Bright Young Librarians: Gabrielle Dean

Today’s entry in our Bright Young Librarians series features Gabrielle Dean, Curator of Literary Rare Books & Manuscripts at The Sheridan Libraries, John Hopkins University, Baltimore.

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How did you get started in rare books?

When I was in high school, I bought a book called America Illustrated for my father for his birthday. It was about five bucks at a thrift store. It was published in 1879, and I was amazed that something so old (it seemed to me then very old) could be so sturdy and fresh... and affordable! I loved the wood engravings.

Of course, after my dad’s birthday, I forgot about America Illustrated. I finished high school and went to college. After graduation, I worked for a non-profit arts organization and was active in queer politics. But then I decided to go back to school, and one of my first serious research projects as a grad student focused on the published diaries of the Yellowstone survey team of 1871.  I didn’t even remember America Illustrated until my dad gave it back to me recently... 

Where did you earn your advanced degree?

I have a PhD in English and Textual Studies from the University of Washington. My research focuses on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American visual and literary cultures. The textual studies program taught me to think not only about the history of the book and the evolution of specific texts, but also about the future of forms like “book” and “text.”

After I finished my degree, I worked for several years as an adjunct. Then I heard about these interesting post-doctoral fellowships from CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources. I applied for the CLIR position at Johns Hopkins, and my main project was to make an exhibition from one of our H. L. Mencken collections. That was an incredible experience. The post-doc also taught me how a special collections library operates on the inside, another fascinating education. So when I had the opportunity to take a position at Hopkins that was very similar to my post-doc role, I jumped at the chance.

What is your role at your institution?

I am the Curator of Literary Rare Books and Manuscripts. I am also the librarian for the Writing Seminars, and a lecturer in the Program for Museums and Society. So, I wear a lot of hats, but I like to think they are color-coordinated. 

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?

That’s a cruel question! But okay, with apologies to all the other beloved objects...

Right now I am very interested in early photography. So I find myself drawn to our set of Edweard Muybridge gigantic folios of time-lapse photos. I am captivated by the Rube Goldberg-esque nature of the tripwire system that Muybridge invented to take sequential photos, I am intrigued by his choice of subjects--and I love how all this is both expressed and hidden in the books. The books turn Muybridge’s ephemeral and weird Victorian experiments into monumental archival objects that are also, with their black and white gridded arrangements of nearly identical images, proto-modernist texts.

What do you personally collect?

Occasionally, I acquire a book or piece of ephemera that is meaningful to me; some are related to my research interests and some come from my family. But they are more like place-holders for collections I refrain from building. I am already obsessive about books and ephemera, and there are so many interesting ways to think about various materials, that I think it would be hard for me to stick to an appropriate scope and size as a serious collector. Plus, I don’t have the space!

What do you like to do outside of work?

What is this “outside of work” of which you speak? 

Seriously, I do spend a lot of non-library time on my own research projects and various tasks for the Society for Textual Scholarship, the Dickinson Electronic Archives, and Archive Journal. Out of necessity, my partner and I work on our 90-year-old Baltimore rowhouse; last summer, I became a temporary expert on historic lime mortars and repaired our basement walls. We garden, hike, seek out good coffee. I cook, often with foodstuffs from the wonderful Baltimore Farmers’ Markets, and when I can, I take photos, write, and make things out of clay. 

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

I am unabashedly partisan here, but I believe that special collections librarianship is the genius loci of the humanities. And right now, it is more important than ever, because if we are wise with our materials and tools, and generous with our communities, I really think we can pull the humanities out of the cultural margins they have been pushed into over the last half century.

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

I am a relative newcomer to the profession, but it seems to me it is changing and will continue to change--we are becoming, increasingly, the authors of our own projects rather than always the silent helpmates. This is a crucial shift, I think. I would love to see special collections librarians take the lead more often--in the classroom, in our institutions, in our public discourse--with intellectual confidence, creativity, and know-how. 

Libraries are one of the smartest technologies we humans have ever invented--a beautiful system for the creation and spread and preservation of knowledge. But, of course, the digital environment now offers to a global population the information and knowledge-creation resources that used to be the exclusive domain of libraries. The internet does a lot of things better than libraries. Libraries can do a lot of things better than the internet. What are they? How should libraries evolve to become what we need them to be? Librarians, curators, and archivists are going to have to evolve too. I fear that if we fail to do this, out of old-fashioned and frankly sexist notions about our place in the academy and in democracy, libraries will suffer and may die. 

I noticed a call you put out recently for papers dealing with “radical archives.” Could you introduce us to this topic and how it applies to special collections librarianship?

The call for papers was issued by Lisa Darms of the New York Public Library and Kate Eichhorn at the New School, guest editors of an issue of Archive Journal on this topic--I am on the editorial team of the journal so I was circulating the CFP. Lisa and Kate are interested in the question of what a “radical archive” is or might be, so collectively, the various contributions to the issue do a great job of answering your question. And it has just been published so please check it out!

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

What I am most proud of at Hopkins are our two historic libraries, the John Work Garrett Library at Evergreen and the George Peabody Library. I love how they express two different but complementary sides of nineteenth-century bibliophilia and knowledge-building: one is the collection of a family, a very refined private library; the other is an early public library, with a delightfully eclectic collection. The collections are housed in their native environments--magnificent historic buildings--so working with them feels like the closest I will ever get to time-travel.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

We recently opened Lost & Found in the Funhouse: The John Barth Collection, which I put together with two recent MFA graduates of the Writing Seminars at Hopkins. The Barth Collection came to Hopkins just a few years ago, and it was an enormous privilege to get to unpack it and figure out how to display it for the public. We tried to create a funhouse experience in the gallery--and I think we succeeded. You can see our “trailers” for the exhibition here.

Coming up: Poe!

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