Bright Young Things: Laura Massey

Our series profiling the next generation of antiquarian booksellers continues today with Laura Massey, an American working for Peter Harrington in London:

Laura4.jpgNP: What is your role at Peter Harrington?

LM: I started as the general cataloguer in 2009, and my job quickly expanded to include a variety of other responsibilities. I’m particularly interested in using the internet to make rare materials accessible and interesting to those who aren’t specialists, which is why I started our blog and Twitter feed. I also love science, and my main goal is to specialise in that direction. I’m in the process of compiling my first catalogue, a selection of important 20th-century science books with a strong focus on a favourite subject-nuclear physics. I’ve always been interested in the ways that science and medicine are presented to the public, and I think that there’s room in the book world for us to improve the ways that science books are catalogued.

NP: How did you get started in rare books?

LM: It really began with my parents. Both of them love books, especially my mom, who started reading to me as soon as I was born. My dad trained as a ceramic artist and was inspired by the Arts & Crafts movement and the Japanese philosophy of making everyday objects both beautiful and functional. So I grew up with not only an appreciation for literature, but for the book as a material object. I always loved the idea of working with rare books but, growing up in a small town, that world seemed so distant that I never considered it a serious career choice. After finishing my undergraduate degree I was living in Atlanta and having trouble finding a fulfilling career. I spent a lot of lazy summer afternoons in my local used and rare book shop, A Cappella, and it dawned on me one day that this was something I could really do. So I made a long-term plan: I read everything I could about book history and rare books, began volunteering at the shop (thanks Frank!), and started a blog so that I could connect with other rare book people. A few years later I entered the book history MA programme at the Institute of English Studies in London. I knew that, in addition to the amazing faculty and all the libraries I would have access to, I would also be in one of the world centres of the book trade, and hoped I might get my foot in the door with an internship or part-time job. As my course wound down I sent out a few CVs and was lucky enough to approach Peter Harrington just as the firm was looking for a full-time cataloguer.

NP: What do you love about the working in the trade?

LM: Having access to so much wonderful material and getting to work on something different every day. I also love writing and doing research, which is a huge component of my job.

NP: Favorite or most interesting book you’ve handled?

LM: At the moment I have two. The first is our Ars Moriendi block book leaf, which I’ve written about for the blog. I became fascinated by these during my master’s degree because they’re a sort of proto-printing technology, but they’re rare and I never thought I would run across one outside of a special collections setting. The second is my first major book fair find, a copy of Alexander Fleming’s Penicillin: Its Practical Application. It’s not a scarce book, and this copy didn’t look unusually inviting, but I picked it up because bacteriology is of particular interest to me. And it turned out to contain an uncommon presentation inscription to one of the contributors. A good lesson in rare book buying!

NP: So, this copy of Frankenstein is pretty awesome.  Tell us about your thoughts on it:

LM: It is! Mary Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft have long been feminist heroes of mine, and the relationship between the Shelleys and Byron is fascinating. But the book’s sudden appearance is the most exciting part. I’ve worked with a lot of amazing objects since I joined the firm, but most of them already had an extensive provenance. It’s truly rare for an item of this significance to appear out of the blue, and I feel privileged to be present at its reappearance.

[Note: This question was in reference to the copy of Frankenstein inscribed by Mary Shelley to Lord Byron which was recently acquired by Peter Harrington.  The book will be on display and viewable to the general public at the shop, 100 Fulham Road in Chelsea, London, from September 26 to October 3].

NP: What do you personally collect?

LM: Unfortunately, I’m more of an accumulator than a collector. I tend to buy objects that interest me personally, but without feeling the urge for comprehensive acquisition in any one field. What catches my eye could be a book one day, then a natural history specimen, bicycle poster, or piece of jewellery the next. That being said, I do have a wonderful collection of antique jelly moulds, all of them gifts from a friend.

NP: Do you want to open your own shop someday?

LM: Probably not. I’m really happy working in a large shop because of the opportunities it provides to learn from colleagues and to work on material that I would probably not see on my own. I’m also not keen on admin and bookkeeping, so consider it a reasonable trade-off not to be my own boss if I don’t have to deal with any of that.

NP: Thoughts on the future of the trade?

LM: I feel very positive about it, and think that the e-book revolution will be beneficial to rare books in general. Instead of the massive, low-quality print runs of the last few decades we’ll see small runs made to higher standards-books that look better, last longer, and are more collectible. Digital may be more convenient, but people still want the human touch a physical object provides. This is already apparent with other formats such as vinyl and film photography, which are seeing a renewal of interest.  At the same time, overall access to literature will increase. There’s evidence that people with electronic readers consume more books because of the ease of access, and more book lovers means more collectors. Additionally, greater access to out-of-copyright works from Project Gutenberg and the like will encourage people to explore books they would not have been exposed to in the age of the chain store. It’s a very exciting change to live through!

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