Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Diane Dias DeFazio, Circulation Librarian with The New York Society Library:
What is your role at your institution (and please introduce our readers as well to the New York Society Library)?
So often we talk of wearing lots of hats where we work, and there’s probably a millinery joke there, somewhere, but I literally have more than one job! I am the Circulation Librarian at the New York Society Library, an Adjunct Librarian for Reference and Digital Initiatives at Brooklyn College, and I write exhibition labels for the Thomas J. Watson Library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The New York Society Library prides itself on some impressive facts: it’s the oldest cultural institution in town (established in 1754), it was briefly the de facto Library of Congress (an early location was inside Federal Hall), it has a storied pedigree of member-readers (more on that later), and it was known as “the City Library” for over 150 years. It is open to the public for research and reference, but from its inception, the Library has been a membership one, and members enjoy borrowing privileges for (most of) our collection of over 300,000 volumes, electronic resources, and attendance at our many yearly exhibition openings and other events. Since 1937, the Library has been located in the former John S. and Catherine Rogers House, an Italianate five-story mansion designed and built by Trowbridge and Livingston in 1917. It’s a New York City landmark, but it’s also a former residence, which gives it a cozy, human-scale feel, I think. I am responsible for overseeing operations at the Library during evening and weekend hours, which includes administration of public services and training junior staff. Every day is fantastically different, and one moment I might be listening to a member’s stories as we look at her grandmother’s eighteenth-century atlas, or teaching a class, or making a Mylar enclosure, or assisting a high school student on a class project.
Brooklyn College was established in 1930 and was the first public institution of higher learning in New York City to have coeducational enrollment. The campus, built during the Great Depression, is rare for an urban setting: red brick Georgian buildings around a tree-lined central quad on a 26-acre site (it’s lovely in the late summer). The student population is diverse, with 60% self-identifying as members of a minority, and most are the first in their families to attend college. The Library began a collaborative program to create open educational resources (OERs) in 2015, and I partner with faculty from different departments to create digital platforms for those resources. Because of my design and tech background, I’m also part of a team that’s rethinking the Library’s LibGuides and its website.
At Watson, I work with the Acquisitions and Book Conservation departments, research materials, and write for the Library’s exhibitions. Every six weeks or so, the Chief Librarian and Assistant Manager for Acquisitions select special collections items to showcase, and, in the past year, that’s meant a variety of items were highlighted, from Japanese counterculture periodicals and interwar French typography sample books to trade publications on elevator cabs and twentieth-century automobile advertisements.
It’s a lot to fit into a week sometimes, but working for a public college, a membership library, and an art museum offers intensely rewarding experiences and provides me with incredible perspective, so it’s all worthwhile.
How did you get started in rare books?
Ah, yes, The Origin Story. Wherein we meet our heroine, she gets hit on the head by a copy of Hypnerotomachia polyphili, and wakes up in the most glorious library. (Kidding!)
My story is a two-parter, and, really, it all comes down to a fortuitous set of circumstances.
By way of introduction, I’m from a very small town, and part of my life story involves local library discrimination, a teacher confiscating my books in junior high, and a general lack of access, but I was lucky--my Mom is curious and committed to broad-based education, and we lived close enough to (and, by that, I mean 72 miles away from) Pittsburgh--and I kind of grew up in museums and libraries there. Fortuitous moment the first.
I started in libraries as a work-study student at Watson about ten years ago. I don’t remember all the details of how I got to my current role, but I know that my first project was fine bindings from the collection of Jayne Wrightsman, and the experience formed one of the best educations in rare books and connoisseurship I could ever hope for. That was seven years and over 500 book descriptions ago, I subsequently worked as a researcher for six years, the Met inspired me to apply to library school, and I’m eternally indebted to Holly Phillips and Ken Soehner for their continued encouragement, and for giving me so many marvelous opportunities. That’s part one.
Part two begins as many stories do: I took a class, and it opened my eyes. Mind you, I was fortunate enough to have stellar teachers over the years--Doron S. Ben-Atar and the late Anne Mannion at Fordham, Andrew Dolkart and Norman Weiss at Columbia, Irene Lopatovska--people unafraid to tell it like it is, challenge me, and I think about their advice every day, so ... my pedagogical experiences have been consistently good. Anyway, in my final semester of library school, I signed up for one last course: Rare Books & Special Collections.
I recently heard Mindy Dubansky characterize the event of finding her calling in bookbinding as like “being hit with Cupid’s arrow,” and, yeah, it was kind of like that. Before I knew it, I was obsessed with Gaskell and Gascoigne (passing mention of the Montgolfiers! printing terms that parallel architectural phraseology! watermarks! mezzotints!). I was excited all the time. I was in deep, and then one day my instructor handed me a descriptive bibliography assignment (The Hermit, 1727), and said, “This is for you.” I’ll probably never know if that was an intentional gesture or not, but from then on, I didn’t look back.
Where did you earn your advanced degrees?
I have an MS in Historic Preservation from Columbia, and my MSLIS is from Pratt.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?
