Beinecke Curators Offer Peek Inside a Virtual ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’

If you think of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library as a tomb for old "dead" books where only the most somber of scholars conduct research, curators Nancy Kuhl and Timothy Young hope a visit to their "Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities" might make you reconsider.

A blog started by the curators nearly two years ago as an "ongoing exhibition" of the Beinecke's "hidden treasures" and new acquisitions, "Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities" attracts some 200 guests daily - with visitors ranging from graphic artists to fans of Goth culture to poets to book lovers of all kinds. Rich in imagery but sparse on text, the blog showcases distinctive or unique books, ephemera and material culture in the library's collections, from the avant-garde to the zany, the curators note.

Kuhl and Young recently discussed "Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities" with the Yale Bulletin & Calendar. Here is what we learned.

Life in Room 26: The curators share the light-filled Room 26 in the lower level of the Beinecke Library, where Kuhl is curator of poetry of the Yale Collection of American Literature, and Young is a curator of modern books and manuscripts and of the library's noted children's literature collection.

"I'm always exclaiming to Nancy: ‘Look at this great children's book I just got!' or sharing my excitement about some other new item for the collections, and she does the same with me," says Young. "We realized that a blog would allow us to share with the outside world our own passion for the interesting or fascinating things we see on a daily basis at the library."

They named their blog after their office room number and for the cabinets once used by individual collectors to store exotic objects from around the world.

"In the time before we had museums, there was a tradition of keeping a private collection in cabinets," says Young. "If you were a person of means, that is where you would put the things you collected on your travels."

Snapshots and samplings: Kuhl and Young share the job of selecting items featured on the blog. They mostly let the images of the featured items speak for themselves.

"We don't feel we have to tell the whole story," says Kuhl. "We see ourselves as just offering snapshots and inspiring curiosity."

Just some of the many items they have highlighted on their blog are playing cards created by Russian inmates during the 1980s and 1990s; love notes by famous 20th-century writers and artists; novelty baseball cards portraying male/female attractions; manuscript pages written by such notables as Jonathan Edwards, Gertrude Stein and Hilda Doolittle; illustrated book covers for lesbian pulp novels; Walt Whitman's eyeglasses; World War I-era French shadow puppets; and keys that once belonged to "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie.

"With the blog, we can ‘open' our collections to people who might not otherwise find their way into our reading room," Kuhl says.

Piazza pigeons and peep shows: The curators' individual blog entries often reflect their personal and professional interests.

Kuhl, for example, is fond of grouping items around a particular theme, often relating to literary figures. In addition to baby pictures of Doolittle, Eugene O'Neill, Langston Hughes, Olga Rudge and others, she has featured photographs of famous writers with their pets, their cars, their typewriters or while eating, as well as images of literary figures' passports and their notebook and manuscript pages.

"My favorite is one I did showing photographs of all these American modernist poets and writers surrounded by pigeons in the Piazza of St. Mark's in Italy," says Kuhl. "Here are these great figures who are also American tourists having the same experiences any other American tourist might have had. It's a scene that takes them out of the landscape of high art or literature and reminds us that these were people who lived in the world and shared the same experiences of anybody who lived at that time."

Young, on the other hand, says he is "mad about cartoons and illustrations," or anything that is "visually beautiful or enchanting." He is also interested in all kinds of printed ephemera, children's literature and gay history, among other topics.

His blog postings have featured illustrations from numerous children's books, including pop-up books; pages from old instruction manuals; playing cards; party invitations; pages from issues of a magazine for transvestites and from "queer zines"; printing company ephemera; film and advertising posters; postcards; and peep shows (including a scene from the outside of a 1750 German bordello).

"I'm also fascinated by anything in the margins that's been overlooked," says Young. "I did a blog featuring an 1806 instruction book by a math teacher in Pennsylvania about how to do fractions, decimals, long division and so on. The pages are beautiful with all of these numbers on them. At the end of the book, the author drew a little bird. I didn't want this bird to ever be lost. I decided that it needed to be released to the world."

The curators have a common interest in film, photography, poetry, printing and art - all of which are featured prominently on their blog.

"We also share certain sensibilities and recognize the value of some of the same kind of things that might not be obvious to others," comments Kuhl.

Mixing poetry and posturing: "Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities" also celebrates par­ticular holidays or special occasions. The work of various poets was featured in April to mark National Poetry Month, for example, while the selection of Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander as the poet for Barack Obama's presidential inauguration was also highlighted.

"We like to respond to what's going on topically," says Kuhl. "We recognize that our collections exist in the context of campus and what's happening in the world."

The librarians also enjoy being able to put some of the library's more humorous holdings in the spotlight.

In a blog entry titled "Oratorical Gestures," for example, the curators feature a series of images of a system of expression that was popularized in the 1880s. The photographs show a man as he demonstrates (in a highly exaggerated way) how to convey defiance, hatred, supplication, revulsion and remorse, among other emotional states.

A growing following: On occasion the curators have been surprised to discover that their blog has been accessed by thousands of people on a given day.

"Sometimes, another blog links to us and so people find us that way," says Young. "We sometimes find ourselves in weird places. The post featuring death masks, for example, got mentioned on a Goth blog, and an entry featuring the passport of the ever-controversial poet Ezra Pound brought us about 3,000 visitors that day."

"We entered this as an experiment," adds Kuhl, "never anticipating the response we've gotten. It's rewarding when someone calls us saying they've seen something on the blog and that they'd like to come to the library to see it, or even when someone who will never come into the library tells us about their curiosity about something we posted. We're glad they've had a meaningful interaction with the Beinecke and its collections.

"Tim and I are very lucky to have daily contact with extraordinary texts and images here, including many books and manuscripts documenting important aspects of human culture," she adds. "It's an honor to care for them and to share them."

"Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities" can be found at http://brblroom26.wordpress.com. For other Beinecke blogs, visit www.library.yale.edu/beinecke/brblevents/blogspodcasts.html.

— By Susan Gonzalez