Illustrated Classics in the Spotlight in New Student-Curated Display

Meet Emma Hassel, the student curator behind a new display in Thompson Library

Emma Hassel stands next to a glass case containing examples of illustrated classic books.

If you find yourself in Thompson Library soon, take a moment to explore a special display of materials from the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library (RBML) curated by an undergraduate expert.  

Emma Hassel, a third-year art history major with minors in history and creative writing, has been working with University Libraries Special Collections since she found the position on Ohio State’s student job board over the summer. 

“After reading the description of the job in Special Collections, I thought it was just perfect for me,” said Hassel. “I have always been interested in archives and rare book libraries, and I love being around books. I really wanted to get an insider’s view of what a job in a library or archive could be like.” 

Hassel’s work started with a relatively basic but crucial task: shelving materials. 

“My primary job is to shelve things that patrons, curators, conservators or other faculty have pulled from Special Collections,” she said. “I also shelve new acquisitions. Sometimes I also work in the Reading Room where the patrons use the books from Special Collections. This job allows me to understand libraries and the systems within them more deeply.” 

One of Hassel's supervisors, Orville Martin, recognized her talent in the position right away. 

“Emma brings a love of art and books to Special Collections, but it is her dedication to the fine details of book shelving that make her a great asset to our team,” said Martin. “Exposure to Special Collections is a learning adventure that will stimulate the curiosity of any mind, in any discipline, and I believe that Emma is showing the result of that exposure.” 

Hassel's excellence in her primary role led to an opportunity to work even more closely with Special Collections materials and to utilize skills and knowledge gleaned from her major. After being recommended for a special project by her supervisors, Hassel began working with Jolie Braun, curator of modern literature and manuscripts at RBML, to curate a display of illustrated classics. 

“The theme I have settled on is classic literature reimagined with art,” said Hassel. “RBML has many copies of special editions from famous literature that have been illustrated by professional artists. For example, there is a copy of Alice in Wonderland illustrated by Salvador Dali. I just find it fascinating that these successful artists sat down and illustrated books during the prime of their careers, and so many people don’t know about them. The case will hold many other collaborations between amazingly talented artists and some of the best writers from the past 200 years.” 

A close-up shot of one of Emma's display cases, featuring numerous books with colorful illustrations.

“Emma has been such a joy to work with on this project,” said Braun. “Her curiosity, enthusiasm and organizational and research skills have been great assets for working on this display. Her art history background and knowledge of special collections (including how to search for and find materials in the library catalog) meant that she had a unique perspective and skillset to bring to this project as well.” 

While searching through the RBML collections for items to include in her display, Hassel uncovered a number of unique items. 

“I found many first editions such as a Gone with the Wind,” said Hassel. “I’ve seen a Great Gatsby from 1934. There is a copy of Farewell to Arms that is signed by Ernest Hemingway himself. There are also many artist books and entire collections of magazines and books from as early as the 1500s. That is just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s just say I had a very hard time narrowing down the items for the exhibition.” 

“The fact that major artists illustrated these books and RBML happens to have them is truly a marvel to be celebrated,” she said. 

Hassel, who plans to pursue graduate studies in either library and archival science or art history and museum studies after her time at Ohio State, recognizes the value of her current work as it applies to her future studies and career. 

“This job allows me to gain knowledge for a future career as a historian, librarian or archivist,” she said. “I have the amazing opportunity to witness an insider’s perspective of librarians, curators and researchers.” 

“The skills required for curating a display—researching, synthesizing information, writing clear and concise text—are ones important for most students, regardless of their discipline,” said Braun. “This curation project was a particularly good fit for Emma, as she plans to pursue a career in museums or libraries. This display has given her firsthand experience with the kind of work she’s interested in doing after graduation.” 

As for her goals for the display, Hassel hopes that the items will pique other students’ interest in the materials available at University Libraries. 

“I want to share the experience of art within books,” she said. “Many people don’t necessarily associate books with art, but these books are art. RBML has many artist-illustrated books—so many that you could fill all of the display cases with them. I also want to showcase things from RBML that will make people more interested in the library in general and let people know that we have these amazing things in the collection.” 

“I am really just so lucky I got this opportunity, and I can’t thank everyone enough for this amazing experience,” said Hassel. 

To see Hassel’s displays, visit the special collections display area on the first floor of Thompson Library now through the end of spring semester. For more information about the collections at RBML, visit