Friday, February 1, 2013

I Found It in Special Collections: A Career Goal

Before my interview at Archives and Special Collections, I had never set foot in a rare book room.  I learned the joys of libraries young--History Day projects took me to the University of Minnesota’s main library at the age of eleven, where I tried to dig up primary sources on the Salem witch trials and the Black Plague, learned to use microfilm, and stared awestruck at the wonders of the moving shelves in the Annex Sub-Basement--but somehow Rare Books always seemed a sacred place, and I felt like I wasn’t clean or purposeful or old enough to enter.  
The entrance to Special Collections at the local library where I grew up. (Source.)
In the first few days I spent on the Mount Holyoke campus, though, I received an email from the director of Archives and Special Collections, where I’d applied for a job.  Was I still interested?  Did I want to come in for an interview?  

...were those actually questions?  It was my engraved invitation.  I had the interview, got the job, and now I’ve spent almost four years working with books: old and new, huge and tiny, illustrated and plain, unique and common, all special in different ways.  I have gotten to know the collection here inside and out--and then, this past January, I organized and carried out a mass reorganization, so that now I actually have to use the call numbers to find books again.  It’s gotten to the point where I talk about going back to “my” rare book room at the ends of breaks.

Some of the "miniature" books in MHC Special Collections
And I’ve gotten to show off “my” Special Collections to visitors, over the years.  I’ve put together displays for cases in the main library court or in the MEWS, sometimes on a specific topic and sometimes just on whatever I find fascinating; I’ve helped select materials for class visits, sat in on presentations about the collection, and even run a class visit once; and I have watched people realize the sheer magnitude of what’s down in these basement rooms.  
A plate from Atlas, Designed to Illustrate the Geography of the Heavens (QB63.B93 1835).  (Source.)
Most of these people don’t come back without classes, or without a scholarly project.  Maybe they think they’re too young, or too grubby, or on too frivolous an errand.  But these collections are here for them to use.  To read.  To admire.  Most of all, they’re here for people to learn from.  

Books, after all, contain history not only in words but in their construction and the ways people read them.  A book (unlike many other historical artifacts) is something that you can touch: open the spine--though not too far--turn the pages, interact with it as people hundreds of years ago might have done.  Feel the paper that has come to us through five hundred years of private ownership, libraries, plagues, floods, fires, love, loss, inheritance.  You can still read the words they printed on it in that loud, sweaty workshop.  The visceral sense of history is easy to lose, but these not-so-simple objects--old books--have the power to restore it.  
A papyrus fragment in the MHC Archives and Special Collections (MS0054).  (Source.)
 I want to become a Special Collections librarian after I graduate from Mount Holyoke College.  Part of that is preservation: working here, I see how much treasure there is, and how much history can be lost through mold, bugs, or some other catastrophic event--either fast or slow.  (Some of the items we have here are, as far as we know, the only existing copy in the world.)  A large part, though--maybe even a larger part--is my desire to open up these imposing doors, put out a welcome mat, and make sure people know that anyone and everyone can read and learn from old books.  

Although if they really are grubby, I might ask them to wash their hands.

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