A Gentle Reminder to Special-Collections Curators

Brian Taylor

April 29, 2010

Over the years, I have had occasion to visit many special-collections libraries in the United States, Canada, and Britain, conducting research on 17th- and 18th-century literature and music. Many of those visits have been some of the most positive and memorable experiences I have had as a researcher since I entered a Ph.D. program in English in the late 1980s.

The library I remember the most fondly is Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., where I spent three glorious months on a postdoctoral fellowship in 1995. Everyone there was so kind and helpful that it was truly a joy to enter the building each morning.

Unfortunately, at other institutions I have had not-so-pleasant encounters. On top of that, students in a graduate book-history course I teach from time to time report a cold or condescending reception from curators when they have needed to read materials in preparing their final papers.

As an instructor, I cringe when I hear such reports from students, some of whom surely felt intimidated before even setting foot in a rare-book library. But far worse, as an academic librarian myself, I feel professionally affronted by such uncollegial behavior.

If you have never visited a special-collections library, you might be wondering how such encounters play out. Let me describe my own recent run-in with an overprotective curator.

In March I found myself in London attending a lovely evening concert that formed part of the 33rd London Handel Festival. As I flipped through my thick festival program, itself priced like a rare book at 10 pounds ($15—in addition to the cost of the concert ticket), my eye fell upon a half-page advertisement inviting readers to visit "the largest private collection of Handel memorabilia."

As a long-term student of Handel's life and works, I have known about the collection for many years. I also knew that, back in the day, one had to contact the collector himself and ask to use the collection at his house—a prospect that seemed unimaginably daunting to me.

Yet now here it was, offered to the public! The advertisement went so far as to list the collection's hours, which even conveniently included weekend days, and noted the location, near the Russell Square Underground Station. My lingering sticker shock over the price of the program instantly yielded to feelings of euphoria akin to having discovered an old parchment map leading to the proverbial pirate's booty.

The next morning, my last in London, I laid aside my other plans and eagerly caught the Tube to the museum where the Handel collection was housed, bursting to take a look. When I entered the building and asked about the collection, the woman behind the ticket window looked at me a bit apprehensively but said nothing. Instead she made a phone call, whispered discreetly, then hung up and told me that the curator would be down in a moment.

Immediately an alarm went off in my mind. "Oh no," I thought. "Why is the librarian coming down instead of inviting me up?" Before I knew it, a young English woman, perhaps 35 years old, was standing before me, unsmiling. She introduced herself, and I introduced myself, explaining that I was a researcher of 18th-century English music and theater and, as it happens, myself a librarian at Yale University. The institution's name, she said, "sounded familiar." Ignoring her warning shots, I asked to see the storied Handel collection.

Predictably, my temerity triggered those dreaded words that steal over a researcher's heart like an icy hand; the words we librarians know as code for "not on your life."

"Have you checked our online catalog?" she asked, already certain of the answer. "No," I replied calmly, trying not to reveal my desperation at knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt what was coming next. "I only just learned of the availability of the collection last night when I saw an ad in my concert program."

"Well, what are you looking for, exactly?" she rejoined, poised to deliver the final blow. "We're not open to the public," she sneered, reserving special emphasis for "the public," that vilest category of being. "You can't just show up! You need to inquire, then make an appointment, you see."

Lucky for me, having been through this before with many other librarians just like her, I was prepared.

"Oh, really?" I replied mock-innocently. "Then why does this half-page ad in the program state that you're open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today?" As I reached into my bag to produce the evidence, she realized the troops were advancing and she would be forced to bring out the heavy artillery.

Scowling, she sighed, "Oh, all right. Come with me."

As we got in to the elevator, she lobbed a new grenade. "We're short staffed, you see. And I'm training someone today. Can you tell me exactly what it is you're after? You can't browse the collection because it's shelved by size, you see."

Of course, as a librarian myself I realized that made no sense as an objection: It would be easy to browse the collection since all the books were neatly arrayed on open shelves. I didn't care what order they were in. I wanted to see what was there and could easily have done so if she had let me at them.

But clearly she had successfully used those same words in the past to discourage other hopeful researchers, which is doubtless why she tried them on me. She was even savvy enough not to wait for my comeback. She entered her office with me following, sat at her computer, and prompted me to feed her keywords she could use to search the catalog for me.

Since she hadn't offered to let me search myself, I knew she was determined to make quick work of me. After perhaps three of her very narrow searches yielded nothing unique—only secondary sources I had seen before—I realized I wouldn't find anything useful unless I had the opportunity to search on my own, trying different approaches as I discovered the scope of the collection.

That was so obviously not going to happen that I finally just thanked her politely and turned to leave. I had been in her office perhaps five minutes. Realizing she had won her battle even more quickly than expected, she mumbled an apology about how it was just a bad day, what with her being short staffed and having to train a new person and all.

And so the dragon succeeded in guarding the hoard.

The worst part is that I honestly think she believed she was doing her job—that her behavior was justified because I was foolish enough to just "turn up" expecting to use "her" collection.

Let this, then, serve as a gentle reminder to rare-book curators that your job is not to keep readers from your books but just the opposite: to facilitate readers' use of the collections. If altruism or professional integrity aren't sufficient motivators to get you to play nice, you might consider the fact that you have a job only because people want to read what's in those collections, and you will keep your job for only as long as readers feel welcome to approach you to make use of the materials.

Todd Gilman is librarian for literature in English at Yale University Library and a part-time instructor for library schools at San Jose State University and Wayne State University as well as for the journalism department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.