Archivist and Librarian, Pratt Institute Libraries
What background do you bring to your position?
I started at Pratt's Brooklyn Library in February 2004. Unlike some of our librarians who have degrees in the visual arts, I come from a performing arts background: I’m a pianist with an undergraduate degree in music education and a master’s degree in musicology. But the arts are interdisciplinary; learning about the historical development of music also means studying the history of art, architecture, and literature, so I don’t feel at a disadvantage working in a college specializing in the visual arts.
I earned my master’s in library science from St. John’s University in New York City and from there went on to serve as an archivist at Teachers College, Columbia University; as a librarian at the Foundation Center in Manhattan; and as both archivist and librarian at the Central Library of the Queens Borough Public Library before coming to Pratt.
Why the switch from music to libraries?
While I was working on my master’s degree in musicology at Indiana University I assumed I’d go on for a doctorate, but after graduation I was a little burned out so I decided to take a break for a few years and fell into publishing.
I became an editor at the New York office of Oxford University Press and ended up staying for almost a decade. As an editor of scholarly books I had to deal with archivists and librarians as well as authors, and I began to think that it might be interesting to be on that side of the fence, given my very strong interest in history, so I began working on my M.L.S. part time while still at Oxford. Many librarians enter the field as a second career, and they bring a depth of knowledge and experience that actually makes them better librarians.
What kinds of collections and archives does the Pratt Library offer?
An academic library is meant to serve the specific needs of its constituents, so of course our library is especially strong in books, journals, maps, and other print materials that deal with art, design, and architecture. We also collect in the liberal arts and sciences to support the general education program.
We also subscribe to a variety of online databases that provide citations and even, in some cases, full-text access to scholarly resources, especially journals.
Our Multi-Media Center has a significant collection of DVDs and other audiovisual formats that includes current and classic movies as well as documentaries and educational works.
Our Visual Resources Center has a very large slide collection of art images; although nowadays digital images have replaced slides as the medium of choice, our slide collection is still available for those who wish to use it. We also subscribe to ArtSTOR, a major online source for art images.
Then there is our Rare Books collection, which includes books on all topics ranging from the fifteenth through early twentieth centuries; and Special Collections, consisting of old, unique, rare, or valuable books primarily in art, design, and architecture. Special Collections also houses our collections of nineteenth and early-twentieth-century bookplates and pochoir [hand-stenciled] French fashion plates from the 1920s, as well as artists’ books and pop-up books. Patrons can’t browse Rare Books or Special Collections because they’re housed in restricted areas; instead, a patron fills out slips to request specific items, which are then retrieved and brought to the user.
Finally, there is the Archives, which contains personal and institutional papers, some dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, that document the history of Pratt Institute and the Pratt family, as well as historical photographs and negatives, scrapbooks, and Institute publications such as the Prattler, Prattonia, Prattfolio, and official course catalogs. Because the Archives are often used by researchers and scholars, many long-distance, who are not part of the Pratt community, they essentially serve as the Institute’s public face to such patrons. Although the Archives are housed in Pratt's Brooklyn library, they are not simply another library collection but really a separate animal, with their own arrangement, cataloging, and preservation protocols. People have to make appointments to use the Archives.
What’s its relationship to the Pratt Manhattan Library?
The Brooklyn and Manhattan libraries are two parts of a whole; most people probably don’t realize that our official title is the Pratt Institute Libraries.
Because the Manhattan campus has fewer programs than Brooklyn’s does, Pratt's Manhattan Library is smaller and its collections are concentrated to serve the curricula offered there, so the two collections differ in certain respects, but both libraries use the same online catalog. However, the librarians in Brooklyn do not also work at the Manhattan library, which has its own staff.
Pratt's Brooklyn Library, of course, is older; there has been a library at the Institute since its founding in 1887, though originally it was located in the Main Building until the current building was erected in 1896.
The libraries are not part of the School of Information and Library Science, which is a separate entity. However, I’m glad to say that most of Pratt's Brooklyn Library’s graduate assistants are SILS students, so we’re able to offer them some hands-on experience.
Have significant technological changes occurred in Pratt's Brooklyn library in recent years?
