A worldwide search for Yale’s rare books

Of the items she has obtained for Yale’s library, Dorothy Woodson is most fond of a set of campaign T-shirts for South African president Jacob Zuma, which she purchased while in South Africa this past summer. Or it might be a copy of the New Testament published in Vai, an indigenous language of Liberia.

As the Africana Collections Curator for the Yale Library, Woodson has traveled from Johannesburg to Timbuktu in search of new materials — ranging from books to microfilm to “ephemera” like T-shirts and posters — to add to the Library’s 13 million volumes. The curators travel every one or two years, building relationships with private dealers, foreign librarians and even government officials, meeting with vendors and attending conferences during their time abroad.

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Zoe Gorman
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Zoe Gorman
"Travel in Africa is never quite a walk in the park," said Dorothy Woodson, the curator of Africana Collections. "But if you keep your eyes open and keep an open mind, you’ll be alright."
Zoe Gorman
"If you’re not there, watching like a hawk, then you’ll lose things," said Tatjana Lorkovic, the Curator of Slavic and East European Collections. "And once you miss something — it’s gone."
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Zoe Gorman
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This Aramaic text from the Judaica Collection is just one of the plethora of items in the University Library’s special collections. Cuts to the library’s budget may reduce the traveling potential for Yale’s special collections curators.
Zoe Gorman
This Aramaic text from the Judaica Collection is just one of the plethora of items in the University Library’s special collections. Cuts to the library’s budget may reduce the traveling potential for Yale’s special collections curators.

Now, in the wake of a 10 percent cut to the University Library budget, three of all six Yale acquisitions librarians, including Woodson, said they are concerned they may not be able to travel in the near future.

Associate University Librarian Ann Okerson said travel funding for acquisitions librarians like Woodson has not been cut for the current fiscal year, which runs from July 2009 until June 2010.

Funding for library travel is provided by a variety of sources, such as the MacMillan Center for International and Area studies and external grants, Okerson said, and the library closes the gap to meet curators’ travel costs. She said that because no changes have been made in the library’s policy toward travel, the library will continue to review budget proposals for travel as before.

Still, three librarians — Woodson, Haruko Nakamura and Tatjana Lorkovic — said they will need to secure outside funding so they can continue to go abroad in search of library materials.

“Looking for outside support is becoming more important,” said Nakamura, the librarian for the Japanese Collection of the East Asia Library.

Judaica Collection Curator Nanette Stahl said the University has an endowment devoted uniquely to Judaic and Yiddish studies, while Woodson said she has received a grant from the Arcadia Foundation to catalog indigenous African languages.

All four librarians interviewed agreed that personal contact with vendors is crucial to their ability to acquire new library materials. Travel abroad allows curators to obtain rare items or materials for special collections that are unavailable through conventional means, as well as to develop strong contacts with dealers and institutions, they said.

“If you’re not there, watching like a hawk, then you’ll lose things,” said Lorkovic, the Slavic and Eastern European Collections Curator. “And once you miss something — it’s gone.”

While overseas, the librarians buy materials or make trades with other librarians or book vendors, promising them books from the Yale University Press in return for objects from their collections.

While all four of the librarians interviewed said they enjoy the thrill of traveling that comes with their job, many have had their fair share of unpleasant experiences abroad too.

“Many times when I get to the airport and I see what I’ll be flying in, I think to myself ‘What did I get myself into?’ ” Lorkovic said. “Another time I was staying in a hotel, and I felt a bug crawling by my ear — it was a cockroach.”

Though her territory stretches from Prague to Vladivostok, Russia, and includes countries where 22 major languages are spoken, Lorkovic said she has encountered few cultural barriers abroad because of the lingering Soviet influence in the region; Lorkovic has spoken Russian since age 12, and while she said people in Baltic and Central Asian countries resent hearing the language, they all speak it.

But in the early 1990s, it was a different story, she said.

Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union — a period of revolution and rapid change — there was little infrastructure for acquiring books. At the time, she said, she traveled to Eastern Europe in order to make contacts in the hopes of securing loans in the future.

“When things were first starting, the books were like toilet paper,” she said of the post-Soviet reality many Slavic countries faced. “It was almost a total wilderness.”

Lorkovic, who has worked for Yale for 21 years, said when she travels, she now has three or four meetings a day, each filled with negotiations about the book trade that will take place. In the past, she said she would even give American gifts like stamps or cosmetics to ensure a good relationship with the book dealer, and now, as the countries have become more developed, she said she gives even more high-end gifts, like chocolate or perfume, in addition to books from the Yale University Press.

The curators can travel from one “wilderness” to another, as all of their jobs require them to obtain objects from multiple countries.

Stahl said her curatorship is unique — “particular but universalistic” — because it does not pertain to a specific geographical area, but to the entire Jewish diaspora. In pursuit of new collections, she has traveled to England, France, Russia and several other European countries in addition to Israel.

Woodson said American restrictions on travel to nations like Sudan and Chad has made articles from these countries harder to obtain. Despite some difficulties, she noted, the materials acquired are well worth the struggle.

“Travel in Africa is never quite a walk in the park,” she said. “But if you keep your eyes open and keep an open mind, you’ll be all right.”

While travel can be rocky at times, Stahl and Woodson both noted that their acquisitions have fueled academic initiatives in related areas.

Woodson noted that a strong Africana collection is particularly of use for the University in light of history professor Michael Mahoney’s departure next semester, which will leave the department with only one specialist in African history. Still, after she acquired books and other materials form Ethiopia, she said the University hired a translator to catalog the itmes.

In the past few years, Stahl said she has been making trips to North Africa, where she has obtained thousands of documents — from rabbinical texts to personal correspondences — about Jews in the region. Because many of the articles were in Arabic or Judeo-Arabic, the University asked for assistance from a Judaic scholar who went on to organize a symposium to be held in April that will feature the documents.

“This just goes to show where collecting can lead: driving a whole area of scholarship,” she said.

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