Rare Books & Special Collections

By Rachel Finn

rachelWe all know that people are often surprised to learn that special training, a credential even, is required to become a librarian. We’ve all experienced the disbelief and the subsequent requests to expound on just what exactly “librarian training” entails. I really can’t say that the same wasn’t true for me before starting my program; as I myself, had no idea what to expect when I began my studies at the Pratt Institute in the fall of 2012. For me, library school has been an important period of discovery professionally and even personally from navigating the basics –reference classes, internships, sussing out just what the big and revolutionary deal was with RDA vs. AACR2 (Heck, figuring out AACR2 in the first place! Thank goodness for the pumpkin cake and tropical rooibos up at Darling Coffee up in Inwood) to figuring out what librarianship means to me and ultimately what I want it to mean.

This past semester everything fell into place, as I enrolled in my first course on rare books and special collections supported by the Ellis Mount scholarship. Institute on Special Collections, provided the first thoroughly enjoyable library school class experience for me; I was bowled over. New York Public Library’s Assistant Curator of the Pforzheimer Collection Charles Cuykendall-Carter and Kyle Triplett, NYPL Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian co-taught the course and provided a wealth of practical information and insight into the work that I will do in the field. The course was immensely satisfying and useful for two reasons: one, it helped me think more clearly about my own plans for creating a food library, and second, it ended up clarifying my entire library school experience by providing helping me determine the area of librarianship that I will pursue professionally.

In addition to an intensive overview of the world of special collections and rare books, we visited various divisions within NYPL, the Grolier Club, and the Fales Library at NYU. My professors encouraged us to get up, out, and explore the special collections landscape of the city, through assignments and independent visits. One such assignment took me to the Morgan Library, where I visited the Man Booker Prize Winners and Edgar Allen Poe exhibitions, and permanent display of J.P. Morgan’s study and wrote a paper of my observations that compared elements of exhibition design within each. Another particularly memorable and useful assignment was an exercise that introduced the class to special collections and rare books-specific reference tools and required students to use them to answer questions about materials pulled from NYPL’s special collections division at the Schwartzman Building.

Guests speakers and class lectures touched on practical issues of conservation and preservation, security, access, and of course reference in the RB/SC context and incorporated new issues such as using digital tools and technical skills to develop projects that effectively showcase rare and special collections materials, provide broader access, and contribute rice and relevant projects to the digital humanities landscape. An additional high point was learning to make enclosures for fragile materials in class. A class session was devoted to constructing the enclosures, an experience I appreciated immensely after spending time in many other classes in the program where hands-on activities, constructing or testing materials to learn and ultimately reinforce skills were missing entirely.

Understanding that there are actually different approaches to building special collections and that what constitutes a “rare” book goes beyond the stereotype of the older man in his tweed elbow-patched blazer in a room surrounded by 12th century quarto, or illuminated manuscripts, or some such. Learning that there is space for that mass of broadsheets collected by an aging hippy in San Francisco, or that a collection of early edition 19th century American literature by authors whose sole connection is that they happened to be friends with the original collector is relevant, opened my eyes to the possibilities of what this collections and ultimately, this work can really mean.

In addition to all of this, perhaps the most important thing upon which I have begun to reflect more deeply is access and RB/SC. While many types of materials are not suitable for frequent viewing or handling by the public, it cannot be forgotten that the reason we collect such treasures is not simply to be able to say that we have them, satisfying as that may be. The reason we build our special collections is to provide access to our patrons for use as learning and research tools. The course helped me to place my own global research experiences in context and think more broadly about the types of information and the ways in which they are both opened and restricted to library communities.  It also helped me to begin thinking about the challenges inherent in attempting to provide access to rare and special collections and perhaps if it is realistic or feasible to think about collection access issues as a librarian in RB/SC, or if those are best left to education or exhibit departments of a given institution.

The course also added a new dimension to my internship experience in the archives at the Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. What I learned in the class has helped me develop my processing skills and informed my ability to describe items more precisely and in some cases to actually identify the types of items I am encountering in my work. For me special collections and archives fit seamlessly together with my experience in the class helping to build a foundation that will help me to be successful in archives or special collections.

I am extremely grateful to have been awarded the Ellis Mount Scholarship. I know that what I learned will not only define my professional career in special librarianship and archives, but it will also help me to continue honoring the memory of my grandmother Minnie Lee Hall and paying homage to Afrodescendents around the globe through my continued work building the Roots Cuisine library.