“One of the most satisfying aspects of the REP was to produce tangible output in a relatively short time – something I miss when working on my thesis.”
Lilian Tabois reflects on an excellent Researcher Employability Project at the John Carter Brown Library, and offers some valuable tips for everyone planning a REP.
Department of English and Related Literature
University of York
When I started out on my WRoCAH journey, I was excited about the opportunity of doing a Researcher Employability Project. I was looking forward to broadening my horizons and gaining work experience in a different, non-academic, professional environment. But where to start? On the one hand, I felt inspired by what felt like an endless number of opportunities and exciting examples of previous projects. At the same time, however, all these options made me suffer from what in Dutch we call ‘keuzestress’ (literally translated: ‘choice stress’). I also felt a little anxious about contacting a potential partner organisation, for what if they did not reply or were not interested?
After a few months of thinking, reading about other people’s REPs, and exchanging ideas with my WRoCAH friends, I decided to push my worries aside and contact the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island. I thought it would be interesting to work with a research library and to explore what it is like to work as a collection specialist or archivist. I felt especially drawn towards the John Carter Brown Library, because it houses a unique collection of printed materials on the history of the Americas until ca. 1825 and it has a strong tradition of mounting library exhibitions for the general public.
In early January 2019 I sent the Director of the Library an email – and received a positive reply! As it turned out, the library was preparing to launch a new website, with updated features and an online exhibition platform to show-case their collection to a broad audience, and so they welcomed the idea of hosting a student who could curate an online exhibition. I was also fortunate that they had hosted a WRoCAH student before, which made planning and preparation relatively easy. Nevertheless, I underestimated how long it took to complete the paperwork and organise my trip. Even though I made the initial contact more than six months before the project’s intended starting date, it would have been wise to reach out to them earlier.
On the steps of the John Carter Brown Library
I arrived at the library at the end of July, eager to spend the next month curating an online exhibition. I was given complete freedom to choose a topic, so I spent a wonderful first few days browsing the library shelves (the JCB have many rare books on display in the reading room!), going through endless rows of index card cabinets, and familiarising myself with the library’s online catalogue. I discovered that the library is a treasure trove of rare items related to women’s botanical and zoological activities in the Americas, and so I decided to centre my project on the theme of ‘Women and Natural History in the Americas, 1650-1830’. My aim was to highlight the underrepresented contributions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European women to the natural history of the Americas. Given my research interest in women’s history and women’s travel writing, I felt privileged to have this time to explore the lives, travels, and works of female botanists, zoologists, sericulturalists, travel writers, and translators and to make their contributions known to audiences across the world.
To create the exhibition, I selected items from the library’s vast collection, created a narrative aimed at a general audience, added interesting related or contextual images such as maps, portraits, and illustrations, and photographed items. Working with the physical materials in the library’s reading room was a real treat. For example, the JCB houses three copies of Maria Sibylla Merian’s exquisitely illustrated work on the insects of Surinam, the Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1719).
A hand-coloured engraved plate in Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1719, Latin edition). JCB call number 3-SIZE J719 .M561d.
Since I worked on the project independently, I had to learn how to design, develop, and curate an exhibition from start to finish. Being involved in all stages of this process has made me more aware of the decision-making process behind the curation of exhibitions, and made me consider questions such as: ‘Which items do I include, and why’? ‘How can I best arrange and present the items to suit the intended audience’? and ‘how do I strike the right balance between providing historical context and highlighting primary source material’? In addition, spending a month ‘behind the scenes’ at a research library has taught me a lot about how it is run, what cataloguers and archivists do on a daily basis, and how outreach activities can bridge the gap between academic and non-academic reading audiences.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the REP was to produce tangible output in a relatively short time – something I miss when working on my thesis. Fortunately, the library has found my project a useful experiment in exploring the use of an online platform rather than a physical exhibition to showcase their holdings, which can help them for future digital projects. My exhibition could also be a useful resource for students working on women’s authorship, and it ties in with other current projects related to book history and environmental studies. I had been worried that a month would prove too short to get an in-depth knowledge of the library’s holdings and create a strong narrative that would do justice to the collection. Surprisingly, my REP partner actually thought that my ‘outsider’ perspective was an asset, since I approached the collection from fresh angles.
Go Pawtucket Red Sox!
Finally, I just wanted to point out that another fantastic aspect of the REP is the opportunity to explore a different culture and to meet new people. During my time at the library I stayed at Fiering House, a beautiful Victorian house just a few blocks away from the library that functions as the residence for JCB research fellows. Here I met a lot of lovely new people, exchanged ideas with other scholars, and formed new friendships. I even got to attend a baseball game of the local team – something I had always wanted to experience. If you have the opportunity to go abroad for your REP, I would really encourage it.
Link to the online exhibition: https://jcblibrary.org/exhibitions/lady-women-and-natural-history-americas-1650-1830