A Day in the Life of a Classicist is a monthly column on the SCS blog written by Prof. Ayelet Haimson Lushkov celebrating the working lives of classicists. If you’d like to share your day, let us know here. This month’s column focuses on Timothy Perry, a Special Collections Librarian at the University of Missouri.
One of the best things about working in a library is the great variety of things that I get to do. As a result, I wouldn’t say that I have too many average days, though there are several tasks that I perform pretty regularly. Most days I spend a couple of hours on the reference desk in the Special Collections & Rare Books Department, answering questions about anything from 15th-century printing techniques to how to use a microfilm reader. I am also responsible for most of the online reference questions that we receive. The majority of these come from the US, but we have had questions about our collections from researchers across Europe and Asia too.
During the semester, I spend quite a lot of time either preparing classes or teaching them. Although I work in quite a small department—we have just three professional librarians—we do a lot of instruction work: usually over 75 classes between us in a semester. Because my background is in Classics, I have built a strong relationship with the Department of Ancient Mediterranean Studies and teach most of the classes visiting Special Collections from that department. We have great teaching collections, and I usually show Classics students some of the various ways that ancient texts were preserved in antiquity and the forms in which they have survived since, from clay tablets and papyrus book-rolls, through medieval manuscripts to early printing. I also work with instructors to develop activities tailored to specific classes. I have had classes on Latin poetry, for example, transcribe passages from a facsimile of a 5th-century manuscript of Virgil, and Beginners’ Latin classes transcribe and translate the title pages from 16th-century editions of Cicero. Interacting with students, and helping students interact with rare materials, is one of my favorite parts of the job. And the best part about teaching classes as a librarian is that there is no grading at the end of it!
Collection development and maintenance is also a big part of my job. In the past few years I have been able to develop our Classics holdings, acquiring early or rare editions of Homer, Herodotus, and Sappho. Negotiating with rare booksellers is a fascinating process, and with the growth of online bookselling we are now able to work with sellers from all over the world. Rare books require a very particular storage environment, of course, and part of my everyday job is to ensure that our storage areas are being maintained at the correct temperature and humidity levels. I also work closely with an independent conservator to identify items in our collection that are in need of repair and to decide exactly what conservation measure will be taken in each case. This can range from the making of special enclosures for individual items to the complete rebinding of a book.
Outreach, and especially outreach through social media, has become increasingly important for libraries, and I often contribute to our various social media platforms. This involves taking and editing photos, researching the item in question if necessary, and then posting about it. I don’t do much in the way of social media in my private life—I am a very erratic Facebook user—but I contribute regularly to the departmental Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram accounts.
So most days are non-average in one way or another, and the majority are certainly very varied. Some days, though, I have to dedicate to a particular project, such as installing a major exhibition. The preparation for this sort of event is a long process, including the selection of suitable materials, the writing of labels for them, the design and production of posters and other publicity materials, and so on. The installation of an exhibition will itself often take up a full day, with colleagues and student workers roped in to help. Exhibitions are often collaborative affairs. We recently hosted in the library an exhibition called Life and Letters in the Ancient Mediterranean, to which the Special Collections & Rare Books Department, the Department of Art History and Archaeology, the Museum of Art and Archaeology, the Department of Classics (now Ancient Mediterranean Studies), and the Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection all contributed.
Although people sometimes think that librarians spend all their time reading, writing actually plays a much larger part in my professional life. Generally, though, it’s not the kind of writing I did when I was working as an academic. Although I have a couple of ongoing research projects—a bibliography of the works of the Canadian writer George Fetherling and a study of Aldus Manutius’ editions of Babrius—work on these is restricted to brief periods of research leave, or to weekends, rather than being integrated into my working day. Most of my professional writing comes in the form of reports and policies, and much of this is done collaboratively. I and my two colleagues, for example, recently re-wrote our department’s collection development policy with a view to emphasizing the need for the acquisition of more diverse special collections materials. Most of this collaborative writing is done online using shared documents, though I’m a bit old-fashioned and will usually draft my own contributions in pen first.
As I am required to be at the library from 8:00am to 5:00pm, nearly all of my work is done either in the Special Collections reading room, in our various storage areas, or in my office. As such, I usually have a pretty crowded desk. At the moment I have on my desk a couple of Greek grammars, the title pages of which the Cataloging Department has asked me to translate—my language training proving of practical use! There are also a couple of piles of books from the general collection waiting to be assessed from transfer into Special Collections. And there are always plenty of ‘books about books’ lying around, for use in preparing classes, researching social media posts, answering reference questions, and the like.
Working on a 8:00 to 5:00 basis means that my schedule is less flexible than it was when I was working as a lecturer. The varied nature of the work helps to break up the day, however, as do one or two rituals that I have worked into my routine. We have a café in the library, and I go down most mornings for a cup of coffee, which gets me out of my office and also provides me with an opportunity to run into and talk with librarians working in other parts of the library. My schedule also means that the end of my working day is pretty clearly defined—I am usually finished by around 5:30, and I very rarely have to work in the evenings or at weekends.
There are two things about my job that really get me up in the morning: the people I get to work with and the rare books themselves. Nearly every day I work closely with a whole variety of people, from my colleagues in Special Collections and other departments in the Library, to faculty researching the collection or planning a class visit, to the students visiting with a class or just stumbling on the department by chance. Most days I also get to work closely with the books themselves too—and even if I have a day full of meetings, I nearly always make time to spend a few minutes in the stacks at the end of the day, either looking at a book I know well or browsing to find something new.
Timothy Perry is a Special Collections Librarian at the University of Missouri. He has a PhD in Classics from the University of Toronto and spent two years as a Lecturer in Classics at Dartmouth College before retraining as a librarian.