23 Librarians is back! The blog will no longer run as a weekly series, but there are still volunteers preparing posts which will be published whenever one is ready. The 47th librarian to share his story is Daryl Green, Rare Books Librarian at the University of St Andrews. (NB click on each image in the galleries individually to see the full captions.)
What history can be deciphered from the individual instances of physical evidence found in early printed books? How can we reconstruct the history of how a book travelled through time and space from a 15th century printing press, through the book trade, perhaps through several collectors’ hands, and onto the shelves of modern libraries? These are the kinds of questions that get me up out of bed in the morning and get me going. Each copy of an early printed book represents a “tiny history,” one can jump into several strands of the larger historical canon from any early printed book: Who paid for this book to be produced? Who was the printer? Who made the paper and where? How much did that cost? When was that signature added, and how did it get from collection “a” to collection “b”? Interpreting the physical evidence left in early printed books (bindings, bookplates, inscriptions, evidence of reading) satisfies the forensic and academic side of my mind, and having an excuse and getting paid to interpret these is an absolute pleasure and privilege.
However, I don’t get to spend much time during the working week doing the above! As a Rare Books Librarian my job is as varied as the collections in my care. I came to St Andrews almost five years ago as a Rare Books Cataloguer, which meant that my day-to-day was literally spent amongst the historic stacks of the University Library identifying and cataloguing early printed books (the historic backlog of uncatalogued rare and early printed books was over 100,000!). Days were spent blissfully cataloguing book after book, doing the detective work needed to decipher signatures, names on bookplates, new editions of books not recorded elsewhere, &c. Having since moved up to Rare Books Librarian almost three years ago (first as Acting, now held as a joint position with my colleague), my day-to-day tasks range from teaching semester- or year-long classes, hosting one-off sessions with early printed books for undergraduate or postgraduate classes, donor relations, collections development, managing accessions, answering research enquiries, shifting books on shelves to make room for new collections, managing project cataloguing teams, hosting interns, &c., &c. (I still do manage to sneak in some cataloguing occasionally!)
As a Rare Books Librarian it helps to have a specialism (mine is largely 15th and early 16th century book culture), but you have to be a generalist in order to service the collections in your care. One day an enquiry might come in about a 17th century astronomical text, the next day you need to be on top of an auction of 19th century photographically illustrated books. I came to library work via an academic route: whilst I was finishing my MA dissertation (Medieval Studies) at York I took up part-time work at the Minster Library and learned the ropes of librarianship. Here I was trained in systems management, cataloguing, volunteer management, historic buildings management, &c. I spent 1 ½ magical years at the Minster Library (taking on full-time work post MA) which convinced me that special collections librarianship was a good career path for me: the work was a way to stay connected to the primary materials and to the academic community in a very real way, but also a career where I could punch out at 5 or 6 in the evening and have a life outside of work; I could focus my academic interests into my subject specialities as a developing reference librarian, but still have the opportunity to delve into books, and the history surrounding them, from all centuries and all places. I went back to the States to do my library qualifications at the University of Illinois (MLIS, 2010) and actively sought out entry-level positions in historic libraries both in the States and the U.K. which is what brought me to St Andrews.
One of the most enjoyable sides of the job has been in developing the social media face of the Special Collections Division, most notably through our blog Echoes from the Vault. I started the blog early on in my days here at St Andrews as an outlet for all of the wonderful and weird finds that I was turning up as a cataloguer. Over time it has become a wildly successful blog (over 95,000 hits in 2014) which encompasses all aspects of the Special Collections Division. Aside from the occasional post about interesting finds, projects, or research happening with the collections, four years ago we decided to start a year-long thread which required one post per week: first there was 52 weeks of Fantastic Bindings, then Inspiring Illustrations, then Historical How-tos, and now this year we’ve begun our newest thread Reading the Collections. This has been a wonderful exercise in stretching our curatorial legs for all involved, as St Andrews currently doesn’t have a permanent exhibition facility. The weekly posts allow us to highlight lesser-seen items and get readers closer to the books and manuscripts than they might be able to in an exhibition case.
Many thanks to Daryl for such an interesting post with beautiful illustrations. I’ve been following Echoes from the Vault for a while, and highly recommend it as a good read. I particularly liked the Historical How-tos. Please leave any comments or questions in the box below – or find Daryl on Twitter @ilikeoldbooks.
Finally, would you like to feature on 23 Librarians? Please get in touch if so.