An interview with Lucretia Baskin
Lucretia Baskin started as the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Cataloger in September 2023. Lucretia most recently worked as a contractor at the Beinecke Library, where she led a project to address a long backlog in manuscript cataloging. She has held rare materials cataloging positions at the New-York Historical Society, The American Antiquarian Society, and the Museum of Fine Arts. In addition to her rare books and manuscripts experience, she also has an extensive background in graphic arts and working with visual materials. Lucretia earned her undergraduate degree from Oberlin College in the History of Art, a Master’s in the History of Art from Williams College, and her MSLIS from Simmons University. The Associates of the Boston Public Library is proud to underwrite the Rare Books and Manuscripts Cataloger position. Please enjoy this short interview with Lucretia conducted by our Communications Specialist, Vidisha Agarwalla.
Can you tell us about your journey into becoming a rare books cataloger and what sparked your interest in this field?
My original training was as an art historian, focusing on works on paper, but I was also lucky enough to grow up with a great deal of exposure to rare books, manuscripts, and ephemera, because it’s part of my family’s business. I moved into library work about 10 years ago, and I love it here!
What are some of the most unique items in the Boston Public Library's rare books collection?
The BPL holds many unique and special items, ranging from medieval books of hours, to the papers of noted abolitionists like Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to exciting new acquisitions like the group of exceedingly ephemeral and rare editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves (first produced by the Boston Women’s Health Course Collective in 1970 as “Women and their bodies: a course”) that have recently come into the department. These early issues were cheaply printed and bound with staples, and very, very few copies have survived from the early 1970s.
Can you walk us through the process of cataloging a rare book and share some of the biggest challenges you face in this role?
Sure! The first thing I do is look at the book, inside and out. That includes the title page, but also the binding, the endpapers, even the edges. I am looking for things that make this copy different from other copies: are there inscriptions, bookplates, labels from booksellers or binders, and so on. I also look at any paperwork that accompanies the item, to see if there is any information about provenance – whose hands the book has passed through over time – or any other information that might not be apparent from observation. Once I’ve gathered all of that information, I work on the actual catalog record. That might involve starting from scratch or building on another institution’s existing record for the item.
Some of the toughest challenges can include things like difficult handwriting, if it’s a manuscript item, or reading a language I don’t really know well, like Latin or Dutch. Something that is less discussed about cataloging rare materials is that some items can also be challenging emotionally. An example of that from one of my previous jobs was a small group of paper currency from Terezín/Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in the Czech Republic.
Do you have a favorite item or collection within the BPL’s holdings that you've cataloged? If so, what makes it special to you?
I do not yet have a single favorite item, but I am really enjoying working with the Galatea Collection, the core of which was given by Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1896, and which was added to once it became part of the BPL’s collections. This collection focuses on women and women’s history – in fact it was likely the first institutional collection about women – and so far, I have cataloged material ranging from 16th century to the early 20th century.
Outside of that collection, I really enjoyed cataloging a pair of unique copies of the poet Celia Thaxter’s Cruise of the Mystery and other poems (1888). One copy includes a photograph of the artist Childe Hassam painting, probably on Appledore Island in the Isles of Shoals, and 6 manuscript poems by Thaxter written for Hassam and his wife Maud. The other copy has been extra-illustrated with approximately 43 pen and wash drawings by Hassam, and they are utterly charming: flowers, seashores, sailing ships, and more. Both copies are in unique bindings, one possibly designed by Thaxter. Special Collections also holds some of Hassam’s watercolors for Thaxter’s An Island Garden, and it’s lovely seeing how they relate to each other.