An Interview with the Librarian

At the end of August 2018, long-time Marcus A. McCorison Librarian and Curator of Manuscripts Thomas G. Knoles will be retiring from AAS. After almost twenty-nine years at the Society, we wanted to be sure to tap Tom’s long institutional knowledge and his experiences in the library world. There was none better to do this than the incoming Marcus A. McCorison Librarian, Megan Hahn Fraser, who began that position on April 2. A truncated version of this interview also appears in the March 2018 issue of Almanac.

MHF: What was your career path before coming to the American Antiquarian Society?

TGK: Slightly crooked, I guess. When I was in college I was interested in the classics but also in library work. I’ve always been fascinated by libraries. Approaching graduation, I was torn about going to grad school in classics or library school. I decided on classics and went to Rutgers for graduate school. While I was working on my dissertation, I got a work study job in the special collections department at Rutgers. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was what I wanted to do. While I was finishing my dissertation, I also got a Master’s in Library Science and started thinking about library jobs in general. About a year after that, my wife got a job teaching at Assumption College here in Worcester. We agreed that whoever got a job first, that was where we would go. I worked for about five years in the reference department at the Worcester Public Library. It was not the sort of work that I thought I wanted to do, but it was great experience. Having to work in a busy reference environment with a diverse population was good for learning interpersonal skills and helping readers find what it is they’re actually looking for. I applied for the job of curator of manuscripts when it came along in 1990, got the job, and have been here almost twenty-nine years.

MHF: Since your arrival at AAS in 1990, what would you say is the biggest change that you’ve led or observed?

TGK: The two biggest—number one: computers. When I started to work here there was not a personal computer in the whole building. I don’t think we got our first set of computers institution-wide until 1992. We all spend our whole days at computers now and they are absolutely indispensable. They are such terrific tools for searching in the collections. And having the Internet and the entire catalog and all of the related material available to the whole world online has been a huge change.

The other thing is the progress we’ve made in terms of access to the materials. When I came there were dozens of collections that were completely uncataloged. That number has dwindled dramatically. There is still a lot of work to be done that will keep us busy for a while, but the ability for non-staff people to be able to find material using the online catalog has changed dramatically. When I came there was no online catalog. We were still using just the card catalog—so it was impossible for anyone offsite to know much about what we had or didn’t have.

MHF: I’m especially interested in libraries such as this one making every effort to increase public access to special collections. What are your thoughts about how access to collections has improved or changed during your tenure?

TGK: We’ve digitized fifteen or sixteen million pages of collection material in partnerships with vendors, and that has made collections much more broadly available than they were and, in the fullness of time, all of that material will be offered freely on the internet as well. When I came to AAS, the model was: you came into the library, there was the catalog, there was the staff, and there were the books in the back. The card catalog and the staff were the two ways people could find out about the material in the back. Now it’s a totally different world than it was because so much is available online, and things are cataloged when they weren’t before.

MHF: How do you think research might have changed due to increased access?

TGK: On the positive side, research tools are much better for people than they used to be. A knowledgeable researcher can glean a lot more without ever coming into the building. The negative side is that if a person looks in the catalog and doesn’t find something, they may too quickly assume that we don’t have it, but it may be because of the way they looked or because it’s not cataloged.

MHF: In your time here, you’ve managed two positions: head of the library and curator of manuscripts.

TGK: Actually I’ve had three positions—from 1995 to 1999 I was also head of reader services.

MHF: My question was going to be “what are some things you enjoy about both of those jobs,” but if you’d like to talk about all three?

TGK: Yes. The thing that drew me to the work in the first place and that made being curator of manuscripts so attractive and so enjoyable is both working with the material, which is endlessly fascinating, and also working with people who are working with the material. In the process of helping people, there’s the satisfaction that comes from that, and you and the reader often learn things together about the collections that you didn’t know before. I’ve gotten increasingly interested in the physicality of manuscripts—why do they look the way they do, why do people keep them that way as opposed to some other way. I think sometimes people use manuscripts without understanding how they are different from books.

In reader services, I had a much more continuous role in working with people and talking daily about their research, though I’d always done that with people using manuscript collections. So actually seeing things through and eventually seeing a book come out, is really deeply satisfying. That was one of the things I was always a little frustrated by at the [Worcester] Public Library. You would talk with someone about what was really quite an interesting question and you might never see the person again. Here much more often you see people through the years and even through the decades as they keep coming back, and you build personal relationships in addition to ones that come from interacting over the materials.

In terms of the librarian position, I’ve really enjoyed being able to play a role in setting priorities, and also in helping staff grow in their work. It’s been wonderful to assist in the development of junior staff. We have a long tradition here of finding new opportunities and challenges for people to match their abilities. We have many people on the staff who started in much less senior positions than they’re in now. Our curator of books started as a clerk in the acquisitions department. Our head of cataloging services started as a page in reader services. And I can tell that story over and over again. Being part of that process has been very satisfying.

A page from one of William Bentley’s diaries.

MHF: I dread when people ask me this, because it is always so hard to choose, but if you had to say, do you have a favorite collection and why?

