Makin' It: Carolyn Vega, Librarian for Handwritten Stuff

GOOD's career column talks to mansucript cataloger Carolyn Vega about really old stuff, the archive bug, and Sir Walter Scott's letter-writing style.

Carolyn Vega is a manuscripts cataloger at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. On any given day, she's combing through some of the most fascinating stuff this side of papyrus and telling the world about it at the library’s blog, Secrets From The Vault. We pulled her out of the stacks to talk about working with really old stuff and how historical odds and ends fill out the big picture.

Is "Cataloger for Historical and Literary Manuscripts" really just an awesome way of saying "Librarian for Really Old Stuff"?

Well, manuscripts means pretty much anything you can think of that hasn't been run through a printing press: Letters, drafts of novels and poems and essays, commonplace books, diaries, and lots of other odds and ends like Dickens' cigar case and a lottery ticket signed by George Washington. I've worked on everything from a 13th-century charter signed by King John, of Robin Hood fame, to letters that J.D. Salinger wrote in the '90s. Most of the materials I work with are from the 19th century. What I do every day is read these letters and notes and drafts—a lot of which have never been published—and describe them in the library's catalog so that researchers can identify and then come to study them. I don't know if it's the fancy way to say it, but yes, "Cataloger for Literary and Historical Manuscripts" pretty much means "Librarian for Handwritten Stuff."

How did you land such a cool job?

When I was interning at the New York Historical Society as a college freshman, I got the archive bug pretty bad, and I've been working in special collections ever since. I began an internship in another department at the Morgan while still in library school, and a year later I moved into a temporary grant-funded position there and then into my current position.

Do you think you could have landed your job without going to library school?

A graduate degree in Library Science (MLS) is definitely necessary for the type of work I do, and for most professional librarian positions. Most people in special collections have an additional masters degree or Ph.D. relevant to the collections they work with, though I do not. That seems increasingly to be a baseline requirement in job postings. I can see how having a master's in English might help me catalog English literary manuscripts, but I'm one of the few who slipped into the field without this additional degree. If I hadn't been interning and working with archives and special collections for so long, I think it would have been a lot more difficult to break into this field without an additional graduate degree, and definitely not without an MLS.

That seems so seamless and serendipitous. Were you ever hamstrung between two job opportunities, or had to move for a job or school? Leave a significant other?

Right when I was getting out of library school, I was offered the job at the Morgan. I had wanted to work there for a long time, and I couldn't believe it was actually going to happen. At the same time, my fiancé was finishing up his first year in a Ph.D. program in another state. The idea had been for me to graduate from Pratt, leave New York, and jump-start my career elsewhere. But to work with those collections at the Morgan! I couldn't turn it down, and embarked on three more years of a long-distance relationship. I guess this is one of the drawbacks of knowing what you want to do, and where you want to do it, for so long. When you finally get that opportunity, you can't—or at least, I couldn't—say no. We justified it by counting up the weeks in a semester and proceeded to rack up some extreme frequent flyer miles. This wouldn't have been possible if my partner wasn't incredibly supportive, and I still can't believe it all worked.

Prior to getting the archive bug, was library work something you knew you wanted to do from an early age, or have you always just liked books?

I knew I wanted to work with "old stuff" and was interested in material history. One of my first jobs was to be a docent at an antebellum house in Georgia. This made me think I might like to be the curator of a historic house museum, and that is why I applied for an internship at the New York Historical Society. I said I wanted to work with objects, but they placed me in the Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Drawings. I am so glad they did! I didn't even know what an archive was before that. Once I got there, a light bulb went off in my head, and I was a convert. Archival collections have so much to say for themselves and for what they're documenting, and they speak to me in a way that three-dimensional objects don't. One of the first collections I ever processed was group of photographs taken by Jacob A. Riis. I wasn't familiar with Riis, and looked at his book How the Other Half Lives—which is illustrated with with Riis's photographs, but nothing like the dozens and dozens I had had my hands on. This is when I realized that you can get such a fuller picture by looking at unofficial, unpublished, unproduced documentation. Not that objects don't have story to tell, but manuscripts and books just have such a voice.

When you write about what you find, there is a lot of history. Is that an aspect of your work that you've had to learn on-site?

You inevitably learn about collections as you work on them. You'd be surprised how intimately you come to know some of these authors after reading hundreds of their letters. For instance, in a single letter, Sir Walter Scott will talk about The Lady of the Lake, trying to get a promotion, buying a new house, who he hopes is the next Prime Minister, and his brother's antics (and there are over 400 Scott letters at the Morgan!). So you have to contextualize all of this as you're going through a collection—identifying, digesting, and, likely as not, forgetting really minute facts about a collection or author. Blogging about something I've recently cataloged has been an interesting exercise in thinking about collections holistically again—it gives me an opportunity to think narratively about what I'm working on and to expand upon just one of those interesting threads that pop out.

Makin' It is the work of journalist Brady Welch and illustrator Skyler Swezy, the team behind

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