I’m an archivist with a wandering eye…

I’m an archivist with a wandering eye.

Yes, I admit it. As much as love, cherish, obsess over, and constantly think about archives, I cannot deny my love and passion for rare books! There, I said it. To make matters even more complicated, my love affair is exacerbated by my incredible job. Although I am the Outreach/Special Collections Archivist at the Kennesaw State University Archives, my job as evolved into a position that helps preserve and manage our university’s Bentley Rare Book Gallery. At this point, I’m probably my job is probably 60-70% archives and 30-40% Bentley. It is a love triangle that I am stuck in, and honestly, it’s the best thing that has ever happened to my career. Let me explain why. . .

Since starting my job at KSU, I’ve learned that I don’t have to view rare books and archives in isolation. During graduate school, rare book education was not a topic we touched on at all. This is pretty common for most archival graduate programs, and probably most library graduate programs as well. This left me feeling as though I was inadequate to work with rare books. Although I was desperate to learn more about them, I kept telling myself, “No, you’re an archivist. This is not what you do. Stick with what you know.”

What a miserable existence, right? Now, after plunging into the field of rare books at my job, I am now able to embrace what I do not know and instead of viewing my ignorance as a barrier, I use it as motivation to educate myself further and further.

This rare book is an example of “incunabula” – books printed before 1501. This particular book was published in 1489 and is a part of the KSU Bentley Rare Book Gallery.

So where does a person obtain formal education in the field of rare book curation? Well, I am still trying to figure this out. Take a look at this explanation from the American Library Association’s Rare Book and Manuscript Section regarding education in the rare book field (https://rbms.info/committees/membership_and_professional/educational_opportunities/):

 Educational opportunities for those seeking a career in rare book and manuscript librarianship are so numerous and diverse, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pinpoint them. These opportunities range from formal academic programs leading to a graduate degree, to single-day workshops or seminars. They are offered by schools of library and information studies, English and History departments, libraries, museums, and other academic organizations, by master craftspersons in bookmaking, and on the internet. They provide education on such varied topics as the theory of textual editing, how to catalog a rare book in the MARC format, the history of bookbinding, typography, and publishing, and how to create electronic archival finding aids. Given this great variety, the Membership and Professional Development Committee of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries, American Library Association (ALA), has developed the following directory to aid both prospective and current members of the profession in navigating various educational opportunities for special collections librarianship. Currently, the directory lists graduate coursework offered within degree programs leading to a graduate library degree (MLS).

For most of the 20th century, the more ambitious library schools in the United States were the places to go for formal education in rare book and manuscript librarianship. They routinely offered courses in the history of books and printing, descriptive and analytical bibliography, rare book curatorship, paleography, archival management, cataloging, and preservation. However, for the last decade at least, many schools have dropped such offerings. The obvious case in point is Columbia University’s School of Library Service, which after nearly 20 years of leadership in the professional development of special collections librarians, closed its doors in 1992. Surviving library schools have been rethinking their curricula and retooling them for the 21st century by focusing on electronic information technologies. Yet, at the same time, there has never been in more interest in the “history of the book,” both within and outside academia, and there are more places to obtain knowledge on book history than ever before.

A handwritten Medieval manuscript leaf from the KSU Bentley Rare Book Gallery! Look at those gorgeous and brilliant colors. The colors were most likely created from crushed gemstones mixed with albumen (egg white). 

In other words, rare book education is not a cut-and-dry process. If you are looking for something more robust, options like Rare Book School, California Rare Book School, Center for Book Arts, Midwest Book and Manuscript Studies, etc. are probably better options. If you are seeking education in more of an informal way, perhaps something a little quicker and less in depth, conferences and workshops are probably your best bet, such as the Rare Book and Manuscript Section (RBMS) annual preconference, and random workshops held by the Society of American Archivists (they’ve got one coming up in December all about rare book. . . check it out here http://saa.archivists.org/events/rare-books-for-archivists-1747/738/).

While formal education is imperative, I believe that apprenticeship and learning from a more experienced rare book curator is one of the best ways to understand this field. Each week, I spend time with Mr. Robert Williams, curator emeritus of rare books at KSU, and I cannot tell you how much I’ve learned from him. Sometime he has to tell me things two and three times before I fully comprehend it, but that is okay. Being under his wing and letting him impart knowledge of his fifty-year career in book collecting onto me is the most wonderful (and fun) way to learn about this field. Find yourself a Mr. Williams!