Bright Young Librarians: John Vincler

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with John Vincler, Head of Reader Services at the Morgan Library & Museum.

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[photo cation: © The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Photography by Graham  S. Haber 2014.]

How did you get started in rare books?

I owe my career to the Newberry Library in Chicago and in particular to mentor librarians and curators there, especially Paul Gehl, Mary Wyly (long-retired and probably completely unaware of her influence), and Jo Ellen McKillop Dickie. I wandered into the profession from a rather counter-intuitive route. After receiving an undergraduate degree in English literature with a minor in philosophy, I found myself in Chicago working on a long-running independent literary magazine and working at what was then a start-up non-profit called the Electronic Literature Organization, which sought--in the heady days of the dot-com boom before the inevitable bust--to chart and promote how literature was migrating into new media with special attention to emerging forms like hypertext fiction and kinetic poetry. We had funding from dot-com CEOs and a literary board with literary heavyweights like Barney Rosset, George Plimpton, and Robert Coover. When the bubble burst, I was out of a job (the organization was taken in by UCLA) and I found my way into a fundraising job at the Newberry. My experience working at the ELO sparked an interest in the role of form, materiality, and technology in literature.  I became interested in the experiments of the OULIPO in France (the acronym in English translates roughly to “the workshop of potential literature”) and then began a gradual slide into history culminating in an ongoing interest in the incunable period. I ended up working at the Newberry Library for about five years on and off, eventually working in a paraprofessional position in Special Collections. During this time I earned two master’s degrees one in the History of the Book through the University of London and a library degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I don’t know if there is a better place to begin a career than at the Newberry Library, a fantastic collection, overseen by knowledgeable, lovely, and generous people, and in a livable yet cosmopolitan city where you can financially survive as a culture-worker in training.  

Could you say a bit more about where you earned your MLS degree?

While I officially graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the “where” is a bit more complicated.  My work at the Newberry was more important to my training than anything I did in the classroom at UIUC, but I really do think that the University of Illinois is regularly ranked as the best library program for a reason. It’s rigorous, practical, research-focused, and innovative. Thanks to a visionary professor, Dr. Ann Bishop, who was then at Illinois, I did the most significant work of my library degree at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. In library school, my focus was on rare books and special collections librarianship and also “community informatics,” which is essentially how information can be used to create knowledge and to empower communities to action.  The Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) was an intensely intellectual place at the center of a very well organized and activist community. The PRCC has its own library (with some interesting rare books and maps), publishes its own newspaper, and has a youth-operated internet radio station and theater space. It also organizes public health efforts ranging from an HIV AIDS center to a farmers’ market. I took classes online, intensive summer classes at Urbana-Champaign, and then also with Dr. Bishop in a classroom at the PRCC. 

As part of a yearlong collaboration with Saúl Meléndez, a teacher in the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, we organized the first-ever exhibition on Puerto Rican history at the Newberry Library. We proposed the exhibit and the Newberry was enthusiastic about it. The students in Saúl’s class served as curators of the exhibition and throughout their semester they prepared the exhibition with occasional visits to the Newberry to review and select collection material and then to organize it into thematic cases and to write and translate the object descriptions. The exhibit was called “500 Years of Puerto Rican History through the Eyes of Others.” The students quickly realized the that nearly everything about Puerto Rico held by the library was in fact created by individuals who were not from Puerto Rico. The exhibition became a means to both learn about Puerto Rican history through primary sources, while also asking questions about how knowledge is created and by whom. In this way the students reframed the Newberry’s holdings in a very powerful way. It took a tremendous amount of faith on behalf of both the PRCC and the Newberry to think that a library student, a high school teacher, and a group of high school students could pull it off. And we did. The exhibit had the largest audience for an opening in this ongoing series showcasing rotating highlights from the collections.

What is your role at your institution?

I am the Head of Reader Services at the Morgan Library & Museum. In this role, I am charged primarily with managing the reading room and assisting readers both in the room and remotely through references queries that sometimes lead to a visit on-site, but other times do not. It is an interesting place to be as I deal with materials across all curatorial departments which range from ancient seals to contemporary drawings and prints. On a given day I may be assisting with the handling of a 15th century English cookery scroll, while helping someone else researching the provenance and exhibit history of Henri Matisse’s cut-out works, and dealing with Thoreau’s oversized sheets of nature notes and charts. My training is deepest in early printed books, so I am always happy when we can help a reader solve a bibliographical puzzle, whether by simply identifying a watermark or collating a book to better understand some aspect of its history and production. Academics probably make up the largest portion of our readership, but we regularly have artists, novelists, scientists, musicians, journalists, librarians, and collectors in the room, and it is a pleasure to see the genesis of so many creative and intellectual endeavors.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?

I just wrote a brief exhibition description for a book that I’ve become very interested in the last two years, a work of philosophy by Charles de Bovelles published by Henri Estienne in 1510.  Seen from the past Bovelles is part of a mystic-philosopher strain that includes Ramon Llull and Nicolas of Cusa or seen from the present he’s doing proto-phenomenology and media theory. I’m particularly interested in the way Bovelles represents his ideas not only in writing but through the combination of text and image, especially his highly conceptual emblematic woodcuts and the many diagrams contained throughout. Before coming to the Morgan Library, I was Rare Book Research Librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which holds a fantastic collection of books from the great French scholar-printer family, the Estiennes. The 1510 Bovelles text was one UNC did not have, but my colleague Claudia Funke noted a repurposed woodblock in a UNC Estienne book that first appeared in the 1510 Bovelles. I attended a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar that brought me to the Bodleian and the British Library and everywhere I went that had a copy I spent some time studying it and was hooked. When I arrived at the Morgan, I noted that we also had a copy with marginalia and some interesting canceled pages. I haven’t had time to make sense of the variants I’ve noticed across copies, but I do hope to write on some aspect of the book in the next year or so. A digitized microfilm of a copy can be viewed freely online through the BNF’s Gallica portal.

