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Transportation Librarian Featured

Bright Young Librarians: Rachel Cole

Congratulations to Northwestern University Transportation Library's own Rachel Cole on being featured in Fine Books Magazine's Bright Young Librarians series. Read the full interview conducted by Nate Pederson below. 


What is your role at your institution (and please introduce our readers to the Transportation Library at Northwestern)?

I’m the Public Services Librarian for Northwestern University’s Transportation Library. We’re the largest transportation information research center in the United States, and among the largest in the world: we work with transportation information on local, national, and international scales, with a community of users from across the nation and worldwide. Our primary constituents are the students and faculty of the university’s Transportation Center, so the vast majority of our collections comprise technical resources related to current transportation research in support of their work. There’s a lot of fascinating research happening here that is helping to shape the future of mobility and of cities - I regularly get to do instruction, research consultations, and reference support on topics like autonomous vehicles, shared mobility, active transportation, electric vehicles, and infrastructure. It’s an area of personal interest to me, so I feel lucky to get to do this work alongside working with our rare materials, which I get really excited about. Special collections are a smaller and relatively recent area of collection development in the scope of the history of the transportation library, started under our current director Roberto Sarmiento. Many were acquired from donors who have contributed personal collections, though we do seek out materials for purchase with a very specific focus - a particular interest of mine for collection development is catalogs from bicycle manufacturers in Chicago during the manufacturing boom of the 1890s. Other collections focus on the passenger ephemera that’s produced for travel: things like timetables for railroads, passenger steamships, transit operators, and airlines; mid-century menus from airlines, cruise ships, and railroads. We also have a small collection of rare books, and, even after being at Northwestern for two and a half years, I’m still surprised at what I find sometimes when I’m browsing our general collections.


How did you get started in rare books?

My first library job was at the Newberry Library as a library assistant in the General Reading Room. Although I spent a lot of time in libraries in my youth and as a history undergraduate, special collections weren’t something I had been introduced to prior to working there. The lack of exposure in my early life (I would have loved to know about rare books!) is something that continues to inform my interest in making special collections accessible to the general public. At the Newberry I, of course, fell in love with rare books librarianship immediately. In addition to the thrill of working with the Newberry’s collections, I was lucky to be part of a really amazing group of library assistants in the GRR who would later go on to become amazing librarians, and I will always remember that experience fondly.


Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

I earned my MLIS from Dominican University, while working full-time at the Newberry Library and then at the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries of the Art Institute of Chicago. I gained such valuable experience from the work I did at both libraries, under supportive and encouraging managers who pushed me to pursue my interests and gave me time during the workday to do so. For example, in addition to my usual duties as Circulation Manager at the Ryerson, I was given the space to write articles about items in the collection, develop reading room exhibits, and take reference shifts while still in library school.


Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?

I have many from among the Transportation Library’s collections, but an 1898 Crawford Manufacturing Company brochure titled “The Modern Spinning Wheel,” which promoted the increased mobility afforded to women by the bicycle is a favorite. Also related to bicycles is a magazine titled “The Wheel World.” Published in London in the 1880s, it documented bicycle and tricycle social culture of the time through articles, illustrations, inside stories, and songs. Also, I still remember the feeling from my early days at the Newberry, over a decade ago, pulling a photo of Eugene Debs from a box - he had autographed it, and the feeling of handling something that this storied labor leader had handled was very powerful. It’s something I find a lot of joy in witnessing when helping students connect with physical materials. But my favorite items are dwarfed by favorite experiences. One of the most memorable was connecting an undergraduate with a physical copy of a 1980s transit map he had seen many times online. His emotion upon seeing the map - one might call it awe (“can I touch it?” he asked) - was really moving, as was his decision, after graduating, to donate a personal collection of transit ephemera to the library.


What do you personally collect?

My personal collection goes back to one of my earliest memories, visiting a travel agency in my hometown of Bartlett, Illinois with my grandmother, and seeing the travel posters of faraway destinations on the wood-paneled walls. The adventure and excitement they promised stayed with me, and my collection of travel ephemera - really, from my own travels - stems directly from that; getting to work with special collections related to travel and transportation at work is something I feel extraordinarily lucky to do.


What do you like to do outside of work?

As you may have guessed from earlier answers, I love to travel: favorite trips have been a solo trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Beijing to St. Petersburg several years back, and to the Algarve, Portugal with my husband last year. Now that we have a 3-year-old son, travel means something new altogether, introducing him to new places and experiences - whether taking him to Yosemite, a day trip to our favorite destination of the Indiana Dunes, or exploring neighborhood parks in our new city of Evanston. I also enjoy architecture, running, skiing, kayaking (we are lucky to have a boathouse with rentals at Northwestern), baking, and seeing friends.


What excites you about rare book librarianship?

I get excited about engagement with and democratization of materials, on a broad scale that appeals not only to the scholars who have traditionally been the users of special collections and rare books, but that also reaches the general public in real and relatable ways. That’s my goal for the Transportation Library’s Instagram account (@transportationlibrary), where I post materials from our collections. In addition to choosing visually interesting items, I include a bit of context about each: followers can choose to scroll through our account and admire the images on their own, or they can pause to read a bit of history about each one. We often get comments on posts to the effect of “I learn so much from your account!” and these are my favorites. I love that our followers come from a range of backgrounds, from high school students to academics. I feel similarly about our online exhibits, which are designed to connect our collections with a broad range of interested people from the general public. In addition to users engaging with these materials online, which I think we’ve been very effective in doing, another end goal is bringing users in to the library to have the experience of interacting with these collections in person. In my two and a half years with the Transportation Library, I’ve curated three online exhibits: Bicycles on Paper, Lovers of the Open Road and the Flying Wheel, and On Board with Design.


Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?

The things that I mentioned in my previous answer - reaching a broad community of users and making our collections accessible - are not just things I get excited about, but also, I think, the future of special collections and rare book librarianship. This includes presenting our institutions as places where all users are welcome, inviting use of our collections, and meeting our users outside of the library: in the classroom, via social media, through online exhibits, and the like. Focusing on building collections from and about underrepresented groups is also essential as we work towards the goal of connecting with patrons in relatable and meaningful ways: to tell the stories of groups whose voices have not been at the front historically, and to work towards collections where those voices are represented.


Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you’d like to draw our attention to?

I’d like to draw attention to them all, because I think they’re all so interesting - choosing one is difficult. Earlier this year, we finished processing the John A. Swider Timetable Collection, which consists of bus and rail timetables dating from 1880 to 2006, including several that promote travel to World’s Fairs. Timetables are such fascinating documents - not just for things like transportation schedules, passenger policies, and maps, but also for the promise they offered for the excitement of travel. I love the ways in which they advertise destinations both near and far, and often employ beautiful imagery to do so. The same can be said for our all of our timetables, including a large collection of airline timetables representing countries from all around the world, donated by Northwestern alum and noted anthropologist George M. Foster.


Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

Together with colleagues from the Herskovits Library of African Studies, our neighbor here at Northwestern University Libraries, I’m working on Independence in the Air: African Aviation in the 1960s. In researching this exhibition, I was surprised at how quickly many newly independent nations established national airlines in the years directly following their independence - often, the same year or year after. The online exhibit focuses on timetables and other passenger ephemera as well as annual reports from those airlines, to look at how they served as symbols of national identity and modernity as their fleets carried their new flags within their borders and around the world. I am really excited to share this exhibit, and hope you’ll look out for it later this fall.

Image credit: Matthew Zhang

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