Bright Young Librarians | October 2023 |

Juli McLoone on Humphrey Repton, manuscript cookbooks, and the future of special collections librarianship

University of Michigan

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Juli McLoone, a curator in the special collections library at the University of Michigan.

What is your role at your institution?

I’m a curator in the University of Michigan Library’s Special Collections Research Center, where I handle a range of collections from the 18th-21st centuries. My current responsibilities include overseeing the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive, the Hubbard Collection of Imaginary Voyages, our Children’s Literature collections, and our general rare book collections after 1700. I also curate our literary archival collections (principally focused on Post Beat poets) and archival theatre collections. As a jack-of-all trades curator, I work with donors and book dealers to develop our collections, and I also share those collections with students and the community through instruction sessions and exhibitions. 

How did you get started in special collections?

While pursuing an MA in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Iowa, I discovered that fieldwork was not for me, so I reconnected with my earlier studies in English literature and applied to the School of Library & Information Science. There, the Robert A. and Ruth Bywater Olson Graduate Assistantship allowed me to work part-time in Special Collections throughout my library program, gaining exposure to the many dimensions of life with rare books and archives. One of my projects there was managing the digitization and transcription of Romantic poet Leigh Hunt’s letters. One of my favorite aspects of that project was learning about the (extremely messy and drama-filled) personalities and relationships behind the poetry I read as an undergrad.  

Where did you earn your degrees?

I hold a BA in English and Cultural Anthropology from Indiana University, and an MA in Anthropology and an MA in Library and Information Science, with a graduate certificate in Book Studies, from the University of Iowa. 

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

Truly, this is an impossible question! With the caveat that I’ll say something else next week, I’m going to share some of my favorite tidbits about Humphry Repton’s Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening, published in London in 1794. Repton was an immensely popular landscape architect for England’s wealthy landowners in the late 18th & early 19th centuries - in fact, he has the distinction of being one of the only historical figures named in a Jane Austen novel. In Mansfield Park, Maria’s wealthy suitor Mr. Rushton, speaks of hiring Repton to improve the landscape at his estate, speculating that Repton will cut down an avenue of ancient trees. Our virtuous and sensitive heroine, Fanny Price, is, of course, greatly saddened by the prospect of such modern renovations. 

Nonetheless, judging by Sketches and Hints, if Rushworth had gotten around to hiring Repton, the avenue would likely have fallen. Repton uses flaps in his book to illustrate “before” and “after” landscapes of several stately homes, and as an advocate for the picturesque, you can clearly see his hallmarks of breaking up straight lines, adding clumps of trees to create pleasing prospects (and hide less visually appealing structures like barns or cottages of the poor), and creating meandering waterways. Also, sheep! Nearly every before/after illustration includes the addition of pastoral clumps of sheep along with the trees, something that must have been noted by contemporaries as well. I can’t recall if it is in Sketches and Hints or Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803), but in one of his books,  Repton defends the omnipresence of sheep by declaring that they are very useful for a sense of proportion and size! 

What do you personally collect?

I find ample outlets for my collecting impulses in my work as a librarian. I’ve moved several times as an adult, which has led to winnowing my bookcases each time. I still own plenty of books, but nothing I would call a collection. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

I have two kids and a dog, all of whom keep me very busy! In my spare moments, I enjoy reading, especially mysteries and speculative fiction. And I garden; in fact, maybe plants are what I collect? Since I moved into my house in 2019, I’ve slowly resurrected the flower beds from years of inattention. Like with a book collection, I first had to familiarize myself with what was already present, and where the (in this case, seasonal and structural) gaps are. Over time, I’ve slowly added bulbs, rhizomes, seeds, and plants to fill those gaps. My approach to landscaping is like painting a picture very, very slowly. You have to envision how the flowers and shrubs you’re planting will relate to each other, and sometimes when it comes to the next season, it turns out you were wrong and you have to change direction by transplanting, adding annuals to compensate, etc. After four years acquiring daffodils, phlox, flax, cone flowers, asters, and more, I now also have (on seasonal deposit) a lovely collection of bee species! 

