Bright Young Librarians: Eric Johnson

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Eric Johnson, Curator of Early Printed Books at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio:

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How did you get started in rare books?

I suppose my first start was as a graduate student at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York (UK) when, in a codicology class session, the instructor dropped a mid-fifteenth century Book of Hours on the table in front of me and told me to “have at it.” While pursuing my Ph.D. research I spent quite a bit of time reading fifteenth- and sixteenth-century printings of medieval theological and pastoral works, as well as the odd manuscript, at the British Library, York Minster Library and various other places. My real professional start in the rare books world, however, came about four months after defending my dissertation when I landed a job as a curatorial assistant at the Cotsen Children’s Library, a division of the Rare Books and Special Collections Department at Princeton University. This is where the rare book world really opened up for me. The Cotsen Library exposed me to materials from all over the planet produced throughout history, from ancient Babylon to late-twentieth century picture books and everything in between. My boss there, Andrea Immel, was incredibly helpful and encouraging, and before I knew it, I was fully immersed in rare book and manuscript librarianship.
 
Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

I earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. at the University of York’s (UK) Centre for Medieval Studies, and I earned my MLIS from Rutgers University.
 
What is your role at your institution?

I’m an Associate Professor and the Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at The Ohio State University. In addition to fulfilling traditional curatorial duties such as collection development and management, donor relations, public and K-12 outreach, and reference work, I also teach widely across the University’s curriculum, including medieval manuscript studies and book history courses, and sessional instruction in courses across the disciplines, from math history to the Bible in English, Gothic Paris, and the history of witchcraft in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (to name only a few).
 
Favorite rare book that you’ve handled?

This is a tough question... Probably my single favorite piece at Ohio State is a late-fourteenth century manuscript copy of William of Pagula’s Oculus sacerdotis, a pastoral handbook for priests and confessors. Not only is it an amazing text, but its physical qualities--from its highly imperfect, scarred parchment to the earlier manuscript fragments recycled as flyleaves at the front and rear of the codex--speak eloquently to the importance of a book’s unique physical characteristics to a full understanding of the wider historical, intellectual, and socio-cultural contexts in which the text operated. Outside of Ohio State, I’d have to say my current favorite piece is a fantastic artist’s proof edition of L’Alsace heureuse by Jean-Jacques Waltz (better known as Oncle Hansi) at the Cotsen Library. It offers a compelling look into the mind of a vitriolic pro-French Alsatian propagandist and the way that military, cultural, and political propaganda were packaged for children during World War I.
 
What do you personally collect?

I’ve collected things off and on most of my life, from comic books to small-press science fiction titles. I don’t think I really collect anything systematically anymore, though I suppose my ever-growing collection of secondary source material on medieval manuscript culture, book history, and bibliography counts as an active collection.
 
What do you like to do outside of work?

Reading is a big leisure activity for me (and probably a clichéd answer, too!). Outside of the broader world of books, however, I like to be physically active. Hiking is a big favorite of mine, though a long walk around town works in a pinch. Much of my time outside of work is spent figuring out how not to spend that time thinking about work. Exercise helps me with this (although it has the added benefit of inspiring the odd Eureka moment for ongoing research projects).
 
What excites you about rare book librarianship?

Opportunities. The opportunity to learn ceaselessly and continuously. The opportunity to share the unique pedagogical value of rare books and manuscripts with students of all types, whether third-graders, undergraduates, Ph.D. candidates, or Elder Hostel groups. The opportunity to build upon the collecting efforts of previous curators to create meaningful collections that will continue to speak intelligently and compellingly for generations to come. The opportunity to handle and examine books and manuscripts that I otherwise could only dream of working with. And finally, I suppose, the opportunity to help researchers make sense of the past, uncover new texts and readings, and discover new ways that the authors, book producers, and readers of the past can continue to speak to us in the present.
 
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?

I believe the future of special collections librarianship depends on how we go about growing our user-base. It’s not enough simply to care for books and make them available to students and researchers who might happen to walk into your office or reading room. Those of us in the profession need to be active ambassadors for our collections--and not just to the university students and faculty with whom we normally work. I’m a big advocate of cultivating new users while they’re young, and you’ll often find me teaching K-12 groups, as well as undergraduates and graduate students, either at our library or in their own classrooms with rare materials from our collections. Getting children, teenagers, university students, and their teachers and professors thinking about the ways that a book’s physical instantiations directly influence our understanding of how it was produced, marketed, distributed, and read is essential to our profession’s future. Think, for instance, of the different meanings imparted by a single Dickens novel in serial, single-volume, pirated, illustrated, folio, quarto, octavo, or cheap or deluxe-bound editions or formats. Each tells its own unique story about the possible ways it was valued, used, interpreted, and received by the culture that produced and consumed it. Attention to details like this compellingly demonstrate to students that books are more than just the printed or written letter forms and texts they contain and that physical form and written text work hand-in-hand to impart meaning. One of my favorite quotes about pedagogy sums things up nicely, I think: “Teaching therefore presupposes that the hearer is sought out where he is to be found” (Josef Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991, p. 32). We (curators and the materials in our care) need to be everywhere we can possibly be so we can reach as many minds as possible. Whether cultivated through carefully crafted hands-on instructional sessions, in-depth research advising and mentoring, diverse suites of educational public outreach, or well-designed interactive digital tools, by affording students an opportunity to have deep, consequential interactions with rare books and manuscripts (rather than just supplying them with the odd “jewels of the collection” class session), our profession can go a long way toward securing its future.
 
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you’d like to draw our attention to?

Like any large rare books collection, we’re blessed with many different assortments of materials that are particularly interesting or unusual. One of my favorite sub-collections is the Dr. Ivan Gilbert Trade Catalogue and Ephemera Collection, an assembly of approximately 10,000 items that provide a fascinating look into the birth and growth of American consumer culture from the 1830s to the 1970s. We also have an interesting collection of scales, including medieval examples of weights and measures and even a large scale used to weigh jockeys before their horse races. I’m also a big fan of our growing collection of artifacts that help provide valuable context to our medieval manuscript collection, including a pair of fourteenth-century parchment-making tools carved out of bone, a late-medieval friar’s leather Bible bag, a thirteenth-century stylus used for writing on wax tablets, a fourteenth-century English seal matrix, and nineteenth-century examples of blades and scrapers used to prepare animal skins for writing. There is, of course, so much more I could describe...


Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

We have a couple of interesting exhibitions that cover an array of topics coming up in the next couple years. In 2015 we’ll be mounting a major show featuring the manuscripts, photography, and archival materials of noted American author, William T. Vollmann (whose literary archive we hold), and in 2016 we’ll be curating exhibitions celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of our William Charvat Collection of American Fiction and focusing on our substantial Highlights for Children archive. Further afield is our upcoming fall 2017 exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

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