Bright Young Librarians: Katharine Chandler

Our series profiling the next generation of special collections librarians and curators continues today with Katharine Chandler, Reference Librarian in the Rare Book Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

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How did you get started in rare books?

I majored in medieval studies at Smith College and had some familiarity with medieval manuscripts, but was not involved with special collections until I studied with D. W. Krummel at the University of Illinois in preparation for my library degree.  I attended U of I in order to become a music librarian, and my first course in library school was his famous bibliography class. I continued to take all courses offered at U of I related to special collections (this was before they offered a special collections certificate). I also acted as Professor Krummel’s assistant for his Rare Book School (RBS) course, “The Music of America on Paper,” and absolutely fell in love with RBS.

I made my way to Philadelphia to become a music librarian, and eventually transferred to the Rare Book Department (RBD) within the Free Library of Philadelphia. Once in the RBD, I dedicated myself to rare book librarianship and haven’t looked back.

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

I earned my MLS at the University of Illinois, and my MA in medieval history at Villanova University. 

What is your role at your institution?

I am a curator, reference librarian, page, you name it.  It’s a small department and we only have two seats in the study!  I interpret collections, teach classes, curate full-scale exhibitions, conduct research, help researchers and scholars find what they need, catalog, create metadata--the list goes on. I also regularly tweet pictures of items in the collections and have a personal blog

Most of the special collections librarians that we’ve interviewed so far work for academic institutions. Any particular challenges or benefits to working for special collections in a public library setting?

One major benefit to working in a public library is that I work in a full curatorial capacity. We also offer tours to the general public on a daily basis, and I have the opportunity to educate people from all over the world, from all walks of life--I show real objects: a cuneiform tablet, a leaf from a Gutenberg Bible, an Egyptian Book of the Dead from around 800 BC, a Book of Hours, a disappearing fore-edge painting, a horn book, early children’s books, and vanity bindings.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?

The most exciting book I ever came across was a noted Beneventan missal at the Walters (W 6). Beneventan musical notation is quite rare, especially so in an entire codex (11th century). 

What do you personally collect?

I presently have an Indiana Jones complex, but that might change over time.  Right now I only look to collect for the institution.  As my nieces get older, I might start thinking about collecting for them.

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

The materials, of course.  A job working with these kinds of objects never grows tiresome.  I love teaching classes and working with scholars.  I enjoy imparting the information I have and learning more about the materials from experts.  I believe I have a special role, caring for collections that are part of society’s heritage.

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

As an historian, I feel that the use of material texts is becoming increasingly relevant. The trend in the humanities (especially so in the study of history) in the middle part of the 20th century was to use secondary sources.  This has begun to change over the last twenty or thirty years.  More recently, students of the humanities, and in other fields, are turning not just to published primary texts, but to artifacts themselves.  I think special collections professionals will become vitally more important as a result of this trend. 

Additionally, I think we all know how incredibly important it is to become more tech-savvy as a field and as individual professionals. I work for a public library, and we don’t have the same kind of funding as a major university might.  However, in our small way, we’ve been able to get some parts of collections digitized and available to the world. The numbers of visitors to the collections that have been digitized directly correlate--for instance, the more medieval manuscripts we have examples of online, the more visitors we’ve had in the department to use them from all over the world. The more children’s books we have in our online catalog, the more folks we have making appointments to come in and see them in person. There are arguments that once there are digital surrogates of materials online, people won’t need to see the original artifacts, and I find that is not the case at all.  In fact, I believe it increases a library’s usership.

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

I’m always afraid special collections professionals, scholars, and students are unaware of the amazing treasures we have. 
 
Founded in 1891, the Free Library was part of a growth of circulating libraries wherein people could borrow books without paying an annual fee. The first librarian and his assistant received their first rare collection of incunabula in 1899. The Rare Book Department, permanently installed by 1949, comprises wonderful collections of Poe, Dickens, Beatrix Potter, medieval manuscripts, “Oriental” manuscripts, Americana, cuneiform tablets, Rackham, children’s books, and illustrators.
 
One collection in particular that is so far not in the OPAC nor digitized is the Horace collection. Given to the Free Library by Moncure Biddle, the Horace collection is a treasure of great printers and fine bindings from the incunabula period to the present.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
 
I would like to mention that right now, we have a newly opened space, the William B. Dietrich Gallery.  On display for the 450th birthday of Shakespeare is our First Folio, considered to be one of the two rarest in the world. That exhibition is “Shakespeare For All Time,” and we’re very excited about it.  I’m working with a colleague on the next exhibition, which will open this summer. The focus will be on calendars, the zodiac, and astrology from all over the world: drawing on our medieval manuscripts, non-Western manuscripts, prints, and Americana.

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