The Secret Lives of Librarians
Written by Bwog Staff
Last week Bwog staffer Brendan Ballou interviewed Tamar Dougherty, rare books archivist at Columbia and his former boss. Dougherty is curator of the Herbert Lehman Papers (next to the Lehman library). She talked about her rare book collection, the stigma of being a librarian, and the East Coast – West Coast divide.
How’s work at the library?
I’ve decided to get a PhD. I’m going to apply to Berkeley.
I can’t really imagine you on the West Coast.
Everybody says that. I don’t know why; I could eat hummus…I mean I meditate, I’m into astrology.
I was born in the beginning of the 70’s when it was a really big deal and everybody did it. Men would come up to women in bars and say, ‘Hey, what’s your sign baby.’
What would happen if you asked like ‘Hey, what’s your sign?’ and she says Pisces and your sign is incompatible? Would you just walk away?
I should ask about your rare book collection. What’s this? (Pointing towards a small pocket-sized engraved book)
This is a copy of Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I’m interested in book history and books as an art form. So I have that more for the value of its cover than what’s inside of it. I think the cover’s really cool; it’s raised and embossed leather and it has the characters from the story on it.
I’ve never seen a book like it.
Yeah, from back in the 19th century. Books used to be a lot more ornate because it used to be that many of the people who were literate were the aristocracy and those were the only ones who could afford books.
And weren’t the pages more expensive too?
Yeah, it was parchment.
When did paper become affordable?
It was actually more about the creation of print. That’s why I think Guttenberg was called the man of the millennium because he invented print. And when you invent print the knowledge becomes available to the masses.
What is this? (An extremely old and worn yellow leather-bound book)
This is a Spanish grammatical text from 1655. I bought it from the New York Antiquarian Book Fair about five years ago, and that’s what I did for one of my projects for my masters. We couldn’t identify the book. It didn’t have a title. We couldn’t really read what it was saying… That’s back when I was at Harvard, and there was an expert on 16th century Spanish literature. I don’t know 16th century Spanish; I mean, you and I might know Spanish, but 16th century Spanish is so different. And so we went through certain trials and we identified the book. There’s ways we can identify it through the type of binding it has. Can you see the pores on the cover? That’s animal skin. (Showing some doodled numbers on the inside cover) Then we noticed that he was doing some sort of math, so that means it was probably some sort of student. As nerdy as it seems, that’s kind of what we do.
Was this a popular book?
It’s like a textbook, and he started doing some math homework.
This is amazing. Were you able to afford it?
Actually, I only paid $35 for it, because some people want pristine bindings. This book is pretty beat up. As old as it is, it would never be a copy that Columbia would buy. Harvard did have a copy that was in way better condition than mine, but, yeah, I actually got it for $35. (Pointing back at the Rip van Winkle book) This one I actually picked up at The Strand for $5.
When is the Rip van Winkle book from?
It says here on the inside: 1899. See this? (Shows how the leather cover wraps around the page.) That’s called a tuck-down. And sometimes you’ll find books from the 17th century with manuscript from the 14th century. So we’ll tear it back and we’ll find pieces of the Guttenberg Bible- Which has happened!
How did you become a librarian?
In every sense when I was young I had a connection to books. I grew up in an area of inner-city Chicago where I was a typical latchkey kid [with a] single parent. So I was going to this private school and I would come home in my uniform, and I had to stand on my tippy-toes to get to the latch off the door. I would get bored, and I would go to the Chicago Public Library and I made really great friends with this librarian and I would help her after school all the time. And I said, ‘When I grow up I want to be a librarian.’ And my mom, she wouldn’t hear of it. You have to understand, my mother, she didn’t go to college, she only had a GED. I was going to be the one, so she was like, ‘You’re going to be a doctor.’ I mean, what parents want to hear their kid is going to become a librarian with all the bad stereotypes? You know, ‘the L word,’ ‘you’re going to be spinster,’ Marian the Librarian. And there’s always that great scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where George goes looking for his wife and she’s become librarian, and she’s closing up the library, and she’s wearing these glasses and she looks really horrible. So in high school I went to Von Stupen academy in Chicago, which is a science school because they were prepping me to be a doctor. I didn’t have an aptitude in math, which made it horrible. I always excelled in English, history, that sort of thing.
Did you do pre-med in college?
I went to college and ended up doing biology and medicine for three or four years. I like immunology, I was going to do microbiology because I like germs and pathogens, I don’t know why. But I would only get through college by having my lab partner do the math part. In college I failed algebra four times, even with a tutor. Four times. And they were like ‘We just don’t know what to do.’ So I couldn’t take the MCAT. So I went home on Thanksgiving weekend and told my mom, ‘I’m not going to make it.’ And she didn’t talk to me all night, and the next morning she got up and said, ‘You’re going to be a lawyer.’
Where did you go from there?
Next I changed my major to political science. I did all right in political science…and went to law school for one year. And hated it, and left. And I was working at the law library to make it through school, and my boss was Tobin Sparling who had actually gotten his law degree at Columbia and had been the rare books curator at New York Public [Library], and who decided to leave that to become a lawyer. And so we were switched, and now I’m doing what he was doing and he’s doing what I was going to do. Or whatever.