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Jesse Erickson: Time Traveling Scholar Reveals the Hidden Histories of Books

By Joanie Harmon

The Morgan Library's Astor Curator of Printed Books & Bindings will present the 15th Annual Breslauer Lecture on Apr. 6

Looking for all the world like a character out of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” Jesse Erickson ('16, Ph.D., Information Studies; '13, MLIS; ’10, B.A., History) seems to have traveled back a century-and-a-half, with his tailored suits and handlebar moustache. However, the Los Angeles native could not be more engaged in the future of libraries as the Astor Curator of Printed Books & Bindings at the Morgan Library. Erickson’s duties include managing acquisitions and curating exhibitions, which he does with an eye toward bringing inclusion and equity to the library’s collections and practices. 

Returning to his alma mater, Erickson, a scholar of ethnobibliography and African American print culture, will deliver the 15th Breslauer Lecture (, discussing “Race, Ethnicity, Type: Typography and Ethnobibliography,” on Thursday, Apr. 6 at 3 p.m., Room 111, in the SEIS (GSEIS) Building, North Campus. (Visit this link to RSVP for in-person attendance or to register and attend via Zoom.)

After graduating from UCLA, Erickson was an assistant professor of English at the University of Delaware, as well as coordinator of special collections and digital humanities and associate director of the university's Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center. He was also a postdoctoral researcher in special collections and digital humanities. While at the University of Delaware, Erickson co-curated “I Am an American! The Authorship and Activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson”, an online exhibition developed through a partnership between The Rosenbach Library, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press.

Erickson’s research includes the application of the ethnobibliographic method in the study of African American literacy practices, examining how these literacy practices operate, interact with, and are affected by the African American cultural relationship with the various processes that comprise books as objects of investigation within Special Collections libraries.

In 2021, Erickson was named co-editor of The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, the quarterly journal of the Bibliographic Society of America and an important publication for scholarly communication on bibliographic matters since 1906. He previously served in the position of Programs Chair for the Southern California Chapter of the American Printing History Association (APHA) and as the Vice President for Programs on APHA’s national Board of Trustees from 2017 to 2019, most notably organizing the 2019 national conference “One Press, Many Hands: Diversity in the History of American Printing.” 

Erickson’s publications include a recent article on, “Discursive Perpendicularity: Intersections of Black Print Culture Studies and Bibliography,” for RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, a publication of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL); “An Aesthetic History of the Ouija Board,” for the journal Printing History; and “Revolution in Black,” in the journal Publishing History. Erickson contributed the chapter, “The Gentleman’s Ghost,” to the book, "Archives and Special Collections as Sites of Contestation," and has served on the editorial boards of the University of Delaware Press and Publishing History. 

Erickson became fascinated with the transnational publishing history of the Victorian period author Ouida, a little known but highly successful novelist whose work ran to the sensational and gained her fans across the world, especially in her native Britain and in the United States. He wrote the chapter titled, “Confessions of a Black Ouidaite: Autoethnographic Neo Victorianism,” for the book, "Black Neo-Victoriana: Interrogating Presence, Challenging Absence." and is currently at work on his own book about Ouida.

What is ethnobibliography?

Ethnobibliography, which I have advanced in my dissertation work and subsequent publications, is the methodology by which I analyze the intersection between the social construction of racial and ethnic identity and the book as an object. [My] dissertation was sort of a proof of concept. I wanted to employ my understanding of the methodology toward reassessing the rhetoric and body of research around Black literacy practices. But instead of looking at individuals engaged in literacy practice, I looked at the environment within which literacy is practiced, specifically within special collections libraries. I used ethnobibliography as a lens of understanding the idea of literacy practices differently, in accordance with racial and ethnic identity construction. Basically, I was looking at Black books to understand if there were any differences that can be ascertained in a reading practice by looking at the materiality of the book object itself, and as these book objects are situated in special collections, libraries particularly. I came away with a lot.

What were the differences that you found?

