Rare Books and Manuscripts #RBMS17 Recap

Photograph of Old Iowa State Capitol with university seal on sidewalk in foreground

I am cross-posting my post-conference scholarship essay along with my session notes from RBMS 2017 (find them here); I figured since I was writing both, anyway, I might as well share my RBMS insights!

This was my first time attending RBMS, and I remain deeply grateful to the scholarship committee and all donors for the opportunity. I found out about RBMS while a student at the Texas iSchool, and promptly joined as a student member. As someone studying to be an archivist but with sidelines in history of the book, book arts, manuscripts, and museum studies, RBMS provided a deliriously rich and nourishing community of librarians, archivists, curators, scholars, and others, among whom I was able to see opportunities for not just future career paths, but for cross-field, inter-institution, and even international collaboration. I was especially fortunate to be paired with Melanie Myers, Senior Manager for Reference and Outreach at the Center for Jewish History in New York, as my RBMS mentor. Even more fortunate was my luck at being awarded a scholarship to ACRL in Portland in 2015 (my recap of that conference is here), where I got to meet Melanie in person–and she in turn encouraged me to try to attend RBMS in the future! Thanks, Melanie!

After driving (a blissfully uneventful) 999 miles from my home in Austin to Iowa City, I took an extra day to explore the town. I had never been to the Midwest before, and I was pleasantly surprised by how wonderful Iowa City is; what a fantastic, walkable, literary spot for RBMS! I toured the Old Capitol Museum (as a former Texas Capitol tour guide, I never miss a capitol building), browsed Prairie Lights Books, had the first of three (!) great breakfasts at the adorable Bluebird Diner, and enjoyed the painted park benches of Iowa City while walking about 8 miles.

Photograph of a giant sculpture of a book in a streetscenePhotograph of librarians and archivists looking at rare books on display on a long table, some taking photographsPhotograph of the Old Iowa State Capitol Museum, with USA and Iowa state flagsPhotograph of a chandelier taken from directly below so that it appears as a sunburstPhotograph of a spiral staircasePhotograph of a woman printing a card on a small letterpressPhotograph of the Iowa River in the evening light

I met more inspirational colleagues and mentors than I can count, received an overflowing brain-dump of professional insights, and came away determined–as an archivist–to remain involved in RBMS.

Because I am a state government records archivist, I privileged the sessions with significant archival content in planning my conference schedule. Overall, I felt the conference struck a great balance between “rare books” and “manuscripts” content; the cross-field and cross-institution collaboration happening–on panel stages, in audience Q&As, during experience sessions, over meals and beers and coffees–was encouraging. I’m interested in hybrid institutions–one reason I feel so lucky to work at TSLAC–and how libraries, special collections, and archives present exhibits, do outreach, and engage with the larger public history community. The main themes that emerged to me from my session notes are connected to conference’s main focus, “The Stories We Tell,” including how we as archivists (and allied professionals) can interrogate the ways in which we can acknowledge and responsibly fill our roles as narrators, including sometimes acting as less of an authority and more of a catalyst for the communities, records, and histories we seek to preserve; how increasing diversification within libraries and archives can revolutionize this work, and how, as a white woman, I can prioritize and foreground these conversations in my career; and how we can remain focused on the materiality of our collections while grappling with the urgent tensions brought about by the born-digital, the power of databases, and funding structures that are in flux.

The plenaries were all engaging, thought-provoking, challenging. Every panel I went to was compelling, with astute selections of speakers and moderators. The social events were an invaluable opportunity to connect with my own “early career” peers, meet professional role models and potential mentors, learn more about collections (around the United States and internationally!), and strategize with fellow information professionals about a broad array of issues facing our institutions in a time of exhilarating technological innovation, inspiring diversification, and serious institutional and cultural pressures.

Iowa City was lovely; I feel like I didn’t even scratch the surface of what is on offer there. I want to go back to further explore the University’s Special Collections, especially the Iowa Women’s Archives, learned about in  Janet Weaver’s plenary, and the International Dada Archive, learned about over delicious tapas from Timothy Shipe. I didn’t even have time to visit the Iowa Center of the Book (really disappointing, since I am involved with the Austin Book Arts Center–where we also have a Vandercook press!). Iowa City was a near-perfect conference venue: a very walkable small city filled with book arts! My accommodations at the University of Iowa were a fantastic bargain, and much appreciated by this scholarship attendee. I even made a new friend in the form of a dorm roommate, who turned out to be the same age as myself (let’s just say we’re both big Pearl Jam fans). I met fellow Dada enthusiasts; state capitol-obsessed tourists; UT-Austin iSchool alumni; Texans in exile; and TURN: Washington’s Spies fans. The InstaMeet was especially fun for me, as a prolific social media user; meeting people in the flesh whom you’ve long followed online is always a real treat! And the rare book dealers’ showcase–with tea and cookies–was an oasis of pure eye candy. I even met some booksellers whose brick and mortar shops I hope to visit on an upcoming personal trip to Massachusetts. And my friend Jason W. Dean from Southwestern University lugged several Texana books all the way to Iowa only to give them to me (thanks, Jason!). So, in short: RBMS was a jackpot. I continue to feel very fortunate to have found this career path and very grateful for the opportunities made possible by the investment of others.

Photograph of a Midwestern scene, a field of wildflowers with a yellow flower in the foreground and an old wooden building on a ridge in the distance

Continue to read my session notes here.