This month of May marked my first anniversary at Cornell University Library, and I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the time since I moved to the “gorges” city of Ithaca to start my position at Cornell as associate university librarian.
My current portfolio at Cornell spans the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC), the Division of Kroch Asia Collections, and Digitization and Conservation Services, as well as responsibility for special and distinctive collections across all the unit libraries. Upon arriving, I was told that this is the first time an associate university librarian at Cornell has had this portfolio—and, while it can be a challenge to be the first person in any position, I also embrace my inaugural role as a unique opportunity to communicate to our campus and global communities that our special collections in RMC and across the unit libraries are narratives that structure our understanding of the present and future through the documents of the past. What we collect has significant implications for how our students expand their intellectual reach beyond our classrooms and critically engage in the world Cornell University is preparing them for.
Over the last year, I have spent a good amount of time observing our curators, archivists, and conservators. I have developed an appreciation and admiration for their dedication to our collections, which emanates directly from a love of history and communicating the value of our primary resources to our researchers. I am excited to be at this place of beginnings, shaping the future for materials that include rare holdings stored in our vaults as well as items that draw their distinction not wholly from their individual uniqueness, but from the context that the careful curation of a collection grants them. Our Gettysburg Address, the four 17th-century Shakespeare folios, and our six exquisite volumes of the Yongle Dadian: 永樂大典 are all obvious treasures, but we also celebrate the incomparable value and diversity of collections we have been building of artists’ books, manga, labor union archives, primary STEM sources, Chinese pamphlets, ephemera relating to beekeeping, and, of course, our remarkable digital collections, to give some examples.
By keeping a vigilant eye on developments in libraries around the world and with insights from colleagues across Cornell University Library, I’m growing a vision for our own special collections, where our resources are embedded in scholarship, engaged to their fullest potential, and working together as a force inclusively across all libraries.
I started describing this vision as “rare and distinctive collections” or “RAD” for short. More than an appealing acronym, I see RAD resonating with Cornell’s own initiative of fostering radical collaborations within the university. I see RAD growing as space for us all to work together within the library—from curators to faculty liaisons; from reference librarians to selectors. RAD is a multi-voiced collaborative endeavor, which complements and is central to the constellation that is Cornell University Library.
Traditionally, special collections departments have this occupational image of curators and archivists as autonomous gatekeepers of history amid all these sacred treasures in a vault, away from everyone. I want to help dissolve these barriers and bring our collections in constant conversation with scholarly life. It is true that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a time of reflection and uncertainty about significant changes that may impact rare and distinctive collections. As curators, archivists and librarians, we must persevere and demonstrate our ingenuity to rediscover and reconnect our users with the collections we have, as opposed to acquiring the collections we wish we had. Our professional training and expertise have prepared us to be born for this moment of making our collections come alive through digitally mediated formats for remote teaching and learning.
And so, this vision of rare and distinctive collections is also an open invitation for scholars and researchers at Cornell and beyond to reach out and work with us. In person or online, we welcome you to connect with us and explore our truly RAD collections.
May 21, 2020
Associate University Librarian
Cornell University Library
Views expressed are the opinions of the author and do not represent endorsement by Cornell University.
Image: View from Mann Library by Carla DeMello, Cornell University Library Communications