The differences were legion. Everything from the architecture and interior design of a research space, where that research space was located, all had an impact on the way that Black books were housed, presented, and able to be accessed. And then the books themselves - the materiality - everything from the typography, the layout, to the binding, …  the kind of paper that was used. Every material detail spoke to cultural differences and a process by which Blackness can be understood through text. So, it's not just the content of a book that spoke to one's understanding of Blackness around Black issues, Black rhetorics, or Black poetics. It was also the choice of everything from capitalization to italicizing; in certain instances, the kind of binding that was used, whether it was anything as simple as a staplebinding to publisher’s cloth; the differences in representation in the frontispiece. I took it period by period and analyzed a sample of books from each major period in Black literary history, from the early 19th Century to the present day. 

What specifically are Black books?

[These are] mostly books written by Black people, with a Black audience in mind. But, you know, there was a lot of complexity, depending on which period one focuses on. Early on in the history, White audiences were very much in mind. It isn't until the Black Arts Movement, where you have pretty much exclusively a Black audience in mind, and that carries on through the present with street lit and urban lit. 

But in every stage of the game, there were a lot of interactions - commercial, institutional, and otherwise – with non-Black publishers and editors. There was also outsourcing, when you have Black publishers outsourcing different parts of the manufacture of a book. Sometimes, the printing wasn't done in-house, sometimes that work was outsourced. Sometimes, the bindery was outsourced. At every level, it’s a situation of racial and cultural hybridity to produce these objects, with the exception of the Black Arts Movement, which really was dedicated to the idea of having every aspect of the book object being produced by and intended for a Black audience.

In the U.S., what is the regional history of the production of Black books?

It was certainly a national phenomenon. Early on, it starts on the East Coast and in parts of the South. Then it spread to the West Coast – kind of along the patterns of the Great Migration, so that by the Harlem Renaissance, you have the East Coast and West Coast interacting with each other, with all these different cultural centers in the Midwest. 

What were some of the richest examples among the books you looked at?

That’s hard to single out, because from my vantage point, every example was rich. I came into the project not really knowing what I was going to discover, but when I applied ethnobibliography as a method, it really brought into the foreground all the minute differences that occur in each instantiation of production of a book object when it's intended for a particular demographic group.

In my current work, I'm applying that same lens to the Victorian period author Ouida, looking at her American editions, comparing that with British editions and editions coming out of France, Italy, Australia, Japan, and Korea. And even though it's the same author, I'm seeing all these differences that are that culturally specific. It becomes even more obvious when you're looking at East versus West. There are differences that come out [in] British and American [editions], and those are all very culturally specific, in an Anglophonic context. 

I’m really looking at very nuanced differences in that regard. Going back to my dissertation work, it occurred to me that focusing on Blackness was a really good test case, because it allowed me to use as a sample, a community that has for years been otherized and marginalized, and that was also reflected in the bibliographical materiality of these objects. Whereas looking at the Victorian period author Ouida, who was a mainstream author in her time, and very widely read, those differences - because [her work was] accepted as sort of the cultural mainstream, are the default. They're more invisible to us because we just see them as, “Oh, that's just a book.” There's nothing that speaks to racial identity or ethnic identity because we're assuming Whiteness as the default. Because of that assumption, the racialization of that book object becomes invisible to us.

What got you interested in Ouida?  

I had just given a talk at the University of Leicester on Black American radical printing in the second half of the 20th Century, and it was well received. The organizers invited me to submit to a journal called Publishing History, and I was really excited about it – it was actually my first publication. 

I [looked at] their backlog of issues and came across an article on Ouida’s “Under Two Flags.” It was by Celia Phillips, titled, Ouida’s “Under Two Flags: A Story of a Bestseller,” or something to that effect. I was just coming off the heels of reading Jane Austen for pleasure, and I was surprised that I had never heard of this author, because in the title of the essay was the word, “bestseller,” so I was kind of taken aback. Little did I know that most Victorian popular fiction has become obscure nowadays, and what has survived was oftentimes less popular, with the exception of Dickens. 

I was really fascinated by the article and looked up Ouida online and in her Wikipedia entry, her story was really compelling. So I said, “You know, I’ll go ahead and give the novel a read.” The style instantly spoke to me. But the narrative - I couldn't wrap my head around at first. And then, as I was getting into it – it’s a three-decker – by the time I was in the second volume, I was just completely enamored, not just with the style, but the storytelling.  

