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Searching for the Hidden Structures of Serifs, Mathematician Finds New Career Path

September 19, 2012 ET

By  James P. Ascher,  Assistant Professor of Rare Books and Assistant Professor of English, University of Colorado

The IMLS Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian grant came at a crucial time for me professionally. As an undergraduate, I frequently found myself in libraries trying to answer questions independently using the catalog but didn’t initially think of a career in library service. In grad school, I didn’t have time to think about librarianship professionally. I was too busy working on a degree, teaching, and researching; at least at first. During a break, I stumbled across the University of Florida’s incunabula collection and began a serious study of 15th century typography. Not knowing the discipline, I approached the collections naively with a magnifier and ruler trying to uncover the hidden structures of serifs. The curator, Jeffrey Barr, noticed my odd behavior and very gradually encouraged my independent research, first showing me additional sources to read, then giving me a series of projects resulting in a bibliographical catalog. His method of gradually introducing new material was a revelation to me. I didn’t realize that librarians taught, interpreted, and played such a central role in research, acting as a sort of midwife to ideas. Having finished my master’s in mathematics, I decided that I worked better as librarian-guide in book history than as a professor-gatekeeper in mathematics. I applied for the Laura Bush IMLS ALSTARS grant at the University of South Florida (USF) and was accepted.

Because of the grant, I was able to concentrate on my studies and gain valuable experience. A major portion of the curriculum at USF was hands-on practice in each of the areas we studied in academic librarianship. When we studied reference and instruction, we gave reference service and taught bibliographic instruction; when we studied cataloging, we cataloged a collection; and so on. Since my focus was on archives, rare books, and special collections, I got to do all these things for Special Collections and Archives, seeing how that department worked in all aspects. This gave me the skills, and reputation, to be hired out of library school into a tenure-track library position at the University of Colorado Boulder as a rare book cataloger. I am now Assistant Professor of Rare Books and Assistant Professor of English and continue to engage students as a guide, expanding my role into blending traditional academic departments and library roles. I currently serve on a Ph.D committee, teach class sessions, describe materials, assist with selecting materials, run a seminar, and in general have managed to carve a path between traditional academic and librarian that fits my skills and passions. I could not have done this without the grant.

Since my degree was so strongly supported, I have a great desire to support other librarians. I have taken very active roles within the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of ACRL/ALA in publishing the work of librarians and organizing our annual conference. I serve as Vice-president of Publications for the American Printing History Association as one of the few board members involved with libraries. I also teach at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, where I get to show people the beauty of bibliography that seduced me into librarianship. In all, by starting my career with a generous grant, IMLS has encouraged me to continue to give back, and I plan on doing so for a long time.


Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program