I visited Northern Illinois University yesterday, to meet the curator of the rare books/manuscripts department and take a tour. That's where I'm doing my practicum this semester, starting with my training on August 26 then continuing – eight hours every week – through the end of the semester. At the conclusion of the semester I'll need to write up a paper about what I learned during the course of the practicum. That means taking copious notes through the semester, and hopefully some photos if they'll let me. I suspect they will as the Newberry Library, which has a far more rare collection, allows photos as long as you don't use a flash.
It turned out the department I'm working in doesn't have a huge quantity of truly rare books in the usual sense, and no incunabula (pre-1500) save for a few single sheets. Rather, they specialize in books representing popular culture. They do have some rare books and manuscripts, as well as complete collection of certain author's works.
The curator, Lynne, let me hold the rarest item in their collection – a small rock with cuneiform writing. I was both thrilled and scared to death to hold it in my hand! I had my other hand underneath, as though it were a communion wafer. I did it without even thinking. I was just so frightened it would hit the floor, and I'd destroy something centuries old. That wouldn't be the best way to start my practicum, and probably the last day I'd be welcome there.
I asked Lynne if they knew what the cuneiform markings meant, and she said no, they have no one who speaks Syrian and can decode it. But they believe it's something simple, like a simple receipt or i.o.u note, because those are the most common pieces of this size. Dull, on the one hand, but holding something that ancient? My librarian heart was all pittypat.
Another very rare collection they have are Asian works written on palm leaves. On palm leaves! As Lynne said, they're a preservationist's worst nightmare. Then, there are some serialized novels and short stories, written by the likes of Louisa May Alcott, et. al…. Pittypat! Pittypat!
For my practicum, my actual project will involve organizing and filing away someone's personal papers in the archives. People who'd like their papers stored forever donate them to the library. Or their relatives do. I won't know whose papers I'll be working with 'til I start, but it must be those of someone who's died, otherwise what I could potentially read may be too personal to be seen by humans. I hope it's someone famous, but there's no guarantee.
Scholars are the most likely to want to reference these papers. Or, they may never be referenced. But if they're donated, they're archived, because some day someone may want to see them.
Geeky me, I am thrilled by the prospect of all this! It's something I'll never be able to do in a public library setting, something completely opposite of my usual duties. Pittypat! Another bonus, Lynne told me she'll give me time just to play with the collection, to take things out and look at them. Sigh!
As for my other practicum, working someplace with a consumer health section of 100 volumes or more, that's still up in the air. I thought I'd scored a place, a mental health collection, but it's probably reference for doctors and not "real" consumers. Confusing, isn't it? I'm still not sure I understand it, and it's my course.
Summer's nearly over. Can you believe that? Setting up my practicum, and ordering the text for my consumer health course, made me realize fall's just a breath away. Amazing. All the things we said we wanted to accomplish the summer, and most of them are gone – POOF! – for another year, when we may or may not get to them all over again.
Though this time of year excites me, on the one hand (at least while I'm in school), on the other I realize our schedules will turn upside down again. And my boys will be depressed about starting school again, which in turn affects my mood. I hate knowing how sad they'll be when summer's over. My daughter's happy to be going back. She has a good friend group, and is in lots of activities. To her it's a great thing.
Bittersweet, that's the word. I just hope it turns out more sweet than bitter.