I hadn't, up to that point, read any sensational fiction from the period, so I was probably as shocked as a person in the Victorian period to see these kinds of topics: infidelity, prostitution, all this coming up openly in the narrative. And then, the aspect of the queering of the story, the gender role reversals of the protagonist and supporting characters – to me, these were all just completely mind-blowing for the period. 

By the end of that novel, I had already ordered a copy of the next book [by Ouida] that I wanted to read …  and from that point on, I binge-read all of her three-deckers. She has 26 three-volume novels, that was the most popular format for the Victorian novels. They were circulating a number of them in the Charles E. Young Research Library, so I was able to read the first editions a lot of the time. I was also purchasing antiquarian editions, so I became a collector almost instantly. 

For a while, I just read Ouida to sort of decompress from my dissertation research - it was completely reading for pleasure. And then, I started reading all the scholarship. I read every essay that was out there, and I got all her biographies. One thing led to another, focused on her history and corpus in my scholarship.

What specifically about Ouida really spoke to you as a storyteller?

She has a really cinematic writing style that if you really get into it, it's almost like watching a movie or a Netflix series. She has a really good sense of timing and plot. 

In my understanding of the current paradigm for textual consumption, I agree with the theory that it is database-driven. We have so many options available to us now as a consumer culture for the consumption of narratives. That menu of options allows us to pick and choose and recombine elements into the kind of story that fits our needs or reading desires in an almost curated way. Her storytelling really fits within that modality of textual consumption. She has a lot of stock characters that she repurposes for every novel with variations in names. She has the same plots that are recycled in in all these different versions.

I have a have a deep appreciation for manga, and it’s similar to manga in that regard.  She was criticized a lot for that … people called her repetitive. They called her characters soulless puppets. But all those things she was criticized for are what I really love and enjoy about her work. Even though it was the 19th Century, it very much fits into that motif of having a universe that you can tap into, like Marvel. Even back then, fans of Ouida would become addicted to wanting the next version, the next iteration of a Ouida novel. You knew what to expect, and she delivered. 

I can picture you as a technical advisor for that Netflix series. Are you working on a book about Ouida?

There are several of us, I’m not the only one out there. We're a small group, compared to [those studying] other Victorian period authors. But there are three of us that are really super dedicated, and all three of us are working on books. I’ve been working on a book for about five years. 

Who were Ouida’s readers?

She made a ton of money because she was extremely popular, especially in America. I don't have this any stats on it, but she was, from all the press that I read, even more popular in America than she was in Europe. She had a moment, close to a decade when everybody just read whatever she came out with next, and she was prolific. But it was always seen as a sort of a guilty pleasure. Parents wouldn't allow their kids to read, and teenagers would want to kind of sneak [her books] because they were too racy. There were all these articles [saying] “don’t let your kids read Ouida.” And then, intellectuals didn't want to admit that they read her, because they would be seen as trafficking in low culture. 

Folks in the middle class and the working class read her. They talk about porters reading her, people from all walks of life. But toward the end of Ouida’s life, the intelligentsia and the literary critics started to reverse their [thinking]. They lampooned her and at one point, became quite hostile to her work and she became sort of a joke. 

Toward the end of her life, there was a big debate about whether she was actually a genius, and some prominent literary figures came to fall on that side of the argument. Some of Ouida’s supporters included Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, Mary Corelli, and G.S. Street. They all tried to lift up her reputation a couple of years before she passed, to get her the credit that she deserved.  But even then, it became a debate that played out on the pages of the periodical press in the United States and in the UK. 

Why do you think she was more popular here?

On a regional level, she was more popular in certain parts of the country than other parts of the country. In the South, they really embraced her, I think because some of her earlier stories, that were similar to Walter Scott in some ways, and spoke to a pastoral element that was misappropriated in the Southern mind to mean, “Oh, this is kind of like our plantation lifestyle.”  She even has some stories set in America. She was popular in the Midwest - almost all of her American characters are from the Midwest - and industrial centers like Pittsburgh. She was very hostile toward industrial development, and she made fun of Americans in her novels. I think [they] enjoyed laughing at themselves. 

