Photograph of Brooke Glass with a Special Collection
Entering the Vault: An Interview with Brooke Gross, Graduate Student Assistant for Rare Books
by Chris Caldwell
October 16, 2020  •  6 minute read

Can you tell us a little about your academic background and how it led you to libraries?

I did my undergrad at UT and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts last spring. I majored in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing; I double-minored in Cinema Studies and Medieval and Renaissance Studies. As an English major, the assumption was that I’d be a professor or editor or something like that, but I wasn’t 100 percent sure that was what I wanted to do. Junior year, I found out about a Career Conversations session being put on by the Student Success Center about working in libraries and archives. I’ve always loved books, so I decided to go on a whim, and I got really excited hearing all the panelists speak. Looking back on it now, it’s a little bizarre and shameful that I never considered a career in libraries before. It feels like such an obvious jump for me now: reader, book lover, librarian. 

What kind of experiences did you have with rare, primary source, or historical material before you started working with us?

None at all, really. I wasn’t even aware that those kinds of materials existed in a place where regular people could access and use them for research. That seems silly to say now, since I help people utilize those resources on a daily basis, but it’s true. I’d been to museums, of course, admired some historical and rare materials from afar, but that’s about the extent of it.

You have assisted me with classroom instruction, exhibitions, events, reference work, and all sorts of the day-to-day collection maintenance activities. What aspect of Special Collections work have you enjoyed the most?

 Putting together exhibits is definitely one of my favorite things to do. I love having the opportunity to select and arrange a variety of different types of materials, to come up with an intriguing or timely theme and put things together in creative and potentially unexpected ways! Before the pandemic, we had an apocalypse display out, which wound up being way more relevant than anticipated, I think. Exhibits also present an opportunity to learn about and display materials that might not get a lot of use, and we can collaborate with different people to include all kinds of materials. Really, I just like telling stories, and exhibits are a fun way to do that!

Have you worked with particular items in our collection that have resonated with you?

I’m a sucker for the medieval facsimiles. I was a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor in undergrad; I just love the history and detail that went into those kinds of pieces during that time. Having exact replicas to examine and study is fabulous. Plus, there are so many ways to look at those books. You can think about them from so many different points of view. They can be studied and discussed as cultural objects, reproductions, text, religious pieces, markers of wealth . . . I think that’s fascinating. I love our Artist Book collection for similar reasons. The text itself tells a story, but so does the creation of the physical item. Plus, they’re absolutely beautiful to look at. 

Is there anything in particular that you wish the world at large to know about the world of rare materials?

I would want to encourage people to think more about how rare materials can be useful — and not be too afraid to approach them. Library anxiety is very real on a general level, and these kinds of resources can sometimes scream “don’t touch! too valuable!” Because of that, I think people tend to dismiss them as unfit for active research. But they really can provide and inspire new insight and context. Don’t just look at rare materials! Think about how they can help you! Dive in and use them!

You are just a few months away from obtaining your master’s degree in information sciences here at UT. In a perfect world, what would you like to be doing professionally in three years?

I’d like to do something similar to what I’m doing now, but on a higher level. I love special collections, and I love being in an academic environment, so I could definitely see myself working in instruction, outreach, or rare books within a special collections department at a research university.