I know I’m not alone here, so bear with me: the items that immediately come to mind are associated with meaningful moments. One could say that an item becomes my favorite when I work with it (my Instagram is testament to this), but some things resonate longer. A few resonators are (in no particular order): the “Ratzer map” and land books at Brooklyn Historical Society, some of the first special collections materials I used in teaching elementary-school students; the Wrightsman miniatures on ballooning; Thomas Lamb’s architectural drawings and the Otis escalator trade catalogs I pored over for my thesis at Columbia; the aforementioned unassuming Cambridge panel style copy of The Hermit; I. N. Phelps Stokes’ notebooks from Brentano’s department store; and the first book I wrote about post-library school (literally the day after Commencement), a sumptuously bound illustrated catalog on, of all things, copper door and window hardware, which reminded me how powerful/thrilling/inspirational a finely crafted book can be.
If I had to confine my answer to my institutions’ holdings, I’d pick the American publishers bindings--that circulate!--at Brooklyn College, and Vols. I-VI of Histoire de Polybe from the Society Library’s special collections, lovely eighteenth-century cat’s paw calf bindings, which swept me off my feet with their French curl endpapers, Fargeaud-Limousin watermarks, and engravings of Hannibal’s Alpine campaigns.
What do you personally collect?
My thesis advisor once told me that he had a retirement plan, but his money was “in stuff”--that is, his collections probably held more value than his 401k. I haven’t been at the game as long as Norman, but I try to remember that sentiment every time I buy something.
I collect books on New York City, architecture history, and the history of photography; architectural fragments; ephemera from the 1939-40 and 1964-65 New York World’s Fairs; and promotional scale model banks ... that are also banks. Also, I have a bunch of stereograph cards.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I’m a New Yorker who cooks! (We exist.) Other than that, I bike (mostly in Prospect Park); stand too close to art in museums; photograph things (mostly architecture); and I hold a semi-regular gathering of archivists, librarians, and other friends at a Japanese restaurant in Brooklyn.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
Everything, truly--the materials, the content, a really good catalog record, teaching and bringing new audiences to special collections, the buildings and reading rooms themselves, the collaborations, the community and the special collections Insta-verse, the stories and experience of others in the field, and I love how we talk about our work, and how we seem to all really like what we do.
Can I tell you a story? There’s one other thing. I was probably seven or eight, and a teacher took our class through a basement corridor at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, and--my memory may be hazy here--but there was, like, an half-excavated archaeopteryx on top of a pallet against the wall, and I remember walking past vases and crates that seemed like something out of Indiana Jones, thinking, “This is amazing! How do I get to be here all the time?”
And, OK, fine--that story has no books in it, but--that moment! That jaw-dropping moment! That is what excites me about rare books librarianship.
We speak softly of the wonder inherent in this profession--we defend, share, promote, embrace it with all of our senses--but there is something to be said really loudly, I think, for the astounding privilege we all have of waking up every day and knowing that the pieces of history with which we’ve been entrusted can change and enrich other people’s lives. I knew, back then in the Carnegie basement, that I wanted to work with awe-inspiring precious pieces of history, and sometimes I can’t believe I really get to do it.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
A few thoughts. Let’s please never stop learning or encouraging curiosity. (Someone once told me, in response to my pursuit of an MSLIS, that “enough education is enough,” and it was such an abhorrent statement I guess it really stuck with me.) I love that this community supports philosophies antipodal to that backward assertion, and I’m so thankful to be a small part of such a world.
Secondly, we’re at a great moment for expanding definitions in the field, and I think the future of special collections can be seen in a willingness to embrace that which is “new” or “weird” or otherwise nontraditional. I like what Arthur Fournier and places like the Interference Archive are doing a lot.
Going forward, I believe that special collections superstars will continue to make the most of alternative platforms in teaching and outreach, and I can’t wait to see what we all come up with next.
So, all of those things, and parenthetically, I have to add that I’ve been listening to Brother David Steindl-Rast lately, and I really admire what he has to say about accepting gratitude. In order to continue to build a generous community of readers, researchers, and the next generation of professionals, I hope we don’t lose sight of how genuine an expression of appreciation can be.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you’d like to draw our attention to?
For each institution, I’d like to put the emphasis on interesting: at NYSL, we recently debuted City Readers, a database of historic records, books, and readership that allows researchers to discover and analyze the Library’s role as a social and literary institution in New York at the turn of the nineteenth century (including George Washington’s borrowing history); the music scores and government documents at Brooklyn College Library; and the Alice Cordelia Morse collection, American publishers bindings, and trade catalogs at Watson Library.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
The Society Library is currently showing Sarah Parker Goodhue: A Hidden Collection Comes to Light, which illuminates the treasures of this important donor, who left the Library its largest-ever bequest. This exhibition is the first showing of many of these materials.
I’m really proud of the current selections on view at Watson, which celebrate the Lunar New Year and include Chinese-language books on jades and bronzes. And I’m particularly excited about an exhibition in Fall 2016, spearheaded by Tony White, on the Library’s new acquisitions of artists books and selections from independent publishers.
And, if you’re going to RBMS 2016, I’ll see you there! I’m thrilled to be presenting a poster on publishers’ bindings, diversity, and the collections of Brooklyn College; I’m co-organizing an Instagram meetup with colleagues from the University of Miami Special Collections, American Antiquarian Society, and Southwestern University; and it will all be so much fun.