Bright Young Librarians: Laura Aydelotte

Today’s entry in our Bright Young Librarians series features Laura Aydelotte of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania.

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How did you get started in rare books?

I have a very clear memory of a visit to the Huntington Library when I was a child and seeing the Ellesmere Chaucer and the First Folio they have on display in the exhibit room there.  I was young enough that I had to look up a little to see the books clearly in the vitrines, but old enough to have a newly minted appreciation for how many centuries those books had based through.  I remember thinking that having a job that involved learning about and taking care of books like that would be an incredible thing to be when I grew up.  Years later, I had the opportunity to learn a great deal more about early books in my doctoral work, and I got my professional start as one of the people who takes care of books in the wonderful collections of the Newberry Library, Chicago.  

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

I received my MLIS from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and my PhD from the University of Chicago.  

What is your role at your institution?

I am a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at Penn Libraries, where I have the opportunity to do work across the boundaries of bibliography, book history, and digital work.  I direct the Provenance Online Project, or POP, which addresses some very old questions: Whose hands did these books pass through before they came to us?  How do we know what owner is associated with a particular bookplate or inscription or stamp?  The project takes a new approach to finding answers to these questions by posting images of ownership marks online, with a growing collection of over 12,000 images.  We invite a user community of librarians, scholars, and others interested in book history from all around the world to contribute identifications and other information about these marks.  We’re starting to get images contributed from partner libraries across the country, so we’ll start to be able to see patterns of past ownership across current collections. It’s the kind of project that means I may spend my morning talking to our programmer about the data model or wireframing potential designs for an online upload form we’re developing, while my afternoons may be spent with a pile of 16th century books doing careful research into the details of their history.  

My other major role at the Kislak Center is as Curatorial Assistant for the Furness Shakespeare Library, a collection dedicated to Shakespeare and early modern literary and theatrical history begun by the editor of the New Variorum editions of Shakespeare at the end of the 19th century.  I recommend acquisitions for Furness and other early modern materials, do show and tells, answer reference questions, and right now I’m working on a small exhibit marking the 400th anniversary of the deaths of both Shakespeare and Cervantes.  The exhibit will focus on the topic of exploration and early maps in relation to the plays of the two great dramatists of Renaissance England and Spain, and will tie in with my own developing digital project, Shakespeare on the Map.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?

So many favorites!  I think this really is constantly changing.  There are some new favorites.  When I moved to Philadelphia a year ago, I was entranced by Penn’s collection of Benjamin Franklin Letters, and I’m currently writing an article on the inscription of an 18th century slave in a pamphlet at the Library Company of Philadelphia.  Both are awe inspiring historical documents to handle on their own, but the fact that I can traverse the experience of a founding father and a former slave through the traces of the handwriting they left never fails to amaze me.   

There are also some certain established favorites that never fail to delight.   I think one of the more thrilling book experiences I had this year was photographing provenance marks in over 10 of the Folger’s First Folios for POP and comparing those with Penn’s copy.  It’s wonderful, the copious variations one finds in multiple copies of a single book.   I’ve also been thinking this week of what an incredible experience it was some years ago when I opened Ortelius’ 1587 Theatrum Orbis Terarrum at the Newberry Library, something I was reminded of while fashioning an animated GIF of the copy at the Boston Public Library (which I have yet to handle, but have admired in its digital incarnation).

What do you personally collect?

My own collecting habits are eclectic, and I have yet to find a clear, obsessive focus.  I have a smattering of different kinds of material useful for both education and delight: an 18th century indenture, interesting examples of typography, a bawdy pseudo-Elizabethan pamphlet by Mark Twain, some feminist ephemera like the recently acquired early 20th century broadside featuring a photograph of the first woman to go deep sea diving. I was blessed with an eccentric bibliophilic grandfather, a lawyer who occasionally bartered legal work in exchange for books, manuscripts and, on one occasion, a three-foot tall bronze reproduction of the Augustus of Prima Porta that had formerly stood in front of Moody’s Drug Store in Long Beach, CA.  The stand-out item in my personal collection is a first edition of the Wizard of Oz this grandfather gave me as a child, so I sometimes pick up affordable bits of Oziana to complement that.  

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love music, and have been making a point of making the time to play the piano with greater regularity lately.   In the last few weeks I’ve resumed my amateur attempts at ukulele strumming with a book of Hawaiian songs my aunt in Honolulu sent me a year or two ago.  There’s something cheering about a ukulele when winter is coming.  I’m also an avid knitter, currently in the process of finishing up a scarf with an image of Smaug and the misty mountains from the cover of Tolkein’s the Hobbit, and I like to do many other things involving dining with friends, theater, afternoons biking and swimming in fine weather or wandering a museum looking at paintings of people enjoying fine weather when the real world is cold.  

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

The books, which never stale in their infinite variety. 

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

I think it’s a tremendously vital and exciting time to be in this profession.  Being alive in our current digital age is like having the opportunity to be around at the time of Gutenberg when printing was just taking off.  Incunabula can be some of the most fascinating books because they are especially clear material evidence of the way old technologies and new ones are constantly interacting and fusing with one another: typefaces designed based on scribal hands, the printed center of a page lying distinct in a sea of manuscript annotation written in margins built wide for the purpose, illumination and rubrication adding one kind of beauty to the emerging beauties of a printed layout.  It is always important to preserve and study the history of ideas and the forms we’ve used to communicate those ideas, but I think in times of great innovation like the one we’re in now, the people with the knowledge and skills to help others learn about, understand and use primary source materials from across the centuries have a special role.  Special collections librarians help us all to be aware of and explore what is useful, what is beautiful, and what is important from the past that we can incorporate into the things and ideas we are currently creating and weaving into the long tradition of human production and knowledge.

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

We have many interesting collections at Penn Libraries.  I think many people aren’t aware that we have a really excellent collection of Spanish Golden Age material, including such gems as two holograph manuscripts by the playwright Lope de Vega.  We also have a large collection of Jonathan Swift material, including a really fascinating array of versions of Gulliver’s Travels, from editions in foreign languages, to a pop-up version featuring a plastic magnifying glass for viewing Liliputions.  

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

My colleague, Lynne Farrington, is curating a fascinating exhibit exploring the use of hand coloring and printed color in American fine and private press books.  It is called “Across the Spectrum: Color in American Fine and Private Press Books, 1890-2015”, and it opens on February 15th with a two-day symposium Feb. 26-27.  
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