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California Rare Book School: New Director Envisions Global Impact of Landmark Continuing Education Program

In its sixteenth year, the UCLA California Rare Book School (CalRBS) is poised to redefine the contemporary relevance of libraries and special collections while honoring their role as stewards of the past. With an eye toward transforming the role of these institutions, Robert D. Montoya has taken the helm as the third director of CalRBS, following the leadership of Susan M. Allen, who served as director from 2012 to 2020. Beverly Lynch, UCLA research professor of information studies, preceded Allen and served as founding director from 2005 to 2011.

Montoya (’03, B.A. American Literature and Culture; ’15, MLIS; ’17 Ph.D.), whose career in special collections began as head of public services at UCLA Library Special Collections, went on to achieve his MLIS and doctorate at UCLA before heading to the School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, at Indiana University Bloomington, where he was an assistant professor and director of the doctoral program in the Department of Information and Library Science. 

Upon returning to his alma mater last year as an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, Montoya also assumed the leadership of CalRBS, a continuing education program for professionals in the field of librarianship, rare books and special collections, as well as students whose concentrations are focused on the field. The program has also increasingly attracted participants from domains outside of librarianship interested in material culture, pedagogy, collections management, and social justice.

Professor Montoya had a conversation with Ampersand on the reality of attempting to shed the elitist reputation of the rare book field, and the opportunity to help achieve more equitable access to knowledge for all.

Ampersand: How are you envisioning the future of the California Rare Book School?

Robert D. Montoya: The California Rare Book School branched off from the Rare Book School in (the University of) Virginia, and so, for a good deal of time, and for good reason, the courses were in the traditional vein of rare book teaching, including courses such as the Renaissance book, descriptive bibliography or illustrated scientific books, donors in libraries, scientific and secular manuscripts. These classes will always remain core to the CalRBS curriculum.  

But one of the things I wanted to do is align it with the values of UCLA’s School of Education and Information Studies and really think about what it means to have a suite of courses that emphasizes criticality, social justice, radical intervention, and ethics. We have added many courses that differentiate us from other rare book schools, such as critical librarianship, feminist bibliography, libraries and social justice through an indigenous lens, critical approaches and maker spaces, and data ethics. 

What I’m trying to do is continue the expansion of CalRBS that Susan Allen, former CalRBS Director, had been working on for some time. Adding to this, I want to ask how the study of rare books, manuscripts, and print and visual culture, contributes to the broader field of librarianship and other allied professions, and how we might accomplish this in ways that emphasize diversity, BIPOC communities, ethics, and justice: values that are not only deeply  important to me personally, but that are also important to the mission of the school and the information studies department as a whole.

&: What are some of your new innovations for CalRBS?

Montoya: We will soon launch a new professional certificate in critical librarianship and rare books that focuses on diversity, ethics, and social justice. If you take a close look at CalRBS’s 2021 course offerings, you will note a strong focus on criticality, globality, indigeneity, ethics, activism, and social critique and intervention. These courses also broaden the CalRBS program to encompass new focus areas such as public, academic, and school librarianship, and data studies.

I’m also teaching what I’m currently calling a new Director’s Intensive, “Book History and Librarianship through Post- and De-Colonial Lenses.” This intensive brings together individuals from different disciplines, backgrounds, and professions, ranging from librarians, scholars and academics, artists, and activists. I want to think about how librarianship and the history of the book and can help inform globally relevant issues that we’re dealing with right now, such as systemic oppression, epistemic and social inequality, public participation, climate change, biodiversity loss, and wide-scale international conflict. 

This year, I’m focusing on postcoloniality and decoloniality and asking fundamental questions such as, How can such approaches help us free the narrative of book and library history from an Anglo- and Western-centric perspectives and knowledge frameworks? How does the rhetoric and logic of modernity and ‘postmodernity’ prevent us from breaking out of Western codes? Can we ‘reframe’ decolonially at all from within the structure of a Western university institution? How can indigenous and other local forms of knowledge and literary practices retain their sovereignty and power while still engaging with the larger discourse of book and library historicities? And, how can we realign our institutional collection practices to attend to these fundamental colonial problematics? 

These new courses will be offered alongside our historical offerings, along with new offerings that focus on traditional rare book and manuscript domains. This, I believe, will set CalRBS uniquely apart from our national and global continuing educational partners, and also serve to illustrate the importance of rare book, manuscript, and material culture studies to broader library domains.

One impediment for librarians and rare book specialists all over the world is a lack of easy access to programmatic and pedagogical materials that can enhance their programs and instruction at the local level. If library professionals are to effectively activate and incorporate values such as justice and ethics into librarianship—especially in spaces such as public, school, university, and special collections libraries—we have to think about how to bridge the classroom space with the spaces of practice embedded within our communities. I see CalRBS as a possible vehicle to fill this much-needed gap in educational and curricular material.

In the case of the Director’s intensive, I’m asking participants to collaborate during a weeklong course and to propose and workshop a project with a tangible outcome—that outcome can be an art piece, an article, essay, commentary, blog, website, book object, or some other piece. And then, unlike other CalRBS courses which typically span only one week, the Intensive will continue remotely until the end of summer. During this time, participants will continue to work on their projects, engage in a collaborative space, and their outcomes will be published on the CalRBS website alongside a suite of pedagogical material suitable for different types of library spaces. 