TGK: I actually have an answer to that question: our William Bentley papers. He was a minister in Salem from the 1780s until his death in 1819. Soon after I started working here I recognized that not only was there his wonderful diary, but this incredible record of his book world, the collecting he did, his network of exchanges and gifts in both directions, lending and borrowing books, so well recorded and scarcely looked at by anybody in the 150 years the papers have been here at AAS. I started getting quite interested in his book accounts in the early ’90s, but other things intervened. A few years ago, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts asked me if I was interested in doing a new edition of the diaries, and by then I had realized that the edition of a century ago had left out about half the original material. I’m so excited about working on this project in the years to come.

MHF: What are some projects or accomplishments that you hope to be remembered for?

TGK: I could point at collections I’ve processed, or readers I’ve helped, and it is always nice to see your name in acknowledgements, but the things I’m proudest of have happened since I’ve been librarian and they have to do with the staff.

An example is the curators. Until I became librarian, curators needed approval before purchasing anything. I wanted to give them more agency, so now each of the curators has a defined budget every year and autonomy in spending it. The curators have also been very successful at working collegially to make major decisions.

It has also meant a lot to me to look for opportunities for staff to grow professionally and to further their careers. We have a wonderful group of people working here, and I’m always trying to sustain the idea of what we’re trying to accomplish, but that’s not difficult because of the shared sense of excitement about the work of the Society and about the materials we’re handling all the time. It’s really quite remarkable.

MHF: It’s easy to become jaded in this business and the fact that we all still find something to find wonder in is great.

TGK: This is a great institution for that because things to wonder at are all around us every day, and are continually coming in, being discovered as things get cataloged, or as staff comes across them, or as readers use them. I’ve said to so many people here you will never get bored working here, and if you do, you really don’t belong here.

MHF: Your colleagues appreciate you as a strong advocate for superior reader services. How did you set the tone for how the reading room works?

TGK: I should say up front, this was not new with me. We’ve had a long and stellar reputation as the library where you get better service than you do anyplace else. You can look in acknowledgements of scholarly books and you’ll see this over and over again, us singled out, but that was happening long before I became librarian. So I’ve seen my role as mostly working to continue and improve on that tradition.

When people begin to work in reader services, I stress how important the work is: it’s not just fetching books, but you are an agent in the process of doing research. That means being open and proactive and interested in helping. Readers appreciate that. Choosing people who already have that helpful attitude to start with is key. Staff on the desk need to continually remember that the reader in the reading room is the most important thing they’re responsible for when they’re on the desk. We want to ensure that the research experience is as productive and positive as it can be.

MHF: What types of things do you personally collect?  

TGK: I don’t collect anything!

MHF: Excellent! [Laughs.] How do you manage that?

TGK: I mean, accumulate, yes—I’ve got a lot of books, music, and so forth, but in the sense of collecting, I really don’t collect anything. This is going to sound clichéd, but I find this collection here and adding to it and helping people with it so satisfying that it kind of seems silly to me to collect things on the kind of scale that I’d be able to do it. For me the satisfaction isn’t in having it in my possession and being able to look at it, it’s really that being part of an enterprise like this is much more satisfying to me than actually collecting would be. Maybe I’m kind of an outlier on that—I think most of the people who do this kind of work do collect something, whether it’s stamps or whatever, it’s just not really an impulse that’s in me in that sense.

MHF: That’s so interesting to hear you say that because since I’ve come here it’s a question that I get a lot, and I struggle with it, because I feel as if people want me to say that I’m a collector. But I don’t either – I think it’s partly because I have an obsessive personality, and if I tried to be a completest, it would drive me crazy, and also I have very expensive tastes, so if I can’t collect, say, Fabergé eggs, or something…?

TGK: I totally understand. For me, too, having the material in its context and aggregated as part of something bigger to me seems much more enjoyable than having a little bit in my closet. But I don’t fault anyone who is a collector.

MHF: No, of course not!

TGK: I totally understand the impulse but my collecting desires are satisfied by seeing the Society build its collections and by acquiring manuscripts for AAS —and I don’t have to pay for them! [Laughs.]

MHF: That does help! It’s interesting to me because you suggested that I ask you this question and I thought, “Oh, he wants to talk about some great stuff that he has…”

TGK: [Joking] My collection of Hummel figurines?

MHF: Right! So, what do you plan to do once you leave us?

William Bentley! I’ve been working on the new edition of the diaries for a couple years now. AAS has generously let me work half my time as librarian and the other half on the Bentley diaries. The Bentley project is absolutely perfect for me. It’s the kind of work that I really enjoy; it’s also very educational, with never-ending intellectual interest. It will be satisfying to see them appear and become useful for other people.

I think it is going to be great to be retired. My wife and I will do some traveling and hiking but we’re not moving to Arizona to sit in the sun.

MHF: Do you have any words of wisdom for the staff?

TGK: The thing about AAS is that the shared sense of mission here is just incredible. People have different approaches, but we all understand why we’re here and value the same things. The advice to the staff is just keep doing the great stuff you’re doing and hand it on to the next generation. None of this is really ours. The place and the collection is here—we’re just passing through—and it’s is going to keep going.

MHF: There’s something comforting about that.

TGK: There is. It’s not like you build up this thing that’s going to go away when you’re not there anymore.

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