As the Curator of Modern Literature and Manuscripts at The Ohio State University’s Rare Books & Manuscripts Library (RBML), Jolie Braun aims to put rare and valuable items right into the hands of students and researchers. Whether it’s a first edition of an 18th-century novel or an early American cookbook, Braun fosters engagement and discovery across the university by providing direct access to special materials. We interviewed her to discover more about what she does at RBML, her favorite items in the collection, some memorable experiences and more.
Tell us about your academic and professional background. How did you get to University Libraries?
I have a BA in English and Women’s Studies from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, an MA in English from the University of California, Davis and an MLIS from San José State University. While completing my MA, I taught undergraduate literature and composition. Prior to joining University Libraries, I worked at Washington University’s Modern Graphic History Library and the Duke University Medical Center Archives. Special collections can be a difficult field to break into simply because there aren’t a lot of jobs. While completing my library science degree, I hoped to eventually find a position that would allow me to teach and work with literary collections. I feel really lucky that I get to do both with RBML.
What do you do in your role at RBML?
I aim to make special collections materials engaging and relevant to students, faculty, scholars and the broader community. To that end, I teach sessions with special collections materials, help patrons use our collections, manage and develop our holdings, and promote awareness and use of the collections (through exhibits, events, etc.). So, I do a variety of things, but they’re all about facilitating learning and discovery, helping people connect with and use our collections.
How are the modern literature collections used at Ohio State?
RBML’s collections are used in many different ways. We use them in teaching sessions with classes, so students have an opportunity to work directly with materials; undergraduates and graduates use them in assignments and research projects; and we have scholars come from around the world to do research with RBML’s collections. We also partner with local groups and organizations and have worked with K-12 students from Columbus schools as well.
What do you want people to know about the modern literature collection at RBML?
I want people to know our collections are available to them! Whether you’re a scholar or a student or a member of the local community, RBML’s materials are available to you and we can work with you to help you use them.
I also would love for more people to know about our Charvat Collection of American Literature, named after Ohio State English professor William Charvat. It’s one of the best collections in the country of American literature published from the 18th century to the present, and the collection’s holdings for 1901-1925 are rivaled only by the Library of Congress. If you’re interested in studying American literature, it’s really an exceptional resource.
Books from the William Charvat Collection at RBML
Do you have a favorite item or a piece you’re particularly drawn to in the collection? Why?
I really love our cookbooks collection. We have more than 8,000 volumes as well as many handwritten recipe books, predominantly nineteenth and twentieth-century American works. They are really fun to teach with, in part because cookbooks are so accessible: everyone has a relationship with food. One of my favorite cookbooks is RBML’s 1815 edition of Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796), which is recognized as the first American cookbook. It uses ingredients indigenous to North America (like cranberries and squash) and has recipes for distinctly American dishes (or dishes with distinctly American names) such as johnnycake, independence cake and federal cake. Most immediately, it’s compelling because it gives us a window into colonial America via cooking methods used, what ingredients were available, and how people wrote about food. On another level, the cookbook is fascinating because of what it has to say about American identity and food during a period when the idea of the “United States” was still fairly new.
Left: A selection of cookbooks from RBML’s holdings, presented in a class at Ohio State
Right: Title page from American Cookery by Amelia Simmons
Have you had any memorable experiences working with students or researchers using RBML’s collections?
One of my most memorable experiences has been working with Thurber House’s Director of Children’s Education Meg Brown and the Young Docents, which is a program that trains fifth and sixth graders to give tours of James Thurber’s home. For one of our collaborations, Meg and I planned a session in our special collections classroom that would involve working with archival materials from the Thurber Papers followed by a creative writing activity inspired by the materials. We hadn’t anticipated it, but many of the parents ended up staying and participating. It was exciting to see the conversations that happened while everyone explored items like Thurber’s middle school report cards and his 1918 passport from his time in France. The kids, who had a knowledge of Thurber, taught their parents what they knew about the writer, while the parents, who had more historical context for the items, shared that side of things. It was really great to see the exchange that the materials inspired.
How can people support RBML and the modern literature collections?
We’re able to do the work we do in part because of the generosity of our donors, whether it’s monetary support or a donation of materials. Having said that, there are many other ways to support RBML. If you’re a faculty member or staff who’s interested in collaborating with us, or a student who wants to know more about working with our collections, contact us! If you’re someone who has worked with us, tell your colleagues or friends about the experience. If you’ve published something based on research with our collections, we’d love to hear about your work. One very easy way to support RBML is simply by keeping up with what we’re doing. You can subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Twitter to learn about our current projects, upcoming events, new acquisitions and more.