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An Interview with Vanessa J. Wilkie, Curator at The Huntington Library | The Blotted Line

By January 15, 2014 No Comments

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with working Shakespeareans, how they got started in the field, and their ongoing interests.  This month, I spoke with Vanessa J. Wilkie, Curator of Medieval and British Historical Manuscripts, The Huntington Library.

1. Tell us about your background.

I have an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of California at Riverside (2009), with various concentrations on Early Modern English History, Women’s/Gender History,   Modern European History,   Public History: Archival Management, Women’s/Gender History, and   Modern European History.

2. Tell us about the HEH’s Shakespeare collection.

 The Shakespeare collection (as in the renown folios, quartos, etc.) are part of the Rare Book Department, and are under the care of Steve Tabor, our Curator of Early Printed Books.  Because I’m the Curator of Medieval and British Historical Manuscripts, they fall outside the scope of collections I oversee [however] one of the many wonderful things about the Huntington, however, is that our collective collections offer a remarkable overview of the literature, patronage, politics, diplomacy, law, economy, religion, families, environment, household management, hospitality, emotion, and cultures in early modern England.  So, while the Shakespeare folios are printed, our manuscripts from the period provide the context for “Shakespeare’s England”.

3. Ever just thumb through a Shakespeare first folio for the hell of it?

 No.  Whenever I walk by them, I give them a little wink, but I’ve never touched one.

 4. Oddest object in the collection is…?

 It seems like everyday people discover something bizarre.  My first week, someone was just starting to catalogue a collection and pulled out an envelope of human hair from the 18th century.  It was not it a tidy braid; it was just a mound of hair!

5. Is everything actually catalogued?  Any chance of a lost Shakespeare MS popping up?

All the Shakespeare folios and quartos are certainly catalogued.  I wouldn’t speak for the Rare Book Department, but there are a few odd manuscript collections that aren’t fully catalogued, although we have detailed inventories of our holdings.  It is hard to believe that there is an unknown Shakespeare manuscript, but every time something new comes into the Library, it’s like Christmas morning.  You never know what’s in a manuscript collection until you read it.  There is a misconception by a lot of people that we’ve seen all there is to see, but everyday library staff and readers are making new discoveries.

6. Take us through a typical day….

I’d hardly say a day at the HEH is ever typical.  I spend a lot of time answering an array of questions from researchers (either in person or through email) about what mysteries are in our collections or how to use the collections.  I also inspect manuscripts that are in delicate condition and work with our Preservation Department to repair/restore/conserve them.  I’m always “shopping” for new manuscript collections that would enhance our current holdings.  Sometime I’m editing labels for an upcoming exhibit, or preparing a manuscript to go on display or loan.  I’m also starting to put together a proposal to co-curate an exhibit, so there is plenty of research to do.  Last week, a crew filmed my hands as I transcribed at 14th century indenture.  (This is part of an upcoming exhibit.)  I never imagined this would be part of my job, so typical is not a word I use often.  One of my favorite parts of this job is how social it is.  I love working along side other curators, library staff, readers, conservators, and visitors.  We do lots of pensive and quiet work, but are always boisterously eager to share things with our colleagues.

7. Do you have some say in the collection’s development?

 I direct acquisitions for our Medieval and British historical manuscript collections.  Sometimes this means pouring over dealer and auction catalogues, but right now, I’m also learning more about digital subscriptions that would provide our readers online access to large primary source collections.  Collections can be developed in so many creative ways!

8.  The HEH is on fire.  You can only take ONE object.  Choose.

 As the Curator of Medieval Manuscripts, I’m quite obliged to grab The Ellesmere Chaucer.

9. Any attempted thefts? 

 I’m pleased  (and relieved) that I have no theft stories.

10. Do you own a Kindle?

 I do, but I never use it.  I just can’t get used to it.

As always, if you have something odd or unfamiliar to share or promote, drop me, Jeffrey Kahan, a line at, subject line: The Blotted Line.


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