perhaps the other end of the spectrum, the only book I've ever photographed myself holding is a Bible that belonged to Elvis. 

My new favorite acquisition at the Cary Collection is twenty fonts of Hebrew wood type that were used in Yiddish newspapers at the turn of the last century. Not only are these fonts simply beautiful, they are an important piece of American history.

What do you personally collect?

I have never really caught the collecting bug, so I have a very modest library consisting mainly of books of poetry. Most of the books in my house belong to my two young daughters. 

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

The constant discovery.  Librarianship offers a life of learning. Every day when I open the Cary Collection I am greeted by a room full of historical treasures waiting to share their stories. Working at RIT is particularly exciting. Rare book libraries aren't typically found at institutes of technology. Here I get to see firsthand fields such as game design and imagining science interacting with special collections. My colleagues and I collaborate with scholars and students in fields that are playing increasingly important roles in our field. They see our collection in unconventional and inspirational ways.

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

Special collections are an essential part of the future of libraries. More than ever, the rare and unique materials preserved in academic and public libraries define the personalities of those libraries and will continue to attract readers both in person and online. Manuscripts and realia will especially grow in importance. There is an enormous amount of information waiting be uncovered in these sometimes underused media. Special collection libraries are also at the forefront of the digital humanities.

Librarians need to have the skills and vocabulary required to interact with their technology partners. Also, libraries need to be embedded with programmers and scientists. 

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

The collection that our readers seem to find the most exciting is our collection of historical printing presses. We currently have sixteen presses, all of which are still in use. This collection is complemented by over 1500 fonts of metal and wood type. With the support of a generous donor, we recently acquired the 1891 Albion printing press used by William Morris to print the Kelmscott Chaucer, and later used by Frederic Goudy and our namesake Melbert B. Cary, Jr. We are currently in the process of restoring and reassembling it. If all goes well, we'll have a welcome party for the press in April. I can't wait to pull my first impression on it.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

Our spring exhibition, The Printed Poem, The Poem as Print, is curated by my colleague Amelia Fontanel and features a collection of American poetry broadsides printed between 1983 and 1985 at the Press of Colorado College. Exhibition programming will include poetry readings and some printing of our own. For more information, please visit: