Q&A with Rauner reference librarian Jay Satterfield

by Berit Svenson | 3/6/18 2:00am


Upon attending school to become a reference librarian, Jay Satterfield discovered his love of special collections. He has become a fixture of the College’s Rauner Special Collections Library beginning in 2004. As head of special collections, Satterfield serves as an administrator, collection developer and teacher.

What brought you to Dartmouth?

JS: It was an opportunity to try something out that I really wanted to try, which was fully integrating rare books, archives and manuscripts into a curriculum. It’s not just an add-on or a cool thing off to the side, but something that is an integral part of teaching and learning at the institution. Dartmouth seemed like a great place for that because it has terrific collections, terrific students and an open faculty.

What made you interested in working in a library? What was your past experience?

JS: When I got out of college, I lucked into a job with the National Park Service as an archaeological aid. I worked in a lab in Lincoln, Nebraska cleaning artifacts that were dug up all over the country. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t my thing. I did realize that the thing that I most enjoyed was researching artifacts. So I decided to go to a library school to become a reference librarian. When I got to library school, I got a job in special collections because I knew how to handle old things. I quickly realized that that was my passion: special collections. I went on and got a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in American studies focusing on the history of the book in the Americas and that took me into the field.

What is your role at Rauner Library?

JS: I’m the head of special collections. My job really has three different components. One of them is being an administrator and running the department. Another component is collection development, so acquiring all this cool material that we get to use. The third one — which is most important to me — is engagement with the community and the materials. I’m in classrooms teaching all the time. I’m also working with different groups on making sure that stuff is in the hands of the people who should be using it.

What is your favorite item in the library?

JS: The item I need that day. Everything here has a cool story behind it and is a fascinating object. My favorite thing is the one that satisfies the need of that day. If I have somebody who is really interested in the history of medicine, then it would have to be this amazing book from the Renaissance by [16th-century physician] Andreas Vesalius. If I’m working with a class on carnivals, then it’s this piece from 1939 talking about what women think of Dartmouth men on the now-defunct “Big Date” weekend. It’s fascinating stuff.

Do you have a favorite spot in the library?

JS: I love the couch up in the top corner. I go up there at least once a day and spend some time up there because I can be away from the telephone. I have an open door policy for my office so anybody can walk in at any time to start talking to me. That’s great because I love talking to students and working with them, but every now and then I need space to get something done. It’s a study space that all the students use too so I become a student for a bit.

What are your best tips for navigating through libraries and conducting research?

JS: Ask for help. That’s the most basic one. There are people at our desk who are really talented and who love working with students. Another thing is to think of research as an iterative process, where rather than saying, “I read this; now I know it and I’m moving on to the next thing,” think about it as, “I’m looking at this document and then I’m going to look at 12 more. Those other 12 are going to help me understand that first one again.” By circling back through your research, you’ll see things the second pass through that you didn’t see the first time because you didn’t have all the context that was out there.

Why do you think the preservation of the books in the special collections is so important?

JS: For a lot of things that reside here, it is the only copy in the world. If that is destroyed, then that information vanishes. The preservation of those bits of information is really dependent on the preservation of the materials. Another reason is that we learn in different ways. Learning is cemented in our brains when we have a variety of stimuli that are teaching us a similar thing. If you learn something on an intellectual level, tactile level and an emotional level simultaneously, then you’re far more likely to remember it five years from now than if you learn it just so you can get through the test a week from now. It kind of vanishes from your head. When you set a 500-year-old manuscript in front of somebody, they have an emotional response to the object; they have a tactile response to it; they have an intellectual response to it. Those things combine to help your brain process that information and make it real. I think the aura of the original helps a person learn and inspires them to learn more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.