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Suzy Taraba, head of Special Collections & Archives and university archivist, searches for a 15th century book housed in the Davison Rare Book Room. George W. Davison donated Olin Memorial Libraryís oldest printed books.
 
Posted 05.23.05

University Archivist Researches, Teaches, Presents Wesleyan's History

Q: You're the university archivist and head of Special Collections & Archives. What led you into this area?

 A: I was drawn to librarianship at an early age in part because my motherís two sisters are librarians. Later on, after thinking about various other careers, I realized that librarianship, especially special collections librarianship, was a natural outgrowth of my education as well as being work that I enjoyed. The archival component of my career came later, when I worked at Duke and the University of Chicago.

Q: Where are your degrees from and in what?

A: I earned my bachelorís of art from Wesleyan from the College of Letters in 1977 and a Master of Library Service from Columbia University in 1982. My College of Letters major was especially germane for my job here at Wesleyan.

Q: When did you come to Wesleyan and what were you doing before that?

A: I came back to Wes in 1997 as university archivist. I was promoted in 1998 to head of special collections and university archivist. Immediately before that, I was the head of Public Services in Special Collections and Archives at the University of Chicago. Before that, I was director for Collection Development in Special Collections at Duke University.  Before that, I was head of Rare Book Cataloging at Duke. And before that, I was senior rare book cataloger at Duke.

Q: What are your objectives as the university archivist?

A: My to-do list is endless, but my central goal is to get the greater Wesleyan community excited about Wesleyanís fascinating history. Thatís the first step in preserving it and documenting for the future.

Q: What types of material are included in the Special Collections & Archives?

A: Special Collections & Archives has first rate collections in many areas. Our collections include rare books, manuscripts, university archives, and local history.  We have materials in nearly all formats: paper, audio and video tapes, photographs, CDs and DVDs, electronic records and objects. We have superb rare book collections in English and American literature, history, poetry, Methodistica, 19th century British social and economic history, Arthuriana, fine press, and artistsí books.  We have a strong queer periodicals collection. We have the remains of the original Wesleyan Library.

Q: Can you give a few examples of projects people would use these archives for?

A: Three recent projects using the Wesleyan University Archives were extensive historical photo documentation research done by Rob Olson and associates as they worked on the new campus landscape plan; Web sites about Middletown and the river prepared by students in Vijay Pinchís Waterways class; and an alumnus researching the history of Eclectic. The rare book collections are heavily used as well, most often in conjunction with class assignments.

Q: How do you go about helping people find what they need?

A: First, we listen carefully and ask questions to be sure we understand what they really want. Then we rely on a combination of our knowledge of the topic and of our holdings, and a range of different tools, including archival finding aids, the libraryís online catalog, card files, published sources or other things to help them find sources.

Q: Do you recommend the Wesleyan community to send you copies of their publications to be archived?

A: We are definitely interested in additions to the Wesleyan University Archives. Materials you give to the archives today will support the researchers of the future.

Q: What are your thoughts on your job?

A: The work is always interesting and challenging. Itís extremely varied as well.  Although I do spend a fair amount of time in meetings, I also teach, write, acquire materials, do research and reference, supervise staff, plan for the future of Special Collections & Archives and work with donors. I especially enjoy working at Wesleyan because of my connections with the university going back to childhood. Wesleyan and Middletown feel like home to me. 

Q: Do you set up exhibits in the library?

A: Iím in charge of the libraryís formal exhibit program, so I set the schedule and approve requests to install exhibits. The student art exhibits on the lower level and exhibits in the Olin lobby are not coordinated by me. Iím often, but by no means always, the one who puts together the exhibits as well.

Q: And you also give presentations and teach?

A: Teaching and presenting about our collections is an enormous part of my job.  This academic year, I gave presentations about our holdings to 45 classes of Wesleyan undergraduates, three graduate classes, and one graphic design class from Mitchell College. These classes ranged from English classes studying Shakespeare to early modern European history students to the Atomic Theory seminar. Iím a regular presenter at alumni events and professional meetings as well. In addition to sessions that are part of classes taught by Wesleyan faculty, I taught two classes of my own this year. During the fall semester, I taught a five-week course in the history of the book through the new Continuing Studies program. In the spring semester, I taught a full-credit, 13-week masterís level course, Texts in Context: The Book as Cultural Artifact, through the Graduate Liberal Studies Program. Teaching these classes was a wonderful, rewarding experience for me.

Q: What is your personal interest in the history of Wesleyan?

A: My connections to Wesleyan go back a ways, since my father, Wolfgang F. Taraba, came here in 1950-51 as a foreign student from Germany. He also taught German here from 1959 to 1963, so Wesleyan was very much a part of my early childhood.

Q: Outside of work, what do you enjoy doing? What are your hobbies?

A: Not too surprisingly, I love to read and visit libraries and museums, both art and history. I collect found photographs of women in couples or groups Ė imaginary ancestors, in a way. My partner, Marie Clark, and I live in Middletown in a 19th century house with our elderly Labrador retriever, Sappho, and our two cats, Sebastian and Victoria.

Q: Is there anything else that I should know about your role here in special collections?

A: I love my job!

By Olivia Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection editor