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Books on books on books : An interview with librarian Amelia Grounds

Further rounding out the ABM staff is librarian and preservationist Amelia Grounds. Amelia has worked with rare books and special collections across the Bay, with UC Berkeley’s Preservation Department, and across the pond, where she earned her degree in Library and Information Science from University College London. With training and experience in art history, book repair, and collections management, Amelia is a well-rounded addition to the team and integral part of the Museum’s mission and growth.

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So, what exactly is your role here?

“I’m the librarian. Jae is the archivist and digitization lead so between the two of us we are in charge of the collections and everything to do with that. I am in charge of the library, which I think we’re defining as all published and bound things. And then everything else is Jae’s world. I think we’ll have a lot of cross-over in terms of things like preservations, which is more my background; so taking care of the collection as a whole, we’ll both be in charge of.”

What is your background?

“I’m a preservation librarian. I’ve worked in a number of academic and historic libraries specifically. I’ve trained as an art historian and medievalist, focusing on books specifically, so all of the kinds of jobs that I’ve had have been related to books in some way, even in my academic background. Recently I’ve been working on branching into preservation of more digital collections, but I’m always staying true to collections care. The book is where my heart is, as librarian.”

How did you find out about the museum and the position as librarian?

“I first visited the museum before it moved here [to the Folsom Street location] because I was taking classes at the Center for the Book and we visited. I was doing a historical structures class—I think it was a 17th-centuy, leather-bound book. It was like a week long class and we went to various places, including visiting Tim. But that was years ago and I kind of hadn’t paid attention to what was going on with the museum until recently when I saw the job post in an aggregate search for Bay Area library jobs and was like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of perfect for me.’

It’s really exciting to be involved at such an exciting time for the museum and collections here. It’s a great opportunity to kind of shape everything. Both Jae and I have come more from collections that have been established–there’s lots of rules and policies already in place–and so to come in at the ground floor and decide exactly how we want all of this to be taken care of and accessed is kind of amazing.”

What were you doing most recently before this?

“I was working on a California audio-visual preservation project. It’s a project based in Berkeley, on campus, but it works with libraries and museums and archives all around the state, working to digitize their obsolete analog audio-visual materials and creating a collection of those. It’s pretty awesome. But I’ve been working as a contractor in the Bay Area as a librarian, so I’ve worked with the Preservation Department at Stanford and I’ve worked for private artists, a lot of different things. I’ve worked a lot in England, as well, in some of the historic collections there, in London and in York; lots of rare books and book experience, so I’m hoping I can bring all those things together here.”

Was there anything in particular about the museum or the craft of bookbinding that really attracted you?

“Most of my life has been in some way related to book arts and books generally and that was a big element of attraction for me, but also focusing on the 19th century part, this is the part with machinery and the history and it’s very rare to have a place where you can see these things in action. I haven’t seen a lot of these things in action and I’ve been to lots of printing museums and worked with lots of special collections and you see the result and you can say, ‘Yes, this is tree-calf, marbled bookbinding from this year’; but that’s all hand bookbinding, not necessarily the industrialized side, what machines were used to do this and that. I just think that’ll be really special to see for a lot people, from the average person to high end academic people who know a lot about books who haven’t seen these machines in action.”

So what is the first step for you guys?

“I know Jae is kind of taking the lead on policies, but right now I’m definitely helping with that. I think there’s a lot more preliminary policy work with the archives than the library necessarily because we don’t really know what the shape of the library service is going to be. Like in terms of how the reading room is going to work and what we can do in terms of policies for people coming in a researching and all of that—I mean, we don’t even know where the books are going to be. So my first point, aside from thinking about all those long-term policy things, is to just start cataloging. All of our books are in boxes still so we’re just going box by box, cataloging individually and then putting them back in a box, until we know where they’re going to actually live on a shelf. Our catalog system is online already (it’d gone live before I started), which is pretty exciting, so in theory if people found our link they would be able to search what is cataloged so far. So that’ll just keep growing. I’ll be working with some volunteers who want to do some cataloging, so that’s kind of the first main objective: just trying to get everything ready to go.

But because of my preservation background that’s also a great opportunity to be making notes about anything that needs repair or intervention, because I would like to have some kind of repair program in place. Preservation is all about keeping things safe long term but if you’re going to be processing the collection you’re going to be touching everything so folding in all of your preservation actions at that point is much more efficient. So it’s great to be able to start from the beginning and be like ‘What are all the things we can be doing while we’re handling so much of the collection?'”

Down the road do you think you’d  be carrying out most of the repairs?

“It depends on the extent. I presume that 90% of the damage we would see I could handle. Particularly since Tim has so many resources and binding offcuts and contacts, and I know a lot of people in library conservation in the Bay Area, I think we could probably handle most things. I don’t know the state of our photograph collection or our objects that have different material needs than paper collections, so I think that might be the area where we would need to be talking to other experts.”

Besides the reading room you mentioned, what other aspects of the library do you envision working to develop?

“We are definitely looking forward to having the collections as part of the exhibition space, which is something we haven’t necessarily talked so much about, but with all of Tim’s great collections it’d be a shame to have it just locked in a room. That’s not anybody’s intention. We would like to have them out for people, to show them in a meaningful way that engages with the rest of machinery and everything else that the museum is trying to accomplish. It’s all so new, there’s so much to discover. There’s so much we don’t know yet, including so many great ideas. ”

Have you come across any item that’s really piqued your interest yet?

“You’ve caught me pretty early but I find it pretty fascinating that Tim has collected so many catalogues, which are such a great example of all of the things that were for sale; they’re kinds of ephemera that aren’t really kept, which I find really interesting. I have a great interest in advertising as art anyway. But to be the honest the 19th century is not a strong-suit, I don’t know that much about the industrialization of it. I know about hand bookbinding and manuscript and print, kind of up to industrialization, and I know a bit, from doing book repair, about how 19th-century and 20th-century book and paper behave and degrade. I know more about book structures than the history of book publishing for those time periods. Academically I know more pre-19th century, but practically I know book structures from the 20th century, so it’s kind of interesting to be developing more of what was actually going on in the 19th century.”

What do you think will the most challenging part of the job?

“It’s maybe the same as the most exciting: all of this is completely unformed. We have an idea, but we don’t really have a road map for how we’re gonna get to this ideal at the end. So it’s exciting and it’s terrifying. But I think we’ll figure it out. It’s a lot, and it’s good there’s two of us, but still there’s only two of us. Like Jae said to me yesterday, ‘I have all this type that needs to be cleaned, and I don’t know, I don’t even know…’ She’s like, ‘I don’t need to wash all of them individually, right? There are a lot and some are really small.’ I said, ‘I don’t know, we’ll have to think about that.’ Just as an example. There’s a lot of these things. There’s a whole scope of collections and problems and challenges to come. But it’s exciting. “