Celia works in the Description and Access department at the Harry Ransom Center. She has previously contributed to the digitization of the Gabriel García Márquez archive as technician and assistant for a year.
What does a work day look like for you?
Most of my work happens on Fridays. During the mornings, I work with a small team to update our records for incunabula and contribute to the Material Evidence in Incunabula project—we’re mostly looking for evidence of previous ownership, controlled vocabulary for printing and binding, and written inscriptions that we transcribe to make a more robust and research-friendly record. After breaking for lunch, I spend the rest of the afternoon at my desk in the description and access department; about half of this time is spent on the computer with cataloging software and databases, the other half is retrieving and handling books.
What projects are you working on or have you completed? Is there one you most enjoy working on or are passionate about?
Apart from working on incunabula, Nick, the other intern in the department, and I are conducting provenance research on the Center’s holdings of pre-1800 Hebrew books; this information is contributing to the “Footprints: Jewish Books Through Time and Place” project at Columbia University.
I am also working on cataloging the Duane C. Scott Miniature Book Collection, a collection of 64 miniature books; they came from the private collection of Duane C. Scott, who owned and operated a small press in the late twentieth century. Most of these books are limited editions of 50-300 books, and come from independent presses themselves. Many of them cover niche and eclectic topics, and they’re quite beautiful and often charming—as an artist who works in printmaking and bookmaking, it’s been really a joy to learn about the language of book cataloging through this unique collection.
What skills have you gained or knowledge have you learned through this internship at the Harry Ransom Center?
My background is in studio art and art history, so working with things like paleography (the study, dating, and deciphering of old languages and manuscripts), library databases, and cataloging practices were completely new to me. Doing so much hands-on work with printed material has taught me a great deal about the history of books, how to identify the way books are constructed, as well as how to look for and record instances of provenance and inscriptions.
What has surprised you about the Ransom Center and your position here?
The depth and wealth of the collections here aren’t surprising, but I’m always stumbling across unexpectedly amazing materials during work; things like rare, fifteenth-century German herbals, a Hebrew bible bound intricately in silver, and books with prints and hand-painted illustrations that are beautifully intact (for how old they are, of course). My supervisors have always encouraged me to go and wander through the stacks, so there’s a level of curiosity and discovery that I didn’t expect would influence my work here.
What prior interactions had you had with the Ransom Center before working here?
Before coming to the Ransom Center as an undergraduate intern, I worked here for a year as a digitization technician and assistant. I’ve also visited with classes in photography, drawing, and bookmaking, pulling materials from the Center’s collection that relate to specific topics within the courses, or that speak to the larger histories of the media.
How is the work you do here important for researchers and the general public?
Much of my work in the description and access department will exist on library catalogs and academic databases, and serves to make materials more visible and accessible by making our library records more comprehensive. This mostly impacts the work of scholars and researchers who use these databases, although some of my cataloging work appears on the UT library catalog, a platform that is more geared towards university students and folks who live in Austin.
How has your internship influenced your interests and studies outside the Ransom Center?
The longer I work at the Ransom Center, the more it enters into a feedback loop with my interests and studies. The history, structure, and imagery of books that I work with have really been seeping into my work in printmaking, and as an artist who also works with bookmaking, there’s no shortage of inspiration at the Ransom Center. Working with miniature books has definitely made me want to make a bunch of miniature books.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen at the Ransom Center?
While working on an incunabula project, I came across a book of German fifteenth century herbals that was full of amazing, hand-colored woodcut illustrations of plants (and some wildlife). Our copy of Gart der Gesundheit (Garden of Health) is from 1485, and contains some of the earliest printed illustrations of natural history.
What was the most difficult part of your internship?
There was definitely a learning curve to the software and technical language that I’ve been using to catalog books, and I’m still building up my proficiency in these things! Deciphering the inscriptions of former owners in books also presents its own unique challenge, and information to support provenance can be scarce or tricky to find.
You have previously worked with the Ransom Center on the Gabriel Garcia Marquez archive, how have these experiences differed?
While both my time on the Gabo archive and my time as an intern have been contingent on a very hands-on, object-based work environment, my work in digitization has been more concerned with finding best practices for making digital renderings of materials, scanning and photographing parts of the collection, and making non-destructive edits.
What in your background has helped you in your internship?
Even though I work with mainly printed materials, as opposed to visual ones, having a background in art and art history has absolutely been helpful in navigating my internship. While I don’t have the foreign language skills in Hebrew, Latin, French, or Italian to decipher inscriptions and manuscript annotations, I’m able to use other ways of looking to analyze materials, identify features, and observe patterns in the collections. My experience in printmaking, bookmaking, and papermaking has really helped me crystallize my understanding of book structures, and is super handy when I need to identify how books are organized, printed, and illustrated.
Top: Celia Shaheen, third from right, with her undergraduate intern cohort.