DISCUSSED: Collectors, Walter Benjamin, Desire, Librarians, Bordeaux, Lewis Carroll, Classification, Brunello, Posthumanism, Viticulture, Darryl Strawberry, Passion, GSLIS, Enology, Honus Wagner, T206 Cards, Tuscany
On a particularly cold day in October, lines of rain splashed the windows of the Kelvin Smith Library. It was the second day of the National Colloquium on Library Special Collections at Case Western Reserve University. In addition to probing the ever-present question about digitization and libraries, a number of sessions explored ways in which librarians and collectors have come together to forge partnerships and advance knowledge and scholarship. As a corollary, several panels were populated by a bookseller, a librarian, a scholar, and a collector. Sitting in the back of the room listening to the panelists articulate the symbiotic relationship between their individual professions, my mind drifted towards Walter Benjamin’s essay, Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting, wherein he deconstructs his own obsession with collecting books. The collector has, he writes, “a very mysterious relationship to ownership…also, to a relationship of objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value — that is, their usefulness — but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate.”
The collectors at the colloquium embodied Benjamin’s sentiment. John Lindseth, one of the world’s major collectors of Lewis Carroll (C.L. Dodgson) material, became quite emotional when talking about his life’s work collecting every known edition and volume of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. While the librarians on the panel discussed the finer points of copyright, curriculum-driven acquisition, and deaccessioning — and the scholars delivered origin stories for their academic pursuits — I could hear in the distinctive timbre of librarian-speak and academic-ese the faint echo of the collector’s passion in their voice. The unruly passion of amassing and organizing was evident in each librarian on the panel, but it was remixed into a dialectical tension between ownership and dissemination — a fulcrum upon which librarians navigate on a daily basis. I couldn’t help but guess at the secret collection each librarian concealed under their professional identity.
This past January, I returned from sabbatical and moved into a new apartment. Along with the usual suspects (clothes, furniture, bed), I also transported an enormous, beige bin full of baseball cards to my new dwelling. Since moving out of my parent’s house in my early 20s, this plastic tub has followed me across the country — from Illinois to Louisiana to Ohio. It has endured sub-zero winters, hurricanes, and humid summers. During that time, the bin was never opened — just shoved into a closet or basement for safe keeping. After putting my clothes in drawers and arranging furniture in my new place, I spent an evening sifting through the cardboard boxes, plastic holders, and acrylic cases full of cards. Soon enough, piles of Topps, Donruss, and Upper Deck cards created an outline around my body. Sitting in the middle of my new bedroom, surrounded by my childhood obsession, it dawned on me that this carefully curated collection of cards I had accumulated in my adolescence directly influenced my career choice to become a librarian. My near-mint, 1984 Topps Darryl Strawberry card almost brought me to tears in the same way an 1886 Russian edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with gilt edges and silk endpapers, made John Lindseth misty-eyed.
For the next few weeks I became intrigued by librarians’ stories about their personal collections. From rocks and minerals to comics and guns, many of my colleagues demonstrated an unruly passion for collecting — often far afield from the fairly common predilection librarians have for books. What emerged in these conversations, in addition to veiled shame transforming into uninhibited joy in remembering a childhood collection, was each librarian’s slowly dawning connection between their personal collections and their pursuit of librarianship.
Mike DeNotto, a librarian at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, transformed his love of wine into a career in librarianship. We emailed back and forth about this intuitively obvious, but strangely silent, connection between our personal collections and our path to librarianship.
Joshua Finnell: You mentioned to me once that you actually wrote about the connection between your interest in wine and librarianship for your admissions essay to the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. Unlike me, you clearly saw your passion for wine in the profession. What did you write?
Mike DeNotto:I am happy to admit that I did indeed write about wine in my admissions essay to GSLIS. I love to share this fact with people as I am initially met with snickering, bemusement, and lighthearted gibes hinting at a propensity towards hedonistic tendencies. But, once I begin to elucidate the connections between libraries and wine, and how it helped lead me to librarianship, the idea doesn’t seem so silly anymore. In fact, when I explained this connection to one of my GSLIS professors, I was told that it sounded like the groundwork for a doctoral thesis. And, while I have yet to take up that mantle, the fascinating intersections of wine and libraries remain.
