Bringing Books To Life at Peabody

Alex Barbera’s conversation with Peabody Library’s curator, Paul Espinosa

Walking into the Peabody Library, I had forgotten how impressive and intimidating the space is. Stacks of books and slanted staircases towered over me as I made my way to the offices in the back, where I was to meet Mr. Paul Espinosa, the museum’s curator. Hyperaware of my clacking boots, I tried to tiptoe across the fancy floors of the room. I imagined Mr. Espinosa would be an older, white-haired man sitting at a grand oak desk and our interview would take place with us seated across the long desk from each other.

Instead I found a much younger man casually making some oatmeal for himself near a communal office table in the center of the room. As busy as he was, from the moment we began talking, through phone call interruptions and my endless questions, Mr. Espinosa remained collected and cool. He sat at the table, stirring his oatmeal and re-setting up his computer, which had been displaced due to an event that took place the previous night. A big part of his job is coordinating events that take place at the Library, which is a popular venue for book-loving brides and posh organizations alike. In October of last year, he organized a very successful Halloween party at the Library, which included a shadow puppet show by the local artist, Katherine Fahey. He is in charge of keeping the facilities prepared for these events as well as for the general well being of the collection, which is comprised of more than 300,000 volumes.

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Mr. Espinosa says his favorite part of his job (“other than his morning coffee”, he joked) is teaching. A bibliophile from the beginning, he grew up in California and came to Maryland to pursue his masters in Classics and later his masters in Library Sciences at University of Maryland, College Park. Hoping to find a medium between graduate school and teaching, he decided to work at a library because he knew he wanted to be around books. Mr. Espinosa started his career metaphorically “in the mailroom” at Milton S. Eisenhower Library on Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus shelving books. After hard work and a noticeable performance, he applied for his current job when the position opened up and was thrilled to be appointed.

Although he has technically held the same position as curator for a few years, his job was a very different one when he started. Mr. Espinosa started as kind of a remote overseer of the Library who was present to answer visitors’ questions that might arise. “We wanted to change that, we wanted to make it a more user friendly and vibrant program and include more teaching.” He also mentioned his enthusiastic team at the library that has been instrumental in its transformation. This includes Dr. Earle Havens (the William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Sheridan Libraries as well as a History professor at JHU) and Ms. Gabrielle Dean (the curator of Literary Rare Books and Manuscripts as well as the Librarian for the JHU Writing Seminars). Together, they spread their knowledge and enthusiasm through teaching the public using the rare books at Peabody. Last semester, they taught eighty classes, including those devoted to Moby Dick, Spanish Literature, the French Revolution and more.

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“Putting a first edition of Darwin in front of somebody. Or Copernicus. Or Melville. I never saw that when I was an undergrad. When you’re an undergrad, if you love literature, you love books. It all exists in a mystical space and it’s sort of disconnected from history in many ways. But working with historic materials, it makes that history become real, it makes it come alive.”

Teaching new and compelling topics each semester also helps Mr. Espinosa and his team discover gems in the library. When he’s collecting books from the stacks that are specific to classes, “eureka moments” occur quite often.

“We [recently] found a suite of Chinese watercolors that we didn’t know we had, as strange as that sounds, but this is an old library and in the old days they just wanted to get the call number on the books and get it on the shelf. They weren’t concerned with things like what we call Provenance – so called book plates, signatures, special bindings – all sorts of historical details that bring a book to life and connect it with its former owner, former history, and what’s so neat about working in a historic library like this is that the material is there but it hasn’t been fully explored.”

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Although discoveries in the stacks do occur, the most valuable books in the collection are already widely known. Among them exist two books from 1499, one being an illuminated manuscript that is a Book of Hours, crafted by hand and from the Netherlands. The other is Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a parable by Francesco Colonna, which, according to Mr. Espinosa, is “one of the most beautiful books ever printed.” The collection also includes a first edition of Darwin’s Origin of the Species as well as a Kelmscott Chaucer published by William Morris in 1896. “There are only 425 copies [of the Kelmscott Chaucer] ever printed and only 25 that were bound in pigskin. We have one of those 25.” They also have a first edition of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense signed by Charles Carroll who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, “which is sort of priceless.”

