Ed Vermue: A Curator for Texts
Ed Vermue and I failed to acknowledge each other as we impatiently brushed past in the hallway before whirling in a simultaneous double-take, recognition arriving just a second too late. I had caught him mid-errand, and rather than pop back into his office (for reasons I discovered later), we settled into a pair of comfortably cushioned chairs in the hallway just outside of the Special Collections on the fourth floor of Mudd Library, the main branch of Oberlin College’s library system.
Pinned between a row of blue lockers and the wall of windows that separate the hall from the sun deck on the roof of the building, Vermue reclined against the back of his seat as he began to explain what the positions of Preservation Librarian and Special Collections Librarian entailed.
“I wear two hats,” Vermue said, crossing one leg casually over the other, a fleece pullover complimenting a pair of worn tennis shoes that had clearly seen some mileage. “There’s hardly a typical day.” As we spoke, he fiddled gently with a pair of reading glasses in his hands, squinting slightly against the glare of sun through the windows and speaking with slow, clear cadence. Almost like a lecture.
But even though his daily routine may be rather irregular, Vermue’s work, like that of any college professor, can generally be divided into two time periods: that of when academic classes are in session (the fall and spring semester along with winter term) and breaks (fall, spring and summer). During the latter intervals, the librarian works primarily with a small group of students to ensure the survival of the books in Oberlin’s circulating collection. Together, they work to repair and prevent damage to the aging books on the lower floors of the library so that future generations can continue to benefit from their knowledge.
Most of his interaction with students, however, comes through his work with the college’s Special Collections, which feature an ever developing assortment of historical artifacts relating to the evolution of printed media.
“It’s not just a rare book collection, but a special collection on any subject,” Vermue said. The fourth floor of Mudd houses everything from a sizeable number of 18th century manuscripts to anti-slavery literature to a collection of world maps that chart the development of nations to original 20th century Star Trek fan-fiction. And that barely scratches the surface. Each manuscript tells its own story, and Vermue acts as a liaison between the physical indications of each artifact and the teachers and students that peruse them.
In addition to working with the manuscripts directly, Vermue has approached the Special Collection with a more hands on attitude. In an effort to help students to understand exactly how some of the materials in the collection were made, Vermue has developed a working knowledge of the skills necessary to replicate some of the historical processes involved in print culture. He regularly runs work-shops on using the letterpress on the second floor of Mudd, and has introduced students to the intricacies of marbling paper and the techniques involved in setting type for print.
Educated in Canada, Vermue received an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy from the Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. He went on to attain a Master of Arts in Religion and Culture at the same university before completing a second Masters degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Western Ontario. Vermue joined Oberlin’s staff in July 2000 and continues to attend a variety of seminars and work-shops relating to different aspects of the history of the book.
When I asked where he had picked up these skills, he smiled gently and said that he traveled throughout the year to different conferences focusing on the history of the book. “I sure didn’t learn it in library school,” he said, explaining that most of his education had been focused on using the digital information systems that most libraries now employ. Now, Vermue uses that training to renegotiate the relationship between the library’s physical collection and digital text. He helps students understand how book culture developed and where its all going and that many of the most meaningful clues to the historical, economic and social context of a given text are firmly wrapped up in the physical attributes of the manuscripts in the collection.
Vermue leaned forward in his chair, setting his glasses aside as he grew more excited about explaining his work; “I don’t see my function as being a warehouse – I see Special Collections as having a laboratory purpose,” he said, his piercing blue eyes lighting up with obvious passion. Under his care, the Special Collection has increasingly spotlighted those book arts that have been forgotten from the days when everything was made by hand. This focus on the interpretation of physical artifacts makes his job more like that of a museum curator than a librarian. Vermue looks for reader marks, binding flaws, patterns of wear, or even indications of censorship to tell the history of the vast range of books under his care.
I asked if there were any particularly popular areas in the collection. There aren’t. Or rather, according to Vermue, there are but interest in the various niche’s on the fourth floor of Mudd tends to shift with the curriculum. At the moment, the medieval literature is drawing a large amount of interest, but so is the collection of ephemeral documents and artifacts from the 20th (19th?) century. “Telegrams aren’t as sexy to look at as a medieval manuscript,” he quipped, explaining that the growing interest in these more recent artifacts is linked to their casual nature (pop culture, zines, comic books, kind of exciting.). Vermue’s face brightened again as he talked about the Special Collection’s small but growing collection of artifacts of optical culture, which the college’s Art History, Cinema Studies and Comparative Literature Department have all developed a particular interest in recently.
The librarian works directly with professors to continue to build and develop the collection. Collection building occasionally involves purchasing additional manuscripts or accepting donations, but according to Vermue, the majority of his time is spent trolling through existing sections of the collection and reinterpreting their potential applications. “Collection building is a little bit of a sleight of hand,” he said before going on to explain how the same material could be relevant to a range of different courses. As interest in extra-textual objects increases, Vermue talked about perhaps acquiring a selection of quills and exploring the history of calligraphy and paleography in more depth for his next venture.
He also talked about cycling objects out of the collection. The fourth floor of Mudd offers only limited space, and as Vermue continues to study the archives he said that he regularly finds texts that don’t belong in Special Collections. When this happens, he simply relocates the material to the main floors and the object enters circulation with the rest of the library’s books. Rather than a comprehensive assortment of any particular literary epoch or genre, Vermue said that he keeps only a sample — enough to teach with — of each kind of work. After we had finished talking, I stopped by the librarian’s office to check scheduling for the rest of the week: literally every surface was covered with one sort of text or another, books and manuscripts all unapologetically clamoring for attention.
“Working with professors is a two way street as far as who approaches who,” Vermue said at one point while we were talking. A couple of days after our conversation, I watched him work with a class taught by Professor Laura Baudot that was studying 18th century British print culture. While the students may have been bleary-eyed and possibly coffee-deprived and 9:30 in the morning, Vermue moved energetically around the table in the classroom of the Special Collections department, preparing each of the original manuscripts that the students would be working with.
After Professor Baudot explained that the lab would be focused on the extra-textual aspects of the selection of texts, Vermue laid down the ground rules of working with older manuscripts. Gently but firmly he talked about the texts as if they were human beings; “don’t force them to do something that they don’t want to do,” he said. “You wouldn’t force a human leg above the head if it didn’t want to go there.” As the class progressed, Vermue surveyed the class like a hawk, a stern, almost fatherly expression on his face as he let the students handle the collection, with the occasional “be careful” directed at some of the more enthusiastic students.
After dividing into pairs, the class warily studied each of the prepared manuscripts, Vermue anxiously roaming around to answer questions and point out details more obvious to his trained eye. Here was the curator in action. Vermue (still sporting those shnazzy sneakers) provided an encyclopedic level of context on everything from the watermark on the paper to the economic status of the print shop that had produced the manuscripts. He had mentioned to me that Masters programs in the history of the book were becoming increasingly popular; I think he was happy that other institutions were developing such an interest in his field. Watching Vermue work with the texts, his style of speech became less congenial, more lecture-like; he almost seemed more professor than librarian.
Baudot chimed in from time to time to point out the relationship of the physical context to specific narrative attributes from the class, but she generally deferred to Vermue on any matters relating to para-textual elements. “You can always look this stuff up on the computer in the other room,” she said. “Or, you know, you can just ask Ed.”