My New Normal: Sarah Horowitz

The curator of rare books & manuscripts and head of Quaker & Special Collections writes about shifting her work from sharing physical editions to digital ones and becoming “the hands” for researchers far from campus, turning pages for them onscreen.

Sarah Horowitz is the curator of rare books & manuscripts and head of Quaker & Special Collections. She supports research and teaching related to any areas of work with rare books and manuscripts. This is her story. 

As a rare book and manuscripts librarian, I spend my time with old, rare, and unique materials. The material qualities of these rare books and manuscripts often tell us as much as the texts they house. When I teach classes or work with researchers in the reading room, we explore questions such as: What does this paper feel like? What can the style and quality of this book’s binding tell us about its former owners and its journey to Haverford? What can the size of a book or document tell us about how it was used? As we closed the doors on our brand-new space in Lutnick Library in March, suddenly all these questions were much harder to answer. 

Looking for options without access to our physical collections, I turned to Haverford’s digital projects and collections, as well as to materials digitized by library and archives colleagues around the world. Instead of searching our stacks for examples to show a class, I searched databases of digitized materials. In the process, I developed new ways of talking about how history and geography may affect what libraries collect and their areas of specialization. I encouraged students to continue to ask questions that engaged with material texts even as they worked in the digital realm, and to think of digitized materials not as surrogates for physical materials, but as objects in their own right. These objects might need to be asked slightly different questions than our physical materials, but we can investigate the same issues. How does being able to zoom in on a manuscript page change the way we read it? How does this specific digital collection or database present the item and allow you to interact with it? Who is represented in the materials available digitally, and how does that reinforce existing gaps in archives and library collections? Engaging with these questions allows us to think about the material nature and history of digital documents. 

As staff began to have access to the Libraries and our collections again in June, my thoughts turned to the hundreds of researchers from around the world who come to Special Collections each year. How could we be sure that they, including Haverford students now scattered across the globe, could access our collections? One of our solutions is virtual appointments. Using an iPad on a camera stand, I can turn pages of a book or documents in a folder, which enables a researcher anywhere in the world to use Haverford’s materials. Of course, it isn’t the same thing as engaging with the materials in person, but having this kind of access means that research can continue. In the past few weeks, I have talked about seances, the Harlem Renaissance, and 19th century Quaker history with researchers over virtual connections as I paged through materials for them. When I’m working in the reading room physically, I see myself as a resource, ready to answer questions about unusual things that come up or to help decipher difficult handwriting. In our virtual reading room, I’m also the researcher’s hands, turning pages for them from many miles away. 

I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities I have had to work with students and faculty in the reading room again this fall. But I am also grateful for the ways in which our current moment has encouraged me to think about how to make our collections more accessible. I hope that in the future I can continue to think about the ways in which it is possible for researchers from near and far to visit Haverford—in all the ways we now think about visiting. 

My New Normal is a series of first-person blog posts, sharing the experiences of the Haverford community in the time of COVID-19.