In my letter of application to GSLIS, I wrote about my fondness for libraries that began with regular parental accompanied trips to the local public branch and memories of Saturday mornings spent delightfully lost in stacks, marvelling at the amassment of knowledge that lay before me. But I also wrote about how my path to a career in librarianship seemed like a natural progression. I divulged how I found myself looking for elements of librarianship in even the non-bibliocentric aspects of my life, particularly, in wine and my work at an upscale wine and spirits store. I wrote about how I saw connections between library classification systems and the various wine classification systems from regions like Bordeaux and Bourgogne, how I noticed the import of provenance to both wines and libraries, how I saw the wine related concept of terroir being similar to a book’s ability to evoke a sense of place, and how I started treating my interactions with customers at the store as reference interviews. Though perhaps the most telling connection I wrote about regarding my passion for collecting wine and my proposed career in librarianship was my personal wine collection. At the age of 23 I had a collection of over 80 bottles of wine carefully stored and curated in my parent’s basement. The permanently dark and cool unfinished basement helped protect the wine from potentially degrading sources of light and temperature variation along with custom arranged shelving and storage containers. To keep track of my collection, I maintained a meticulously crafted and oft-updated spreadsheet with all the requisite metadata: producer, vintage, appellation or other geographical indicators, grape varietal(s), alcohol by volume, format size, production numbers, price purchased, date acquired, purveyor acquired from, and drink window. Needless to say, I was accepted to GSLIS, became a librarian, and my wine collection continues to evolve.
Mike DeNotto: Could you expand on how your baseball card collection intersects with your career as a librarian? Now that you have made that connection between the two, do you see your career path or your “unruly passion” in a different light?
Joshua Finnell: It’s eerily similar to your story. Well before the advent of sports cards software, I remember trying to construct a definitive inventory of my collection in a spiral notebook. The metadata schema was pretty simple: name, team, year, brand, number, condition. However, every few days I would start over because I would envision a new classification system. I didn’t know about E.F. Codd or relational databases until my first class at GSLIS (LIS 501). Think of how much time I would have saved (or lost) with a simple Access database! In addition to cataloging and classification, I spent hours properly preserving my baseball card collection. Not unlike your custom-made shelving unit, my room was carefully lined with binders full of Mylar sleeves. Particularly valuable cards were sealed away in Ultra Pro screwdown cases. These too, like my ever-evolving classification system, were exchanged for more secure or attractive protective moldings when funds came available. I suppose this was good training for anticipating fiscal year-end budgets and future library projects.
It also occurs to me just how much my educational trajectory replicated my unruly passion as a child. Outside of the two core courses at GSLIS, covering the foundational principles of organization, I gravitated towards mostly cataloging and preservation courses — all financially supported with a practicum at the Oak Street Conservation Lab. I exchanged my Becketts for Dewey and binders for Filmoplast. Oddly, the one place I didn’t drag that bin of cards was Urbana-Champaign.
You mentioned that your wine collection continues to evolve? Do you still maintain a spreadsheet?
Mike DeNotto: Josh, I find it particularly interesting how your collection echoed your educational trajectory, as mine did not! I focused mostly on instruction, reference, and theory at GSLIS, but, then I also made a point of taking a graduate level English Literature seminar on Posthumanism, the University of Minnesota Press has a series of publications relating to the subject. Perhaps there is something about wine classification systems that I find more, intoxicating?
My wine collection has evolved in a number of ways. In my initial days of wine collecting, my purchases were facilitated by having immediate access to a vast selection where I was employed, and my collecting was also helped greatly by a healthy employee discount of paying store cost. I would never have been able to afford some of the upper tier Bordeaux, Bourgogne, and high end California wines without that discount, particularly when working during or in-between graduate programs. As one can safely assume, large portions of my paychecks would go directly back to my employer, but I saw it all as an opportunity for education and experience, and of course, I wanted my collection to grow.
You mentioned using sports cards software to maintain a collection; for a time, I utilized something similar in the wine review and management website, CellarTracker. Currently, my wine collection is more streamlined. It hovers around 30–50 bottles depending on what I come across while shopping or where I have recently travelled, and I do still maintain a spreadsheet. I still have one bottle left from what I would term my initial collection, a 1999 Chateau Valandraud. There is now an additional spreadsheet for craft beer, but that is another story!
Has your collection of baseball cards evolved? Are you still collecting? And, if so do they still include gum in baseball card packs? Does the Beckett guide still exist? Are there any other particular jewels in your collection?
Joshua Finnell: Fortunately, an entire generation will grow up never cracking a tooth on a stale stick of gum while flipping through a freshly opened pack of baseball cards. The Beckett guide is still the industry standard, both online and in print. Whenever I’m at Barnes & Noble, I usually pick up the recent Beckett to see if my 1985 Mark McGwire rookie card is still worth anything. That card was one of my crown jewels, until the Steroid Era descended on baseball. Sadly, the height of my collecting was between 1987–1994. Unbeknownst to my adolescent self, I was swept up in the fever pitch of the sports card industry. The market was saturated with cards during this span of time — rendering my cards utterly worthless. Dave Jamieson, in his book Mint Condition, gives a fairly comprehensive overview of the apex and nadir of the sports card industry.
Recently, my collecting interests have turned towards T206 tobacco cards — the same set that features the famous Honus Wagner card. Within this collection is a compelling story about the early days of amateur and professional baseball, the history of tobacco and advertising, and the process of lithography at the turn of the century. In April, I’m mounting an exhibit about the T206 collection at Denison University to coincide with opening day of the baseball season. Yes, Mike, I made a LibGuide too. You might be surprised to learn that one of the largest baseball card collections in the country is housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I’m curious, are there wine libraries? Did you have dreams of becoming a wine librarian? Truth be told, I envisioned working at the Giamatti Research Center upon graduating with my MLIS.