I intend to gather a working group of Information Studies faculty and MLIS students to craft these curricular materials, which are fundamentally intended to help local repositories engage more deeply with socially relevant and epistemically pressing matters (through public programming, instruction, exhibitions, collections management, etc.). 

&: You’ve mentioned before that you’d like to bring an international component to CalRBS, pending travel that will be possible as the world opens up in the coming months or year.

Montoya: Oh yes, I certainly have big plans in this area as well! In 2022 I will introduce CalRBS International. CalRBS International is a continuing education experience that immerses participants in book and library history through unique itineraries abroad. CalRBS International is part seminar, historical immersion, hands-on art-making, and multi-city tours. By immersing participants in international spaces, the intention of CalRBS International is to enrich historical understandings of book and library history by experiencing the living, contemporary trends in book and artifact collecting, artisanship, publishing, and institutional programming.

For example, learning about the rich history of Italian printing and librarianship in Modena and Venice, papermaking in Japan, or woodblock printing in Shanghai. This is a way in which, again, CalRBS can distinguish itself from other continuing education programs. We are teaching book history, yes, but we’re also going to interact with print practitioners and professionals within libraries—the people that are carrying these arts, crafts, and technical skills into the present, both as sustained, often family-businesses, as well as within a variety of local library and museum institutions. In 2022, we’re scheduled to tour Northern Italy. We’re going to be visiting Fabriano (a city famous for its luxurious paper), Modena, Bologna, and many other locations relevant to the history of Italian printing. 

If the Rare Book Intensive is going to help us think globally, CalRBS International is going to help us engage with book history and practice. Tentative plans for 2023 include Mexico City as a host site. Mexico City has a rich tradition of radical publishing and small press culture. Partners in the UCLA Library, including T-Kay Sangwand and Jennifer Osorio, will help bring this vision to fruition. Imagine visiting these small presses, printing alongside them, hearing from the activists themselves, and actually experiencing what it what it means to participate in lived, cutting-edge book and print culture!

The Director’s Intensive and CalRBS International will build on the rich traditions established within CalRBS, but it brings it new, fresh insights to what it means to study libraries and rare books. Fundamentally, these programs will help CalRBS participate in the future course of library and rare book study just as much as it helps us understand the historical past of these disciplines.

&: How will CalRBS change the way that the field of rare books is seen – as elitist and inaccessible to many populations in our society?

Montoya: The reality is that the study of rare books and special collections as disciplines are often thought of as very elitist endeavors. Special collections are often difficult to access, both due to their imposing nature, but also because they are situated within premier academic institutions that the vast majority of the public is not privileged to experience. This is a product, of course, of how special collections developed historically as an entity within libraries—initially as private collections of and for the wealthy and as spaces that excluded women and people of color. 

Unfortunately, special collections still carry vestiges of this exclusionary aura. My colleague, Dr. Jesse Erickson, at the University of Delaware, has spoken of the colonial imprint still latent in the experience and space of special collections. But for me, and I think for most people in the field, rare books and special collections must be more accessible to the broader public—this is crucial for the field of librarianship and its long overdue.

I think that some of this work is rhetorical: how do we rearticulate what we do in these spaces, and how can these spaces benefit broader communities? To the broader public, special collections are often assumed to only contain gilded and illustrated masterpieces, fitting of cathedrals, but the reality is these collections also contain the beautifully ephemeral, simplistically inexpensive, and tons of other objects of great importance to specific community cultures. Commonplace books, broadsides, activist posters, pamphlets, photographs, cartoneras, artists’ books, children’s books, and cookbooks all reside in these spaces—and this is just the start of a near-endless list of print and visual material.  We have to make the public aware of this reality and dispel the notion that only academics and scholars are fit to access these items. Simply put: special collections belong to the collective public, for it is the collective public that produced what they collect.

But there is also a great deal of practical and interventionist work that needs to be done to change the field of rare books and special collections as well. It is important to note that print and visual culture (both as a mode of production and as an area of study) lives in many spaces: public libraries, school libraries, community centers, small activist presses, etc. In that way, I see CalRBS as having a responsibility to offer courses that focus on these areas as well—and let’s be frank, if we’re going to really make rare books and special collections available to the broader public, we have to also engage with spaces outside of the academy. This is exactly what many of the 2021 courses are intended to do: to show how rare book and special collections are relevant to all communities and that the print culture we all produce is worthy of being ‘special’ like any other.

I also want California Rare Book School to be accessible to anybody and everybody, even outside of the field of librarianship—to artists, activists, high schoolers, and anybody that wants to learn a little bit about books without being daunted by the formality of what it seems to be. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge for me going forward. It’s really exciting for me to have the opportunity to come back to UCLA and engage with these broad challenges. 

What I want CalRBS to become is a kind of model – not the model – for how we can prepare library professionals to be ethical, justice-oriented, socially-engaging community members. To show how librarians can intervene in spaces and make positive social, cultural, and knowledge-oriented impacts in this world. I grew up in libraries, both personally and professionally, and I feel so lucky and humbled to do my small part to help chart new ways forward for the profession. 

The California Rare Book School has launched a UCLA Spark Campaign to raise funds for “COVID-19 Support for California’s Librarian/Archivist Community.” 

To give to this campaign and for more information, visit this UCLA Spark link.

To learn more about the UCLA California Rare Book School or to give to CalRBS, visit this link.