What excites you about special collections librarianship?

Books and archives enrich our understanding of people and communities far distant from us, whether in time, distance, or life experiences. And while the documentary record is imperfect, often fragmentary, and full of gaps, I am grateful every day to work with amazing literary and historical collections. My favorite days are the ones when I get to share these collections with students and visitors. I believe very passionately that special collections is for everyone, and it’s important to be as welcoming as we can (recognizing the very real limits of budgets, staffing, and - perhaps most of all - parking on college campuses). 

If a student attends just a single one hour instruction session from our department, I want there to be something in the room that catches their eye or imagination, something that lingers, whether that’s a moment of historical empathy, a reminder to interrogate the bias of a primary source they encounter online, or the confidence to approach some other special collections, years and miles away, to pursue their own curiosity and research interests. 

Several years ago, Special Collections started hosting monthly open houses during the academic year, inviting fellow library staff, students, and community members to enjoy thematic selections of our materials in a low-key environment. This year, we’re teaming up with the Map Library, which has long had its own open house series, and the International Studies Department to offer simultaneous open houses, encouraging visitors to explore across the library.

Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?

This year’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Conference was titled 'A New Kind of Professional' and I came away with a strong sense of the need for institutional special collections to find a balance between brilliant ideas and passion for service on one hand, and the realities of limited time and capacity on the other. We take care of non-living documents and artifacts, but those of us who do this work are human, and can all too easily burn out in the pressure-cooker of trying to meet endless needs, both in our professional and personal lives. How can we fulfill user needs while also being good colleagues to our fellow library workers?  How can we be good curators of our collections, while also being good partners to our institutional, collecting, or geographic communities? 

I hope that bringing attention to bear on the human element of our organizations - and thinking of not just collection-building, but service & program-building, too, as marathons rather than sprints - can help us to build a sustainable profession that sustains (and retains) its members. In so doing, I hope we can better position special collections (and libraries more generally) to have the resilience to find our way through the larger societal challenges that surround us, from serving document creators and researchers in an environment of heightened political tension to responsibly stewarding materials & resources in a warming and increasingly erratic climate.   

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

Among the collections that I curate, I’d like to draw attention to the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive (JBLCA). Shaped by the donation of a rich assemblage of materials by Janice Bluestein Longone and Daniel T. Longone, JBLCA documents the history of food in American writ broadly. It includes manuscript cookbooks dating from 1698 to the 20th century (and even mid-century recipe card boxes!), several thousand European and American cookbooks (with a particular focus on charity cookbooks and cookbooks by or for immigrants) and a vast collection of menus and advertising ephemera, promoting everything from chili powder to pineapple. 

JBLCA has become increasingly popular for instruction sessions at SCRC over the last several years, as more and more people become aware of the ways that cookbooks can serve as a lens through which to look at not only food production and preparation, but social structures, gender roles, child-rearing, technological changes, and issues of race and class.

Perhaps the most important text in the collection is A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen by Malinda Russell. A Domestic Cook Book... is the oldest known cookbook authored by an African American woman. Malinda Russell’s book precedes Abby Fisher’s 1881 What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking by 15 years, making it a landmark in African American culinary and publishing history, and JBLCA holds the only known copy. It often surprises people to learn that it was published only a couple hours away, in Paw Paw, Michigan! In 2015, the University of Michigan Library digitized both the original work and a 2007 print facsimile, making this important piece of culinary history more widely accessible. 

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

My colleague Pablo Alvarez has just opened an exhibit: Illustrating the Renaissance Book: From Illumination to Woodcut, which will be open from Sept. 6 - Dec. 14 featuring manuscripts and early printed books from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Looking further ahead, a colleague and I are in the early developmental stages of planning a 2025 exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.