She does a really good job of caricaturing the American, the rich American, the adventurer that wants to marry somebody with a [British or European] title, and also the industrial robber baron that throws their weight around Europe because they have all kinds of money. She even dedicated one of her earliest novels to the Americans, because she was so widely read here - she knew where the paychecks were being signed. But, I think what it came down to is the entertainment aspect. American readers were less pretentious in that regard and could admit to themselves when they enjoy a good story.

I’ve given a series of talks [on Ouida] that serve as the chapters for my book. I started in 2019 giving these talks, the latest one will take place this March.  This next one is going to cover the idea that gossip and rumors are all intermixed in our understanding of her biography. She was hostile to the press and didn't want to pass down an archive. She wanted her work to be assessed only by her literary production and her published essays. So, getting at her personal life through archival records, it’s notoriously difficult to rely on all these stories, and so many stories were circulated about her. 

The topic I’m giving for the Breslauer Lecture is related in that it is going to give the audience insight into the rudimentary fundamentals of ethnobibliographical analysis as it relates to typography. In order to understand how I’m analyzing the transnational publications of Ouida through an ethnobibliographical context, what I’m going to talk about in the course of an hour will give folks an understanding of how I arrived at those conclusions, and the method by which anybody can look at typography and start seeing it in this way.

How how did you choose UCLA?

I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley and I’ve lived in L.A. most of my life. When I was in my twenties, I decided to pursue rare books as a career. I wanted to get in on the ground floor, so I started working as a messenger clerk at the Los Angeles Central Library. I had some great mentors there, and one of the librarians, Linda Rudell-Betts, really believed in me. She recommended I go to graduate school at UCLA because she was under the impression that it was one of the best, [and] wrote me a letter of recommendation. 

Based on what they were telling me, and my background research, I really wanted to go to [what was then] the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Even before I  got into that program, I applied to matriculate to UCLA from Santa Monica college and then transferred for my undergrad work.

The whole time I was at UCLA, I worked in Special Collections for the manuscripts division and for history research. At one point, I did archival processing for The Center for Primary Research and Training (CFPRT). I worked in all the subdivisions of the Charles E. Young Library’s Special Collections and had great colleagues and mentors there. To date, I still keep in touch with them.

My advisor, Johanna Drucker - I really can't express how much of an impact she's had on my intellectual development, and as a supporter. My direct supervisor was Genie Guerard and she was amazing. My dissertation committee was extremely insightful and helpful along the process. Ramesh Srinivasan helped me think outside of the box, dealing with some of the  digital humanities work that I started exploring.

Tell me a little bit about life at the Morgan Library. What is a typical day on the job?

Everybody has questions and requests and requests and a lot of offers of, “Do you want this book for your collection? Do you want this collection?” I oversee loans. Most of my work involves strategic planning, managing and overseeing the various functions of the organization as it operates through our department. The team will bring different acquisition opportunities to me, we’ll talk them over, move forward or not. And then, developing an acquisitions strategy on how we're going to reconceptualize our collection development to be more inclusive. 

We do a lot of course sessions here. Most of the work involves exhibitions. We have a really robust exhibition schedule. We’re a museum and library, but we're more museum oriented. Our research library is really active. A lot of our workflows are centered on various stages of exhibition planning and execution. Each of us will be working on one or even two exhibitions at a time. It’s three years from conception to execution, and then in the last year, [we’re] getting together all the details, and really moving forward aggressively on having the design analyzed and getting the objects together in the space, it's all very involved. 

At the core of my work, I have this mission to use this platform to help this institution and institutions like it be more inclusive and more diverse over the course of my entire career. That involves everything from more diverse donors to rethinking the way we do exhibitions, not just in terms of the figures or themes that we focus on, but even the methods by which we curate the kinds of epistemology that underlies how we understand the knowledge we are presenting to the public. All those questions are important to me.

Photo courtesy of Jesse Erickson