Nancy Kuhl is the Curator of Poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. In addition to working as a curator, Nancy is also a poet. She’s written several chapbooks, as well as two full-length collections of poems—The Wife of the Left Hand (Shearsman Books, 2007) and Suspend (Shearsman, 2010). Beyond that, she’s co-editor of Phylum Press.
Given her thorough knowledge of librarianship and poetry, her enthusiasm for sharing that knowledge, and her practical outlook on the field of librarianship, Nancy exemplifies dedication and leadership.
Where did you work on your master’s?
At SUNY-Buffalo. By that time, I had two master’s degrees—a MA and a MFA. I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d like working in a library, but it seemed like I ought to try. And I liked it. When I started taking classes in library school, I also got a 10-hour-a-week job in the rare books collection at Buffalo. It was in that context that I learned about rare books librarianship. I also worked reference and supported curators with research, and I had the opportunity to see how scholars were using the collection. It was a great asset going into the field.
What was your first full-time library job?
It was as a reference and instruction librarian at Amherst College for a year. Amherst has a terrific library for a school of its size. Working there was an important opportunity in terms of becoming aware of the day-to-day work that librarians do.
The Assistant Curator job that I was hired for at Yale was posted when I was in library school, and I applied even though I hadn’t finished my degree. But the search was cancelled. In the interim, I graduated and got the job at Amherst, and then the Assistant Curator job was reposted. I applied, and that’s how I ended up at Yale.
What’s the layout of a typical work week for you at Yale?
My day-to-day work is dynamic. Building the collection, managing it, and then outreach and interpretation are three major parts of my work. I do collection development, and for me that means working with booksellers, doing donor relations. It means managing a budget, too. I work with my colleagues at all levels to give them a sense of what I’m acquiring, why I’m acquiring it, what kinds of preservation needs it has. It’s a very collaborative, open conversation.
Then there’s interpretation and education. That means everything from managing major exhibitions, writing exhibition catalogs, meeting with classes, going to conferences to talk about the collections, meeting with the fellows who use the collection.
And once in awhile I’ll get a call from someone who might say, “I found something in a cabinet that might be in Langston Hughes’s handwriting. My grandmother knew him…” That kind of possibility keeps things interesting.
With what frequency do you work with students and faculty at Yale? And with what frequency do you work with the general public? Based on what you’ve said, it sounds like there’s not an even divide.
At Yale, we think of undergraduate students as our primary constituents. There are a lot of sessions with undergrad classes. For all the classes that I meet, maybe four of 18 students in each class will come in to do research. And that seems like a good return to me.
I’ve been at the library over ten years, and I’ve developed relationships with faculty who are frequent users of the collection. And visiting fellows come from all over the place. It’s an opportunity for me to learn how scholars are interacting with my collections. Then I know how to fit acquisitions into the bigger picture of where scholarship is and where it might be going.
What’s an example of a recent exhibition you’ve worked on?
I worked on an exhibition last year for the 100th anniversary of the Yale Collection of American Literature. We (my co-curator and I) did a greatest hits celebration of the collection. It was very popular because it included what people love—first editions of important American works, real highlights of our collection.
The other exhibition I did last year was called Psyche and Muse: Creative Entanglements with the Science of the Soul. I co-curated it with three other curators, which we hadn’t done before. I proposed it as an exhibition about literary modernism and psychoanalysis in the American Lit. Collection. That’s another kind of exhibition we do—look at a theme across a different range of different collections. It’s much more driven by our academic and scholarly interests. We look at the collection and draw out a component that’s really compelling to us.
How has digitization affected the work you’ve done, and how do you see it affecting the work you do in the future?
We’re trying to figure out if we’re making tools that are useful to scholars and the general public. There’s the conversation that’s happening around born digital materials and library archives. We’re actively collecting email and digital versions of things we’ve been collecting in paper—manuscripts, notes and documents, journals, correspondence. We’re asking a lot of questions about how to do this in a sustainable, long-term way. It’s exciting to imagine keyword searching across emails and Word files to find all the occasions where a writer’s interested in a particular subject.
There’s all this textual exchange that happens now in environments where nothing is saved, and that upsets me. I’m glad that the Library of Congress is archiving Twitter.
In addition to working as a curator in a library, you’re also a poet. How do those parts of your life intersect?
I feel really lucky. I’m fortunate that I have the extraordinary opportunity to work with this collection—that I happen to be a poet who loves H.D. and William Carlos Williams, and I happen to be the curator of their papers. It never gets boring.
And archives, just by their nature, especially in a huge collection like the one I work with, are always revealing themselves. I’m never going to know everything about H.D.’s papers. A great example of this is that I’d just put up this enormous exhibition (Psyche & Muse…) that included information about H.D. and her relationship with Freud. A professor asked me to show his students H.D.’s correspondence to William Carlos Williams, which I’d never looked at because I’d never had occasion to. And there were these compelling letters that H.D. wrote to William Carlos Williams when she was 18, 19, 20. It was so funny to me that I was steeped in H.D.’s work, and here was this opportunity to explore a different H.D. in a different time and place. It was exciting. I like that I get to share that with people.
What advice would you offer to students considering careers in academic librarianship, archives, special collections, rare books, etc.?
My experience working as a reference librarian equipped me to do my curator’s work in a way that was very complementary. I knew I wanted to be in a rare book library, but I didn’t rule out other possibilities. If you think you’re interested in being on the front end, look at any reference and instruction job, any kind of outward-facing job. If what you’re really interested in is more technical stuff, look at any cataloging job, any entry-level archivist’s job.
Casting a wide net is useful—to limit oneself at entry level would be a mistake. In terms of what kind of work you want to do, I think it’s a good idea to have a big imagination.