Bright Young Librarians: William Noel

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with William Noel, Director of the Kislak Center, for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

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How did you get started in rare books?

When I was about sixteen I was completely staggered to learn that you could actually hold an Anglo-Saxon manuscript in your hands, even today, if you could persuade a friendly librarian that you had a genuine research reason to do so.  I had to work hard to find my first research reason, and harder than I would like to admit to find my first friendly librarian. But after having studied one manuscript in the flesh I found it easy to think of reasons why I had to look at more.

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

Cambridge University

What is your role at your institution?

I am the Director of the Kislak Center, for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. I am also the Director of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, which is a Research Institute for the study of manuscripts in the digital age.

Tell us about some of your projects, I understand you directed the Archimedes Palimpsest project for example:

So the Archimedes Palimpsest is a thirteenth century Byzantine prayerbook. It contains seven erased undertexts, including two treatises by Archimedes that don't exist anywhere else, and it turns out, other unique political and philosophical texts from the ancient world (  The book was in such bad condition, the scripts so illegible, and the texts so important, that I was able to gather the help of the best conservators, imagers, project managers, data specialists and scholars in the world to do the work.  My primary goal in the project was to make sure I never made a decision; the decisions were best made by the experts. my role was to create an environment in which the right people could make the best decisions.  That wasn't always easy, but I had a far easier job than the experts. It was the coolest project that I have worked on, but I am just as proud of my publications on English manuscript illumination, and of the digital catalogue and archive of many of the manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum, where I could and sometimes did contribute to the intellectual side of the endeavor. 

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

Easy. The Utrecht Psalter - the great masterpiece of the book arts from the Carolingian Renaissance. I have only grazed it with the little finger of my right hand. But I have spent several days looking at it with Koert van der Horst, who was the (very friendly) keeper of manuscripts at the University Library of Utrecht for many years.

What do you personally collect?

Recordings of Bach's Cello Suites.

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

Two things.  Handling medieval manuscripts on a daily basis, and the potential of digital technologies to make special collections available to an audience of five billion people.

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

I tell you what. The future of Special collections is clear, and its rosy, and they will be central to the future of any library that is lucky enough to house them. As for rare book librarianship as a vocation, we have to make sure that we retain and value traditional skills as we rightly embrace the most modern technologies.

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

We are currently processing the archive off John Mauchly, the co-inventor of Eniac, and he turns out to have been a wonderful character. Check out this and other blog posts by Holly Mengel.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

Opening on August 22, and running through December 19 is "As the Ink Flows; Works from the Pen of William Steig", which will display highlights of a collection of over 3,000 drawings, notebooks and other material, by this wonderful cartoonist and children's book author. The gift was made by his widow Jeanne, to University of Pennsylvania Libraries.