What is your role at Columbia University Libraries, and what is your day-to-day work like?
I’m the new Curator for Comics and Cartoons and also the Librarian for Ancient & Medieval History. I’ve held the latter job since 2002 and the new job is an outgrowth of a 2005 initiative to build a graphic novels collection for teaching and research. I have an interesting hybrid role in that I have one foot in circulating collections and the other in rare books. But for both roles I provide research support and acquire materials in my subject areas – books for the stacks and archives for rare books. I work with donors, vendors, faculty, and graduate and undergraduate students as well as with catalogers, acquisitions staff, and colleagues across divisions. There is no typical day-to-day! I could be meeting with possible donors to review their archives; giving tours of the collections; perusing blogs, booklists, and reviews to identify titles for purchase; working with faculty to introduce their students to new materials or research resources; planning events to promote the collections; assessing collections for transfer to our offsite storage facility; helping a researcher locate a book or article – every day is a surprise.
What was your path – both personally and professionally – to librarianship and your current position?
I’ve definitely had an unconventional career path. I was actually a college dropout who worked as a bartender for 15 years. The last three years of that time I spent getting my bachelor’s degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at NYU, pursuing an interest first sparked by a visit to The Met Cloisters museum when I was 10 years old. I was awarded a fellowship to study medieval history here at Columbia, receiving my M.A. and M.Phil. degrees, before deciding to leave prior to completing my dissertation. I took a non-professional job in Butler Library and realized librarianship was a wonderful fit. While working here, I got my M.I.L.S. from Rutgers and applied for the job I ultimately got in 2002. People laugh, but I give a lot of credit for my success to skills I learned bartending: people skills, a strong customer service ethos, and the ability to encompass both the micro and macro view.
Comics and graphic novels are not necessarily a traditional area of collecting or research in academic libraries. How have you made a case for both in your work at Columbia?
Columbia wasn’t the first university to develop a comics or graphic novels collection – we weren’t even the first Ivy. As a result, I didn’t forge that new a path. But I was able to make a convincing argument on both general and specific levels. When I made my pitch in 2005, I demonstrated that comics were a topic for serious scholarly study by pointing to dissertations and peer-reviewed articles on the topic. I also pointed out that Columbia has both a film school and a film studies department and the connection between comics and film, already strong in 2005, has only grown stronger. Finally, I noted that American comics were born in New York City – in magazines like Brother Jonathan and the local newspapers of Pulitzer and Hearst – and that it was fitting that “Columbia University in the City of New York” help document this New York story.
What most excites you about your role within the Columbia Libraries system in a time of progress and change?
It is a source of enormous pride to me that our organization has been supportive of my comics collections since they began. From that initial pitch in 2005 to my approach to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library when writer Chris Claremont offered us his archives in 2010, I have never dealt with pushback or disapproval. I remember when President Bollinger first arrived here in 2002 and he came to speak to the Libraries staff. He enjoined us that one of our responsibilities was to identify the collecting areas of the future so that our holdings would be ready for new scholarship. I don’t think he was referring to comics studies, but I took his words to heart nonetheless and I have tried to build those collections with an eye to how they would be used in research, teaching, and learning.
The field of library science is changing dramatically. What advice would you give to someone considering a career in librarianship, considering the challenges and opportunities at stake?
So many times I’m chatting with someone and I’ll mention I’m a librarian and almost immediately, they’ll exclaim something like, “Oh, I always wanted to be a librarian – I love books!” I think that there’s a perception that librarians spend our days sitting around reading…and oh, how I wish! Certainly, being well-educated and intellectually curious will serve a potential librarian well, but nowadays being tech-savvy is equally important. Can you design a webpage? Code? Assess a user interface? In addition, quite honestly, the background that’s served me best is the 15 years I spent bartending in New York City. I mentioned above the skills I learned then and it’s difficult to overstate the importance of those qualities. So, yes, loving books is important, but other qualities, such as loving the hunt – whether for a missing book, a data error, or an elusive citation – are equally crucial.
You’ve spearheaded several noteworthy acquisitions during your time at Columbia. Do you have a particular favorite piece from these collections?
Ah, the Sophie’s Choice question! My favorite acquisition is a tie between the most recent one and the next one…
But what stands out for me, and what makes Columbia’s special collections so remarkable, is the context in which my acquisitions sit. We have collections such as, say, the papers of Daniel Longwell, a Doubleday editor – and in it we found a hand-colored George Herriman illustration from archy and mehitabel. We have the papers of publisher Lyle Stuart, who was once the business manager for Bill Gaines, editor of EC Comics, and in it we found a Bhob Stewart parody horror-comic cover “The Vault of Bill Gaines.” We already held proto-graphic novels such as Rodolphe Töpffer’s The adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck and Lynd Ward’s God’s man. We have the papers of Rockwell Kent, original art by Boris Artzybasheff, the editorial cartoon archive of the Pulitzer Prize. My acquisitions nestle nicely into these existing holdings.
You've found a way to combine a personal passion with work. Aside from comics-related activities, what else do you do in your free time?
I’ve been a resident of New York City since 1978 and there is little I love better than walking around the city, finding interesting neighborhoods or architectural treasures. There’s an event each May known as the “Great Saunter”: a 32-mile walk around the periphery of Manhattan island. I’ve done that four times so far. I’ve walked from Morningside Height to Gowanus and back, to Forest Hills and back, coast-to-coast in the Bronx. This city really rewards the walker and so few people pay attention to their surroundings any more.
I’ve also developed a recent pastime, which is related a bit to my work, but also to a long-time passion for the Lewis Carroll Alice books: I ask cartoonists I meet to sketch any character they like in a sketchbook I carry about. I’m on my second volume now and have captured some exquisite drawings. I’ve also haunted museums of all kinds since my family moved east in 1969 and that’s another activity NYC supports beautifully.
What is your favorite little-known fact or story about Columbia Libraries?
I’ve been giving tours of Butler Library to students and visitors for over 15 years now and, as a former grad student, I’ve seen the space in both its pre- and post-renovation forms. There are two items I love showing off on these tours, neither of which were either clearly visible or, frankly, visible at all, before the renovation. One is the Eugene Savage mural in the lobby, of Columbia as Athena, fighting off the demons of ignorance to bring learning to the people. If you look at the people, you’ll see two of them are holding tools: a hammer for one and a sickle for the other. That doesn’t seem coincidental for a mural painted in 1934. The other is the base of the chandelier in front of the Butler Circulation desk on the third floor. The ceiling had been so filthy that, when it was finally cleaned, they uncovered a bas-relief of the Columbia seal, surrounded on both sides by the Manhattan skyline. No one then in the Libraries had had any knowledge of its existence!
To reach Karen, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.