When asked about his favorite book of the collection, though, Mr. Espinosa again mentioned his interest and fascination in a book’s own history.

“I think some of the most endearing books are the books that show use. We have a first edition of Melville’s Typee. It was his first and most successful novel. It was more successful than Moby Dick. It’s not as good as Moby Dick in many ways, but our copy has all sorts of scribblings in it from what looks like a young boy, probably during the 1880s. It’s sort of an adventure novel. Melville talks about how he’s trapped on this island with a bunch of cannibals and this sensation. And so this young boy was absorbed in it and on the very last page he wrote ‘Good read. First rate.’ Adults don’t talk like that anymore, let alone kids, but it’s just neat to see some young person thinking this was a ‘first rate’ read back in the 1880s. Those sorts of things are very interesting to me.”

I suddenly had the urge to find my middle school copy of Pride and Prejudice and look for my own scribblings in the margins. I remember filling one of the pages completely with hearts, probably around Mr. Darcy’s second proposal to Elizabeth.

It is becoming normal now, though, to experience these classic novels on an e-book where you are much less likely to make these sorts of personalized notes and drawings. Mr. Espinosa pointed out that the majority of the Library’s budget goes to books for the electronic resource so that students can easily find scanned journal articles and books on their computers.

“The future is digital, that’s a great tool, it’s a great means to help students do amazing research that they never would have been able to do before that. But I like to take a step back from that mad rush forward, which I need to be a part of, and help students be critical of what they’re finding online. And one way to do that is to have them dig a little deeper. And one way to do that is teaching with these primary sources.”

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Existing in a society that is constantly straddling Team Paperback and Team Kindle, Mr. Espinosa’s praise of the accessibility of digital books and his simultaneous emphasis on the importance of remaining critical of them through physical editions is extremely convincing. There’s no reason to decide on which mode of learning is better when we can use both to better ourselves. Mr. Espinosa and the library’s efforts to emphasize the importance of primary resources through hands-on teaching is an exciting way to remind us of this. The Library’s classes are a great way to spread this message, but Mr. Espinosa and his team also encourage students to participate in the library’s annual Betty and Edgar Sweren Student Book Collecting Contest. The contest is open to JHU undergraduate and graduate students who have a collection of books, which can include but is not limited to rare books. There are monetary prizes for winners, who will also have their collections put on display in JHU’s Brody Learning Commons.

Regardless of whether or not you have a book collection of your own, Mr. Espinosa made it clear that Peabody’s collection is universal. Although it is easy to get caught up in the monetary values of the books, it’s more important to remember that they were made to be used. “There are times where I find myself thinking wow, this is really valuable. When you use it every day, not that it loses value and not that you take it for granted, but you learn to appreciate it in a different way.”

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Looking toward the future for Mr. Espinosa and Peabody Library really means continuing to remember and learn from the past. Although he is keeping up with the digital age, Mr. Espinosa’s main focus is on keeping history alive, relevant and accessible to today’s society through the Library’s historical space and rare books.

When I walked back through Peabody after our interview, I noticed a hand full of students with open books and laptops studying at the old wooden desks. Using the books and the space, they seemed to become a part of its history, carrying out Peabody’s mission of which Mr. Espinosa had just spoke. As if by osmosis, they were absorbing all of the greatness on the surrounding shelves. I sat down, opened my laptop and books, and joined them.

The George Peabody Library
17 E Mt Vernon Place
Baltimore, MD 21202
(410) 234-4943

Alex Barbera is a harsh food critic, addict of Netflix and dog enthusiast from New York City. She is an expert at getting lost and making guacamole.

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