Certainly we’ve advanced tremendously in our digitization efforts. In 2005 and 2006 we received digitization grants from the Metropolitan New York Library Council that enabled us to purchase state-of-the-art computers and other hardware and begin digitizing our historical photographs and negatives as well as our bookplates and fashion plates. These are now on Flickr and can be accessed through a link on the Pratt Libraries' website. Before they were digitized no one could make use of them because no one knew about them; now, they’re available for viewing to anyone with Internet access.
Also, digitization has become our main means of document delivery for images. When a researcher, student, or faculty member needs a copy of a photograph we don’t have a print made by a photographer but provide a high-resolution jpeg. Digitization also saves wear and tear on fragile originals, which don’t have to be handled as often.
The Visual Resources Center is the nerve center for all of this, so I have to give credit to their expertise and efficiency because as an archivist I’m one of their neediest clients. Not everything is available electronically, of course, but digitization in libraries is a major trend that isn’t going to go away, so we’ve been trying to keep pace with that.
What are your special contributions as an archivist?
I’ve tried to impose order on the Archives and follow archival standards in terms of arranging and describing materials as well as addressing preservation concerns.
I’ve also tried to be more businesslike about the use of the materials by researchers, which in the long run actually makes their lives easier and their research more efficient.
Also, by working with the collections I’ve developed a certain knowledge about the Institute’s history, and I often have to draw on that to guide and advise researchers. I also serve as a sort of gateway for people who need to have access to certain historical information.
For instance, President Schutte has sometimes wanted to look at the commencement speeches of Charles Pratt to gain inspiration for his own, and Facilities has asked for old photos as reference points when they want to restore features of specific buildings on campus. Graduate students from Art and Design Education have studied some old Institute records and publications to get a sense of what Pratt was doing in its art education programs during the early years.
What I hope I contribute most, however, is a passion for history and a belief that historical records are not lifeless pieces of paper but windows through which we gain a sense of our identity through the years. The tremendous social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, are fully reflected in the memos, protest statements, and other records left by Pratt’s administration, faculty, and student body, including articles and editorials in the Prattler.
Our founder, Charles Pratt kept a diary at various times in his life, and when he began thinking about founding the Institute you can read the ideas that were germinating in his head. I’ve always been moved by entries he made in 1861 when his first wife lay dying, leaving him at age 31 with two young children. It’s not only the words that convey his anguish, but his handwriting, a loose, shaky scrawl very different from the way he usually wrote. Something like that really does make you realize that he was a genuine human being with life issues like the rest of us, not some impersonal and remote nineteenth-century deity. He also wrote the most loving letters to his children, even after they were grown, which gives you a sense of the kind of father he was.
In your opinion, what’s the rarest, most historically valuable item in Pratt's Brooklyn library?
That’s a difficult question, because we have a number of unusual materials. We have a leaf from one of the Gutenberg Bibles, so that’s pretty significant, but I think I’d have to vote for The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis, which consists of numerous volumes of photographic prints taken between 1907 and 1930, depicting Native Americans.
They’re controversial because from today’s vantage point historians feel Curtis’s photographs created a stylized portrait of Native Americans, and characterized them as an inferior and dying race, but the images still have tremendous historical significance and were important for their time. Only a limited number of sets were produced, and our prints are in very good condition.
What’s the oldest item?
The oldest printed item would probably be Eusebius’s Chronicon, which was published in 1483 (the original work is from the fourth century) and is an incunable—a book published during the first few decades after the invention of movable type and usually dating no later than 1501. We own a number of incunables in our Rare Books collection. Our oldest manuscript is a receipt for a coffin, dated 1822, built by Charles Pratt’s father Asa.
What would we most surprised to learn about you?
That I’m trying to teach myself Welsh. Years ago when I was visiting Wales I fell in love with the sound of the language—it’s very rhythmic and musical, with rules governing grammar and pronunciation that are often quite different from those for Germanic and Romance languages. My friends say it’s not a very practical thing to do, but I tell them you never know when you might find yourself surrounded by a bunch of non-English-speaking Welsh people. When that happens I’ll have the last laugh.
Photo: Diana Pau