Mike DeNotto: I would love to check out your T206 exhibition this spring as I find the persistence of tobacco culture in modern day baseball intriguing. And, I love that you are coordinating it with opening day, a veritable holiday for many. I believe that on opening day the Cardinals will be playing the Cubs at historic Wrigley Field, likely still undergoing renovations. Is this is the year for my Cubs? Let me answer for you: No.
I often dreamt of becoming a wine librarian, but I didn’t dare to think that such a position might actually exist in reality. It felt ludicrous to even fathom such a thing; the mere prospect of it all was too good to be true. It wasn’t until about three years ago that I actually found out that there are wine libraries, and even wine librarians! Well, at least one wine librarian exists. Wine Librarian Jon Haupt is living and working the dream in Northern California at the Sonoma County Wine Library, which is a branch of the Sonoma County Library system. Additionally, there are other wine libraries like the Napa County Wine Library, from the Napa County Wine Library Association, which is housed at the St. Helena Public Library. Now let me clarify, and unfortunately shatter some readers’ dreams, that wine libraries house materials related to viticulture and enology, historic wine labels and other ephemera, and general wine related resources, rather than being a storage facility holding thousands of bottles of unique and rare wines available for sampling.
Other notable wine related collections are housed at the Peter J. Shields Library, University of California, Davis, as well as the V.E. Petrucci Library at California State University, Fresno, and the Wine and Wine Industry Collection at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. These collections are largely maintained in support of those universities’ Viticulture and Enology programs. On a related note, I found it very interesting that CSU, Fresno became the first legally sanctioned university wine producer and seller back in 1997.
Besides the physical collections, there are some excellent online resources made available through these wine libraries. The International Wine Research Database is made available through support from IMLS, LSTA, and the Sonoma County Wine Library. UC Davis, with the support of other organizations, has made the National Grape Registry available to the public. As far as archival and manuscript collections go, Cornell University has operated the Eastern Wine and Grape Archive since 1998. Linfield College established the Oregon Wine History Archive in 2011, and various highlights and images from it can be viewed within their digital repository. Finally, UC Davis also has an extensive viticulture and enology focused manuscript collection.
Thinking about these archival and special collections leads me back around to the idea of collecting and librarianship. Does a collector’s mindset help or hinder the goals of our profession?
Joshua Finnell: You should keep the dream of being a wine librarian alive! Honestly, I think the collector’s instinct is a valuable tool for a librarian. Librarians, much like collectors of baseball cards or wine, establish authority over their chosen area through cataloging, classification, inclusion, and exclusion. Ideally, every acquisition fills out a series, or a best-of-list, or reflects curricular or community needs. Library collections (public and academic) reflect the culture, geography, language, and composition of the community in which they are situated.
Mike Denotto: Josh, as you note, the collector and librarian roles overlap in some regard. Both are authorities over the collections, but the main difference lies in the organic and disseminating nature of the library collection. Yet, the connection between the two passions, professions, and/or identities is palpably undeniable. In fact, I am willing to bet that most librarians have similar collecting stories to our own. In his work, Collecting: An Unruly Passion, psychoanalyst Werner Meunsterberger takes a, at times too facile, Freudian analysis of collectors and collecting, but he also describes a feeling that is shared by both collectors and librarians in that “Objects in the collector’s experience, real or imagined, allow for a magical escape into a remote and private world.” What librarian or other bibliophile has not extolled the way a book can transport a reader to a personal and unique time and place?
This transformative sense also persists in the wine world through the concept of terroir, essentially referring to how wine and food are uniquely expressive of the specific environmental conditions in which the wine or food was produced. Benjamin echoes this in his description of ownership as “the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him (the collector); it is he who lives in them.” Bibliophiles know they can be transported to 19th century England by opening up a copy of Pride and Prejudice, just as most oenophiles know that opening up a nice Brunello, can take one to the rolling fields of Montalcino in Tuscany. Just as I imagine your baseball cards take you back to the glories of the late 80s and early 90s. So, on one hand, the collector must “kill the object,” as Bloom states. But, on the other hand one lives in that object, in its provenance, in its acquisition, in its scarcity, in the memories and feelings it evokes. So, ultimately, I am left wondering, what other unruly passions, what other transformative objects, through what other collections have librarians pre-professionally lived in?
Joshua Finnell: is the humanities librarian at Denison University. His work has appeared in New Library World, Reference and Users Services Quarterly, and Library Philosophy and Practice. @JoshuaFinnell
Mike DeNotto: is the instructional services librarian at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. His work has appeared in College & Research Libraries News and the Ohio Archivist. @nottode