A New Curator's Guide to Getting Lost in the Stacks

When I started as the Newberry's curator of rare books and manuscripts in March, I spent over four hours touring the stacks with two very knowledgeable librarians. Books being of course central to the Newberry’s mission, it was paramount that I not only learn the contents of the collection but actually find them. This dizzying crash course introduced me to the many variables (among them classification schemes, separately shelved collections, and size), that go into safely and efficiently housing over a million rare and modern volumes, and other objects throughout the ten-floor stacks building.

My guides were also exceedingly patient, given that my doctorate on the Renaissance pop-up book is no substitute for a library degree. Then they set me loose with two practice lists that would test my ability to find over 100 items—identified only by call number and in random order.

What next?

A logical approach might have been to warm up with the general collections list (as opposed to the one for special collections materials). This list included books which I now know reside on fewer floors shelved mainly by Cutter numbers (a system modified by a former Newberry librarian), and Library of Congress classifications (employed for more recent acquisitions).

Instead, I headed straight for the inner sanctum: the vault! There I eventually found special collections items from my period of specialization, such as Gutenberg Bible leaves and rare early modern atlases, but also became more familiar with collection highlights including the Popol Vuh and other important manuscripts relating to indigenous peoples.

There are significant volumes for every area of study throughout the rest of the stacks building—areas I explored next.

As the Newberry is a busy research library open to the public, several books were temporarily absent from their shelves, their lucky readers noted on printed call slips. Staff members had set aside others for future exhibitions, particularly on the 1893 and 1934 Chicago World’s Fairs and one timed for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses in the fall.

I learned much from books that were on the shelves: for instance, we own an account about a 25-year-old military volunteer in Revolutionary France who became publically drunk and insubordinate on eau-de-vie (the account is one of some 30,000 now-digitized pamphlets). Browsing near an eighteenth- to nineteenth-century album of devotional prints entitled “Mortuary Cards” revealed other albums containing “lottery puffs” and also detailed eighteenth-century engraved advertisements for packets of gold leaf.

The lists then sent me in search of the Modern Manuscripts collection, including handwritten and printed sheet music, folders and rolls of maps, and, finally, American literature to round things out. Perhaps my favorite item of all was an unauthorized Czech translation of My Ántonia that includes a slightly impertinent disclaimer in English offering “a small souvenir” (but no remuneration) should the author ever notice it had been translated!

A month later, after devoting much time to the venture, I finally finished both lists. With this accomplishment came an even deeper appreciation for the breadth of the Newberry collection and its caretakers past and present. I couldn’t have managed it without help from my new colleagues, especially the brilliant library assistants who know the stacks intimately. Maybe I’ll get there too—just give me a few years.

By Suzanne Karr Schmidt, George Amos Poole III Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts