When a visitor enters the refurbished Library Exhibition Hall, it may seem as if the rare artifacts in that hushed and glittering space appeared as if by magic. Yet the new permanent exhibition, “Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times,” is no conjurer’s trick. Nor do the 150 or so items on view exist in splendid isolation within their beautiful surroundings. On the other side of those mahogany walls reside their 9 million counterparts: the books, letters, diaries, photographs, sketches, maps, brochures, scrapbooks (and on and on) that constitute a living, breathing, world-class research institution.
It may be stating the obvious, but a collection this vast doesn’t take care of itself. Indeed, beyond the gallery sanctum exists a hive of activity. Now a compelling suite of short videos has been produced and created by an award-winning Huntington duo. Karina White, senior exhibition designer, and Kate Lain, new media developer, lift the veil to reveal some of the dedicated employees and routine operations that keep the place humming. The five videos that comprise “Behind the Scenes: Staff and Researchers at the Huntington Library” give star turns to a conservator, curator, archivist, page, and “reader” (The Huntington’s term for a scholar/researcher). All can be viewed in-gallery, on our Vimeo and YouTube sites, and at the end of this post.
Each one of these evocative “day in the life” vignettes offers a unique perspective on the inner workings of the institution while highlighting certain overarching themes. Patience proves to be one, as does perseverance. This kind of library work is not for those seeking instant gratification; nor is it for types who fear a task so monumental that it can, at times, feel Sisyphean. “We don’t read everything,” says archivist Li Wei Yang, without a trace of irony. “If we did, nothing would ever get done.”
Kevin Miller, rare books stacks supervisor, speaks to a job that entails the efficient retrieval of material for scholars perpetually short on time. Kevin is meticulous when it comes to returning items, and rightly so. “They say the devil’s in the details,” he muses. “That’s really true here. If you put something back in the wrong place, you’ll likely never find it again. Ever.” Alan Jutzi, Avery Chief Curator of Rare Books, embodies the dervish nature of a position that demands a daily, dizzying array of tasks from answering queries to consulting on exhibition and preservation issues, acquiring new items, and helping to interpret the millions of books that range from the 14th century through the 21st. Conservator Jessamy Gloor points to the inherent contradiction in her battle to preserve material that was never meant to last. And historian Jessica Kim revels in trying to solve the puzzles that original research presents.
This particular little Huntington tribe exhibits quirks and eccentricities like any other, yet the ties that bind are clear: a love of “old stuff,” a reverence for history, the thrill of discovery, a desire to create order out of chaos, and, ultimately, to engage in an intellectual enterprise of enduring value. Kevin speaks for many of us when he says, “For me, this is like the best job in the world.”
Kevin Miller, page
Jessamy Gloor, conservator
Li Wei Yang, archivist
Jessica Kim, reader
Alan Jutzi, curator
The five videos comprise “Behind the Scenes: Staff and Researchers at the Huntington Library.” They can be viewed on iPads in “The Library Today,” an education display in the room adjacent to “Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times.” Also on view is the video installation Hand/Study, which shows pairs of hands working with and using The Huntington’s rare library materials. That film is projected onto a table in the center of the room.
Jennifer A. Watts is curator of photographs at The Huntington.