Bright Young Librarians: Heather Cole

Our new series profiling Bright Young Librarians continues today with Heather Cole, Assistant Curator of Modern Books & Manuscripts and Curator of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

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How did you get started in rare books?

As a kid, I picked up old books here and there, thinking they were fun and interesting, without realizing that what I was doing was actually collecting. During my first year in college, one of my classes visited the library’s Special Collections, and it was a huge revelation for me: that not only was this a thing, but it was a thing that people did for a living. I asked for a job on the spot, and within a few semesters I knew it was the career for me.
 
What is your role at your institution?

I have two roles: as the Assistant Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts, I support a busy department that focuses on material produced between 1800 and the present (which is a LOT of great stuff, both canonical and esoteric). The collection is amazing, and I’m always coming across new things I haven’t seen. Along with helping the curator, Leslie Morris, develop and add to the collection, I give presentations to class groups, answer reference questions, work a few hours a week in our reading room, develop exhibitions, and maintain our department’s blog, among other varied tasks.
 
My second role is the Curator of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection. TR was one of the last presidents to not have an official presidential library; Harvard holds the bulk of his personal papers. It’s an amazing collection to work with, and TR is an endlessly fascinating figure, so I have a lot of fun with that material.
 
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?

It changes constantly! I was a weird kid who read a lot of Shakespeare growing up, so when I started working in Special Collections libraries, the First Folio was the Holy Grail for me.
 
There are so many cool things at Houghton to play with. We have a set of tiny manuscript booklets that the Brontë siblings made. And we have John Keats’s set of Shakespeare, edited by Samuel Johnson, in which Keats often violently scribbled over Johnson’s commentary, with which he seemed to have strongly disagreed (on one page he wrote, “Fie Johnson!”) I love association books; it’s so interesting to see how writers respond to what they’re reading. And while our literary collections are amazing, I also really like items that relate to pop culture, such as a manual distributed to writers for the original Star Trek series with rules of what they could and couldn’t include in an episode.
 
What do you personally collect?

What my pocket money allows, which isn’t too much! I collect a few modern authors, including Margaret Atwood and A.S. Byatt. I also recently started collecting ephemera relating to vegetarianism. I have a lot of interests, but there’s never enough funds, or space on my bookshelves, to accommodate all the collections I’d like to build.
 
What excites you about rare book librarianship?

I love the variety. Every day I have something different on my desk, and I love the challenge of learning about new material or a new area of collecting. I’ve had the most fun working on exhibitions on topics that I didn’t previously know anything about.
 
One of my favorite parts of my job is introducing our collection to students and other visitors. It’s great to see students who come in and are very skeptical about spending an hour in a library, and then to show them something that blows their minds and gets them excited about using primary sources (everything from the first edition of Leaves of Grass to pulp novels to artists’ books seem to work).
 
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?

I’m both excited by and a bit afraid of the advent of born-digital materials. I’m glad that it’s an issue that the field is discussing and working on, but a real solution or consensus has not really been found yet. Digital objects are piling up and we need to figure out some way to make that material available to our researchers. I don’t want to turn down a wonderful archive because we have no way to make available the material within it, but we need to make sure that material is as accessible as paper-based collections.

This is very nitpicky, but I would love to see the field find a way to maintain the romance of the places we work while somehow also communicating to the public that our libraries are not populated with dusty tomes on equally dusty shelves, or that amazing material is somehow hidden there and waiting for some intrepid researcher to discover it. That kind of notion downplays how hard the staff at special collections libraries work, and what the very nature of our jobs is!

I hear you’ve done some interesting exhibitions. What has been your favorite to work on?

I curated an exhibition in 2010 to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of William Makepeace Thackeray. It was an interesting challenge; he’s an author that not many people are familiar with, and so I not only needed to introduce him, his writing, and why he deserves attention, but also to make the exhibition visually appealing and entertaining. Luckily Thackeray’s a pretty easy sell - not only was he a great writer, but he was also a decent artist, a witty letter writer, and a very affectionate and present parent.

Any upcoming exhibitions you’re working on?

I’m currently working on an exhibition to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for 2015. Thanks to collector Harcourt Amory, a contemporary of Carroll’s, Houghton has many of Tenniel’s original drawings for the illustrations, as well as a rich collection of early editions, translations, and ephemera (I’m particularly smitten with a gorgeous Art Deco Alice, with illustrations by Willy Pogány, published by Dutton in 1929.)

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