Student Perspective: The Heart of Curated Collections

Being approached with the opportunity to process a collection was exciting. It was a task completely shiny and new, far from the procedural digitization and organization from before. Only one other student worker at the time had been working on one, and another was about to start with me. The collection given to me, however, was something entirely new: a curated collection. Not only was this permanent addition to the Archives on me to understand and make available and documented for the entirety of our archive’s life, it was something we had not yet dealt with, and something relatively rare in the world of traditional archives. But Columbia, with all of its eccentricities, continues to keep us on our toes. Before I could even consider how to go about processing, I had to figure out what this newly dubbed collection type was all about.

Curated collections are different from standard collections in that the focus and origin of the collection is not from the person that had created the material organically themselves, rather a collection of sources that ended up together for a specific purpose. In the case of this collection, it was donated to the College Archives and Special Collections by Marlene Lipinski, a long time former professor in Foundation and Graphic Design, at the time of her retirement. Thusly, the collection was dubbed the Marlene Lipinski Collection.

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J Plate Print, Frederic W. Goudy, 1922 (c) 1918

Consisting of books, leaf prints, and a DVD, the collection was a part of her personal library as well as resources that she used to teach her classes. The topic matter was the same, graphic design, but each book was individual in what aspect of the topic it dealt with or was an example of. Now I had to ask myself how to put these all in an order that made sense to any archivist or researcher that would access the collection in the future, which meant delving into what collections are.

Processing a collection is where the true artistry of an archivist shines through. It is taking a collection of items and finding out what the best grouping and order is in the way the archivist chooses would most benefit learning from the collection. Processing is being the storyteller, the expert on the collection, carefully dictating how it will be perceived throughout its history in its institution.

Did the original order have purpose? Does it keep insight? Would it make sense to group by subject matter? Date? Which one is truest to the collection as it was held by Marlene Lipinski? To come up with the answer, I had to get to know the collection, personally going through each item and taking notes on their content, as well as doing research on their history. Over time, doing this gives everything its own individual breath of life. Each item becomes more than just the information at face value, it becomes something with its own story, its own history.

Nestled in a book from 1981, one of the most interesting pieces of the collection was hiding. I knew that there was a leaf print in the book from reading correspondences from the process of receiving the collection, but it was something more than I had anticipated. A print dating all the way back to 1499, overtaking the previous oldest piece in our collection by entire centuries, was folded away as a special gift to the first numbered copies of Julius Firmicus Maternus and the Aldine Edition of the Scriptores Astonomici Veteres. Ours is number 107. Aldo Manuzio (a.k.a. Aldus Manutius) was one of the most renowned printers of the Venetian High Renaissance. He helped develop italic type and libelli portatiles, the predecessor to the paperback book, and one of his original prints from the time period was in this collection, in my hands. It was almost unbelievable, but the book verified its authenticity. I felt as if I’d discovered some hidden gem.

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Excerpt from Aldo Manuzio’s Scriptores Astronomici Veteres, 1499

The more I dug, the more personality shined through. From books with signatures to date and time the book, to a photograph of some unknown person tucked away in the front page, to the hilarious and informative lecture of a modern day graphic designer. Each item had its own story to tell and information to share with the reader that was lucky enough to pick it up. Names of people, places, companies, and books were like guides to continue further, look for more.

Upon searching through other resources to get more background on the time, I quickly learned that a lot of the people were a part of the Arts and Crafts Movement or were inspired by it some time later. The more I learned about them and read their material, names like Frederic W. Goudy, Oz Cooper, William Caslon, Elbert Hubbard, and Ben Shahn became real people to me, rather than mere letters conveniently ordered on a page. Almost all of them were connected in some way or another, either explicitly or indirectly. Each and every one adding to the history and tale of their fields.

Going through this collection was learning the life and heart of typography and graphic designs from its start. I always found myself digging for more and more as each figure ended up distinct in its history. This is something only a curated collection can bring: a scope of history to delve into and branch out further, carefully chosen by the person that brought them all together. I look forward to the opportunity to process more collections like this in the future.

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