What do you personally collect?

My partner is a novelist and together we have a book problem.  After moving to New York, to Brooklyn, over a year ago we went a little out of control. The bookstores here remain very good and there are many of them (my favorites are Unnamable Books in Brooklyn for its philosophy and poetry sections, new and used, and McNally Jackson in Manhattan for being the type of shop that one always wanted the major chains to be with a wide selection of new things but solid holdings of literature while making space for interesting things in the margins). But this is mostly buying--perhaps hoarding--books for a working library. Lately, I have been buying screen-printed posters from Ron Liberti, a silk-screen virtuoso living near Chapel Hill in North Carolina. He’s been a professional jobbing printer specializing in music gig posters for decades. I’m not interested in the music posters, but I love the posters he’s made by collaging elements from various screens he’s had in his studio for years. These works distill the best aspects of his design sensibility. In this work he’s not doing a job for a client, he’s directed purely by his visual sensibility, his experience with the medium, and his deep catalog of imagery. It’s fantastic stuff. It’s the rare thing I don’t tire of looking at, and it can be acquired on a librarian’s budget. I also collect modernist literary magazines (my favorite: a near perfect copy of Transition with a cover by Matisse, a poem by Picasso, and an art review by Beckett) and out of print poetry books and experimental novels--all acquired on the cheap, usually under $20.  

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

The books and the people. I recently went on vacation and I realized I was missing the William Blake material I had been working with the two weeks prior. I should have just been enjoying my vacation. The aesthetic pull of books has dictated much of my life. I’ve followed after it, making many sacrifices along the way, while trying continually to learn and to be better at what I do. You always need to know more than you do in this field. It’s humbling because you are constantly faced with gaps in your knowledge whether arcane aspects of physical bibliography (understanding how books are put together) or the constant struggle to acquire languages. But it’s never boring. I am also proud to work among this motley guild of information workers called librarians. I don’t know of a profession filled with better people, certainly not one where the collective energy of the profession is spent ensuring that information is made as free and open as possible, that it will remain accessible for generations, and where collaboration across institutions is encouraged, even fundamental, to the profession. If only there was more support for libraries and more recognition for the work libraries do within the culture from public libraries as de facto job centers and research libraries as do-it-yourself universities without the debt burden. 

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

I hope that an integral aspect of the future of the field is deeper reflection on our past. Libraries have historically been places where disparate even conflicting ideas reside one next to another. This is certainly true, but libraries like all spaces have also been shaped by power of various sorts. It takes power to bring great collections together economic, intellectual, even the power of mere obsession. I am reading an advanced copy of Susan Howe’s forthcoming New Directions book, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives. Reflecting on the structure and space of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Howe, our great living poet/critic/philosopher, writes, “The structure contains acquisitive violence, the rapacious ‘fetching’ involved in collecting, and, on the other hand, it radiates a sense of peace.” I think Howe is getting at a dichotomy that is inherent in most of our great libraries. (This in a book inspired by the great libraries, which she largely treats with great reverence, sings their status as spaces of “thrilling possibilities,” and acknowledges her personal debt to libraries for feeding her own critical and creative work.) How can we better consider the historical freight of our collections? What (or who) has been left out? What biases (perhaps racist, sexist, homophobic) shaped past collecting and how can that be remedied or addressed? What interventions can we take to fill in gaps or to offer public critique or reflection? There is much talk about the lack of diversity in the field as a problem that needs to be remedied. I think this conversation rarely goes far enough, and I think one way to address this is to more openly and more critically engage in conversations about the gaps, erasures, and historical biases our collections carry forward. 

The easy answer here is that we will digitize many things on our way into that future, opening up our collections to new means of study beyond the bounds of our physical walls, but we must also not forget the importance of the tangible, the material. At the center of what we do and what we will continue to do is the almost transcendent human act of confronting an object made or used by another human being across vast distances of time and space. It’s a profound experience that we as rare book librarians get to oversee and make possible everyday. 

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

My training is largely in early printed books, but I’ve loved working with our exceptional collections of medieval and renaissance manuscripts from Ethiopian prayer scrolls to French books of hours, and jeweled treasure bindings to Armenian bindings with votive offerings affixed to the covers over generations. We have over thirteen hundred manuscripts, which is a lot for an institution in the United States. I’m continually surprised by the range and quality of what is housed in our collection.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

I think our exhibits program is really unparalleled. “Gatsby to Garp: Modern Masterpieces from the Carter Burden Collection” organized by my colleague Carolyn Vega is a thrilling romp through literary modernism from dust jacket design to the drama that surrounds a book’s becoming and release into the world. I look forward to having a bit of Oxford visiting New York when “Marks of Genius: Treasures from the Bodleian Library” opens soon. I’m also very excited about a Cy Twombly show planned for later in the year. It’s the kind of thing that would have me planning a trip to the MOMA, but instead it’s happening right here at the Morgan.

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