When I was a research curator at the New York Public Library, I learned a valuable lesson: unfettered access and Boolean logic will only get you so far. You need someone on the inside. The specialists who work behind locked doors in temperature controlled archives don’t just know their collections – they love them.
And when we love something, how do we show it? We’re protective, of course, but we’re far too excited to keep it a secret. We post the best pictures of the object of our affection online, replete with the wittiest, most informative captions we can think of. We celebrate and tease in a way that only we can, because we know them best, and we care the most.
In that sense, book historians, librarians, and professors are just like us. They embrace social media to broadcast their ardor for archival treasures. It begins with a photo on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr or Pinterest, accompanied by a witty observation and context, perhaps followed by a longer post, podcast, or video. They love feedback, and readily engage in threads of a most silly and serious nature – and they almost always invite you to meet IRL.
There’s an obvious educational benefit, but if you’ve been imagining the stereotypical librarian all along, severe and pedantic, you’re in for a surprise. The way they playfully embrace incredibly rare materials offers a daily dose of perspective. We’re living out our collective memory, and the world, both past and present, is most improved when viewed through a such a wondrous lens.
The following eight book historians, curators, specialists, and librarians do that best:
@DamienKempf and @bxknits regularly update the Getty Museum’s Pinterest homage to the rich and varied lives of monkeys in the margins of medieval manuscripts. These monkeys have attended the coronation of Boniface IX, dueled with unicorns, fired cannons, attended book clubs, jousted with squirrels, made wine, and doted on cats. They’ve also attempted murder.
When she isn’t teaching at John Hopkins’ Peabody Institute, professor Elizabeth Archibald posts a veritable treasure trove of advice from the past on her site. Learning how to “Disfigure a Peacock” is less relevant today than it was in 1673, but Archibald addresses contemporary concerns as well. That’s not to say that that the 1563 suggestions that “the gall of a Patrich” on your temples will do anything to improve your memory, but I do believe this 1530 axiom still stand: “No woman desires a man with rabies.”
Special collections librarian Colleen Theisen made national news when she posted a gif of Robert Mudie’s 1837 Autumn on The University of Iowa’s Special Collections & Archives Tumblr, but her “Miniature Monday” posts, feature books so small they are often photographed perched atop a finger, are utterly charming.
4. Mitch Fraas
Mitch Fraas wears many hats at Penn, but he retweets far and wide. On any given day, his feed will direct followers to a copy of ‘Ami du Peuple stained with Marat’s blood, 18th century illustrations of Italian chocolate cafes, boxes of human hair, Japanese letters in cipher, Victorian trade cards, and mouse bookmarks.
5. Tudor Cook
Richard Fitch, project coordinator for the Historic Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace, doesn’t limit his personal Twitter account to cookery. (And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the food historian’s recipes prioritize historical accuracy over modern conceptions of hygiene and diet.) When engaged, he seems to hit reply with abandon, rendering his account a great place to discover like-minded individuals, but its his irreverent, dad-like humor that keeps me coming back for more.
The Curator of Early Modern Books & Manuscripts at Harvard’s Houghton Library has access to one of the greatest research collections in the United States, and he’d like to you to join him. Overholt responds to enthusiasm on Twitter by reminding followers that “anybody can come and register to use the collections here.” If you can’t get to Cambridge, do read the Library’s excellent blog, where you’ll find thoughtful posts on a variety of topics, including books bound in human skin.
7. Erik Kwakkel
This medieval book historian from the Netherlands “gets” the Internet, often bridging the divide between collecting institutions and the communities they hope to engage. When Emir O. Filipović happened upon inky cat paw prints across the page of a 15th century Croatian manuscript, he sent it to Kwakkel via Twitter, and the rest is viral. He manages to please dilettantes and professionals alike by consistently posting important materials alongside diverting, informative commentary, but don’t miss out on his university’s medieval fragments blog.
Alexis Coe is a columnist at the Awl and the Toast, and has contributed to the Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, and many other publications. Her first book, Alice and Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, will be published in the Fall.