In August 2019 I did a one-month placement at the John Carter Brown Library (JCB) in Providence (RI) as part of the WRoCAH Researcher Employability Project (REP) scheme. These placements provide PhD students with the opportunity to gain experience in a professional context away from the home university in the form of a month-long project with an external partner organisation.
For my REP, I was keen to work with a research library, because I was curious to explore what it is like to work as a librarian. I was also eager to gain experience in curating an exhibition aimed at a wider audience. I applied to do my REP with 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. Fortunately, my visit to the JCB coincided with the scheduled launch of the library’s new website, with new and updated features on their collection tailored to a broad audience around the world.
During my time at the JCB I curated an online exhibition on the theme of ‘Women and Natural History in the Americas, 1650-1830’ for the library’s new website. This exhibition highlights the hitherto underrepresented contributions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European women to the natural history of the Americas. Given my PhD research on early nineteenth-century women’s travel writing, I was excited to have four weeks to explore the lives, travels, and works of female botanists, zoologists, sericulturalists, travel writers, and translators and to make their contributions known to twenty-first-century audiences.
My work involved selecting items from the library’s vast collection, creating an engaging narrative aimed at a general audience, adding interesting related or contextual images such as maps, portraits, and illustrations, and photographing the books. The library is a treasure trove of rare items related to women’s varied botanical and zoological activities in the Americas, and the JCB’s amazing library staff generously helped me to identify and interpret primary source material. The most fascinating aspect of the project was working with the physical materials in the library’s reading room. 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). I never thought I would ever inspect one physical copy, let alone three!
A hand-coloured engraved plate in Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1719, Latin edition). JCB call number 3-SIZE J719 .M561d.
What I have learned
As I worked independently on the project, I learned how to design, develop, and curate an exhibition from start to finish. This has made me much more aware of the selection and 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 historical context and primary source material’? In addition, spending a month ‘behind the scenes’ at a research library has taught me a lot about how a library is run, what library cataloguers and archivists do on a daily basis, and how outreach activities are designed to bridge the gap between academic and non-academic reading audiences.
More generally, it was a great experience to be embedded in the research community of the JCB. Each year the library hosts a number of library fellows, and it was very exciting to meet researchers from different fields and backgrounds and to learn about their research topics and methodologies.
I would like to thank WRoCAH and the John Carter Brown Library for this wonderful opportunity.
You can visit the online exhibition here: https://jcblibrary.org/exhibitions/lady-women-and-natural-history-americas-1650-1830