Bright Young Librarians: Colleen Theisen

Our series profiling the next generation of special collections librarians and rare book curators continues today with Colleen Theisen, Outreach and Instruction Librarian in the Special Collections & University Archives at the University of Iowa. 

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How did you get started in rare books?
As an undergraduate I needed to complete an internship for my minor in history.  I was sent to the Western Historical Manuscripts collection in the basement of the University of Missouri-Columbia’s library to compile a libguide for National History Day. What kind of place was this that had historic papers and diaries, artists’ sketchbooks and even a small gallery of paintings, all in one place?  Lewis and Clark’s diaries and records from the Dred Scott trials rendered me speechless touching the actual pages that previously unreal names from my history books had created.  All the while 6-12th grade National History Day students were coming in and out the doors, having the same awestruck moments I was having, and then going on to make the words leap off the pages back to life in documentaries and performances. As sixth grade girls took to the stage in bonnets for their performance at the NHD contest, and the suffering from the pages of a handwritten pioneer woman’s diary momentarily became their suffering, I was hooked, and the experience of that place never left me.

Where did you earn your advanced degree?

I have a Master of Science in Information from the University of Michigan where I tailored my archives specialization with library science, history of the book, and museum studies classes to fit the diversity of work in Special Collections.

What is your role at your institution?

I am the Outreach and Instruction Librarian for Special Collections & University Archives which means that I coordinate the class sessions that come in to use Special Collections materials and serve as the primary instructor.  I am the social media manager for Special Collections, and I manage our exhibition space as well as coordinating our newsletters and some of our marketing.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?

Favorites for me are tied up in favorite learning experiences.  I love the large fragment of the Iliad on papyrus at the University of Michigan because it was featured at the heart of the first lesson I designed using rare materials, tracing the text of the Iliad through time, when I was a TA for Great Books.  I love the 1967 Fluxus Year Box, because of a phenomenal class with 10-12 year old writers that turned into a funny and profound exploration of where or what the boundaries of art might be.

I have a new favorite every day and I do not want to lose that since it helps me figure out and communicate what might be exciting to our students and followers.  If forced to pick a general favorite, with its music, maps, anatomy, astronomy, math and more, collected and illustrated, I could never tire of looking at any and every copy of Margarita Philosophica.
What do you personally collect?

Lack of money, tiny apartments, and living abroad for an extended period have previously hindered my ability to collect much of anything, but I do have small collections of 1870s-1880s carte de visite photographs and stereographs from Japan, wooden kokeshi dolls, signed YA novels, and “vintage” Fisher Price Little People.  The books I chose from my grandmother’s library make up my favorite book collection.

What excites you about rare book librarianship?
In the abstract, I love that we’re called upon to wear every hat, and to invent some as well. In Special Collections we are librarian and archivist, but that also includes curator, teacher, scholar, conservator, writer, graphic designer, data entry specialist, genealogist, PR manager, social media content creator, web designer, historian, mentor, and even grief counselor. Recently I have added .gif animator, and video director.  I love bringing that excitement into the classroom and finding, building, and communicating with book loving communities online.  It’s exciting that everything I have ever done or learned is relevant, and yet it isn’t enough and never will be.  

Otherwise, I would just answer - the books.  Microminiature to elephant folio, to book arts that challenge if the word “book” fits at all, each and every one is exciting.
 
Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?

I think our special collections librarians will be called on even more to be creative collaborators.  Linked data, grant funded projects, digital humanities projects and outreach increasingly call upon expertise, collaboration, and coordination from across the library, the university, and across institutions.  In addition, the boundaries between library, archive, museum, or historical society are increasingly blurred as we are fighting the same fight to communicate our value, and as our digitized collections and metadata are increasingly united.  

More and more we need to make our work visible to counteract the stereotypes, misinformation, and lack of information about librarianship and special collections.  Whether it is creating a site for crowdsourcing transcription, a group to make historic recipes, a Civil War blog posting letters 150 years after they were written, a Tumblr community with animated .gifs of books, or videos as part of a YouTube community, we’re increasingly called upon to build and make things together with our communities of librarians, patrons, followers, friends, and fellow creators.   



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

The Rusty Hevelin Science Fiction Collection is in process, but anyone can follow the progress on our Tumblr devoted to processing of the zines, convention materials, and pulps dating back to the emergence of science fiction fandom in the 1930s.  We also continue our Fan Culture Preservation Project partnership with the Organization for Transformative Works, collecting fanzines. I think people would be surprised by the extent of the ATCA Collection (Alternative Traditions in Contemporary Arts) including The Fluxus West collection and the complementary International Dada Archive, Finally, we’re crowdsourcing transcriptions at DIY History where we just added pioneer diaries, and The Atlas of Early Printing is likely of interest to your readers, if for any reason it is yet unknown to them. And of course, our Special Collections Tumblr, named “new and notable” by Tumblr for 2013: http://uispeccoll.tumblr.com/

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

Food in the world of Downton Abbey opens with the new year tracing the culinary creations featured on the television show, whether upstairs or below, into the contemporary cookbooks of the time from our Szathmary Culinary Collection.

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