Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Jay Sylvestre, Special Collections Librarian at the Otto G. Richter Library at the University of Miami.
What is your role at your institution?
My proper title is Special Collections Librarian in Special Collections at the University of Miami; however, I function as the Rare Book Librarian. On any given day, I’m responsible for leading class sessions using select collection materials, processing acquisitions, coordinating cataloging priorities with our Rare Books Cataloger, and conducting outreach activities. I spend time each day looking for items to share on social media, primarily Instagram as @um_spec_coll, with local followers, #librariesofinstagram, and anyone else interested in special collections materials. The community on Instagram has been a great way to share our collections, connect with other libraries and librarians, generate new ideas for hashtag challenges (November featured #rainbowsinthelibrary), and interact with potential users and donors.
How did you get started in rare books?
I spent nearly a decade around rare books as a contract archivist. A few of my early contracts gave me exposure to rare book handling, collecting, and cataloging. I had the opportunity during an early internship to help catalog and even acquire a few rare books, but although rare books were always related to my work when I was an archivist, they were never the focus. My focus shifted to rare books when I started working at UM in 2014. Under the mentorship of Cristina Favretto, Head of Special Collections, and with the help of my colleagues in the department and in cataloging, I’ve had an intense ongoing instruction in rare books librarianship. I’m really enjoying working with rare books, especially since I attended Rare Book School at the University of Virginia this past summer, where I learned about publisher’s bindings. We covered so much in one week at RBS that I’m still processing everything I learned.
Where did you earn your degree?
I earned an M.A. in Public History from Temple University with a specialization in archives. The archives sequence was taught by Martin Levitt at the American Philosophical Society. It was this sequence that sparked my career in special collections.
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?
I am a bit of a birder and love bird-related puns (especially on Instagram), so I suppose it’s only natural that my favorite item is an 1809 edition, 4-volume, heavily grangerized/extra illustrated edition of Thomas Bewick’s The History of British Birds. This particular set has original drawings of each bird to match Bewick’s descriptions and engravings and contains full sets of feathers for each bird Bewick described. Each set of feathers is labeled by location and function, with some sets recording the hunter and site of each bird’s untimely demise. All of the feathers were collected between 1809-1811, and all still bear their original luster. The highlights of this collection are lustrous peacock feathers, still shiny and bright. Pages facing the feathers all bear marks of ghosting and oil transfer. It’s an incredible set to show to students for the feather collection, provenance marks, book history, and preservation. Perhaps my favorite parts of the set are the unfinished drawings and leftover feathers. Clearly a previous owner was not done with their work on this book.
What do you personally collect?
I have a very small and slowly growing collection of artists’ books. I am especially interested in papercraft - pop-ups and papercutting, in particular. I also have a collection of bobbleheads. As an undergraduate history major, I came across a bobblehead figure of George Washington. I’ve since added several other historical figures, professional athletes, movie and cartoon characters, and school mascots. One of my favorite bobbleheads is the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolf, which Library Dean Steve Rollins gave to me as a parting gift when I left Alaska to come to UM in 2014. I spotted the bobblehead in his office on my first day of work and asked where I could get one. After 2 years of unsuccessful searching, the Dean generously gave me his on my last day.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Inspired by my work with our artists’ books collection, I’ve taken up papercraft. I’ve made some fairly intricate paper-based Halloween costumes over the last two years (low polygon masks of a pink elephant last year with an articulated trunk and a duck mask for this year’s Dark Wing Duck costume), and I’ve recently started making pop-up cards for friends and family. I also like to find new and unusual craft beers to try; Florida is full of unique ingredients and people, which make this activity quite rewarding. I’m also fond of making desserts, primarily cookies and ice cream, and finding new foods to sample. Finally, beyond spending time with friends, my wife and I also really love the outdoors. When we lived in Alaska, we used to go hiking, kayaking, and whale watching, and we even learned to dog sled and ice skate. Since moving to Florida, we’ve started to enjoy kayaking, bird watching, looking for manatees, and occasionally go snorkeling.
What excites you about rare book librarianship?
Sharing. My day isn’t complete until I talk about, post, or show a book to a student or colleague. I never tire of showing or being shown something new. I’m always learning new things about our collections and librarianship. I try always to convey what I’ve learned and what I know to students and visitors. There is nothing quite like the look on students’ faces when I hand them a book from the 14th century and assure them that they can not only touch, but also hold and look through it.
Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?
Special collections and libraries in general are extremely vital. As a profession, we are facing a crucial moment to affirm our commitment to inclusivity, accessibility, and freedom of information. I am thrilled to see so many conversations taking place about the role of the library being beyond a neutral space for sharing ideas but rather as a space for education, justice, community, and advancing change. The continued focus on connecting and documenting the histories of underrepresented groups and engaging with students, faculty, and our communities give me hope that special collections can be a partner in positive change.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you’d like to draw our attention to?
When Allison Jai O’Dell was featured in 2014, she mentioned two of the collections that had become some of my personal favorites: the Jackie Gleason Collection on the occult and paranormal, and our zine collections. The books collected by Gleason represent the comedian’s serious interest in the unseen world. Our zine collections include a range of materials, from early 20th century science fiction zines to student-created works inspired by visits to Special Collections. We’ve also begun collecting education and socially conscious board games. Inspired by “What Shall I Be?,” a 1966 career game for girls that features a flight attendant in a Pan Am uniform (UM also has the Pan Am Airlines collection), we’ve expanded our collection to include games that critically examine race, gender, sexuality, and class. Our current UGrow graduate fellow recently put together a fantastic exhibit for our reading room using the games collection. We also selected several of our games to play during International Games Day in November. Students and faculty were amazed at the topics covered by the games. Woman and Man: The Classic Confrontation from 1971 engaged players and generated productive conversation about gender equality and sexism and the game’s attempt to educate players.
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
We have a few exhibits coming up in 2017. The first exhibit, “We Were Pioneers: University of Miami’s African-American Students, Faculty, and Administrators in the 60s and 70s,” will share the history of integration at the University of Miami. Our University Archives, Special Collections, and History Department faculty have been working with the Black Alumni Society’s First Black Graduates Project to curate the exhibit.
Following this exhibit will be a look at the environment in Florida and the Caribbean. Our exhibit will be paired with the National Parks Service “Piecing Together a Changing Planet” travelling exhibit and will feature the natural environment, built environment, and destroyed environment. Climate change and sea level rise are essential areas of study at the University of Miami and southern Florida. Special Collections is working to document the work of scientists and activists to address and raise awareness of sea level rise and climate change. This exhibit will help establish the library as a resource and place of discussion for these issues. I’m looking forward to curating the environmental exhibit with partners in the library, school, and community.
Finally, Special Collections will be moving into a new space in late 2017. To celebrate the move we are planning a spectacular inaugural exhibit. Stay tuned, we have big plans for this year!
Image Courtesy of Jay Sylvestre.