Cabinets of Curiosities in Academic and Research Libraries: Collections and Sensibilities

presentation by Will Baker
Saturday September 7th 5:00pm
Full Seminar Schedule


Over the past thirty years, as college and research libraries have struggled with changes and anxieties introduced by the digital information revolution, many have turned to their rare book collections to help re-examine and renew the roles and physical places and social spaces.

 During this same period, scholarly interest in the origins of libraries and museums has blossomed, with particular attention to “cabinets of curiosities”  collections of natural and artificial wonders that first formed in the early modern era and later survived among the proprietary museums of the 19th and 20th centuries – highly individual collections, rooted in place, that both cried for and defied efforts of rational classification. They were – and may be again – material reminders of the cultural contingency of the construction of knowledge, and all of the beauty and problems surrounding it.

 In this talk, antiquarian bookseller, librarian, and former dime museum attendant Will Baker discusses how the literature and philosophical sensibilities that shaped and emerged from cabinets of curiosities have influenced the work of college and research libraries in the present era – and how they might serve as a key to preserving the importance of Special Collections departments in the years ahead.

 Will Baker is a bookseller, appraiser, and collections management consultant for W. C. Baker Rare Books & Ephemera, ABBA/ILAB. He received his first master’s degree in Museum Studies from New York University, where he focused on the early development of natural history museums and 19th-century American dime museums. During that period, he worked as a researcher in the Anthropology division of the American Museum of Natural History, and as a curatorial assistant at the sword swallower Johnny Fox’s Lower East Side dime museum, the Freakatorium. He later worked as a rare book cataloger for the William Reese Company and as the librarian and executive director of New Haven’s Institute Library. In recent years Baker has performed consulting work for organizations including the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust and has helped research and catalog Florence Fearrington’s landmark collection of rare books relating to cabinets of curiosities.