Bright Young Librarians: Alison M. Greenlee

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Alison M. Greenlee, Collections Specialist at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.  

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Please introduce us to The Henry Ford and your role there:

I’m a Collections Specialist for The Henry Ford’s digitization initiative. The Henry Ford is a national history destination with collections that document the American experience. The collections with which I work are spread across Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, and the Benson Ford Research Center. I catalog artifacts, photographs, and ephemera before they’re uploaded to our digital collections site. I also use the “rapid capture” process to digitize 2D material.

How did you get started in rare books?

I’d known I wanted to be a librarian since high school, but it wasn’t until I was in the first semester of my MLIS program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that I realized working with rare books was even a possibility. I steered my coursework in that direction, completing a certificate in special collections from the Midwest Book and Manuscript Studies program. I jumped at every practicum and alternative spring break opportunity, gaining experience at UIUC’s wonderful Rare Book and Manuscript Library as well as Monticello’s Jefferson Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?

The materials with which I’ve worked span different centuries, cultures, and media, so it’s hard to pick just one. One memory that stands out is from my time as Special Collections Librarian at the University of Tulsa. I had a group of books from the personal library of Sir Rupert Hart-Davis on my cart, waiting to be cataloged. When I picked one up, it was suspiciously light. Upon opening it, I discovered it was a book safe! Three hollow books contained letters, clippings, and mementos from Hart-Davis’s children. It was definitely a fun surprise!

What do you personally collect?

Although I’ve been a lifelong fan, I’ve just recently begun collecting Edward Gorey books for my son’s nursery. He’ll thank me later.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I’m a lapsed runner who enjoys thrifting and traveling around the beautiful state of Michigan.

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

Working with awe-inspiring materials every day and getting to share those with the public. Much of my work over the last five years has been describing items to make them available to more people. 

Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?

Of course we will continue to digitize and disseminate collections online to meet the “everything’s on the internet” demand, but I hope this makes the tangible objects more dear. Whenever anyone talks about ebooks and the death of print, I can’t help but think of the job security. I see this as an opportunity to talk about my field of work, introducing someone to the concept of rare books: what they are and why they’re important. In the future, we’ll need more outreach to not only promote and advocate for our collections, but also to simply explain what we have and why we have it. 

When all those paper books or Microsoft Word files are added to special collections, the world will need rare book librarians to decipher their secrets. Rare book librarians are stewards not just of the physical object, but also the spirit of that it conveys. A high-res digital image can’t capture the smell of pipe tobacco embedded in a leather binding or the worn, sticky letters of a keyboard that document the history of an item’s use.  

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

It’s not unusual, but it’s also not something that comes to mind when you think of The Henry Ford. I recently had the pleasure of working with our Fraktur collection. We have dozens of drawings, birth and baptismal certificates, family registers, house blessings, and New Year’s wishes. They’re gorgeous examples of Pennsylvania German folk art.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

As an institution for American history, our exhibitions vary greatly, and the next one is a world away from rare books -- Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (October 3, 2014-January 4, 2015). It will document the story of professional football with artifacts from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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