Mike Kelly has been the head of Frost Library’s Archives and Special Collections since 2009, overseeing a collection of over 80,000 rare books and archival material concerning the college. Before coming to Amherst, he was the curator of books at the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University.
Q: What do you do as head of archives and special collections?
A: I have the best job! There’s managing staff — and we have great people in this department — but my focus and what I really love about this job is that this is a place where we teach. Last year, we had 93 classes come into the archives … But there’s a lot of things: I get to work with this collection which is ridiculously great, and I get to purchase new materials; I get to work with alumni and donors who want to give us materials; last week, I went down to Long Island and packed up this alum’s collection. It’s a weird job, but it’s making stuff available to students and staff here and engaging people on college history, and of course there’s always Emily Dickinson — so no two days are ever the same, and so that’s why I love being a librarian.
Q: What interested you in a career as an archivist/librarian?
A: I thought a long time ago, back in the ’80s, that I was going to be an English professor. I was an English major as an undergrad and a master’s degree in English, and I realized that being an English professor was not the right job for me. What really solidified that was this great meeting with one of my advisers that pretty much put me where I am. He was the guy that said, “I’m not just a Thomas Hardy scholar … I’m a scholar of the meter of Thomas Hardy’s poetry. And if you want to narrowly specialize, that’s what’s in store for you. You will find your tiny little place and run it.” And I was like, “No! I want to have a class on the art of the Islamic book coming in one day, and on the next day, have to turn around and talk about the history of sports at Amherst College.” I don’t want to mention the same thing every day. And when I was in English graduate school, one of my best friends was in library graduate school, and we were writing letters — paper letters — back and forth, and every time I was like, “Oh, I have to do this for this program,” she was like, “Oh my god, you should be in library school.”
Q: What brought you to Amherst?
A: This was one of those situations with good timing and the universe wanted me to be here. I had been at New York University (NYU) from 1998 where I started as the curator of rare books, and I had been there for 11 years … Living in New York on a librarian salary for a decade takes its toll, so when I was looking around for opportunities, six different people sent this to me. My real personal passion in terms of history is 19th century America, and as a school that was founded in the 19th history, it was like “wow” — but when I got here for the interview, what I really loved was that teaching piece. That the reason we’re here is to do teaching. And I was like, “that’s what I like.”
Q: How was working at the archives at NYU different from the archives here?
A: Oh my god! Just in terms of traffic, [NYU’s] Bobst Library is right on Washington Square Park. And a lot more people would come to our exhibits; we never had a day where there were less than five to 10 people in the reading room. Here, we just don’t have that same level of traffic. It was a much bigger school in the biggest city in the country, and it was awesome and hilarious, but also exhausting. I was ready for a change, just personally. My [current] kitchen is bigger than my apartment in New York — I invited my friends from New York to visit my house, and they were all like, “Yeah, this was a good move.” So I’ve never looked back.
Q: How have you changed archives and special collections at Amherst while you’ve been here?
A: It’s just a lot. The one thing I’m proudest of is the Native American literature collection. The college hired two Native studies faculty, and I looked around the archives and saw that we don’t really have that much to support that kind of teaching. And then, a bookseller offered for sale a massive collection of Native-authored books, and we started making noise about it … I had great guidance from [Professors Lisa] Brooks and [Kiara] Vigil, so we really partnered on this, and we’ve been able to bring in grants and visiting scholars, and we have built what is now regarded as one of the best collections of Native-authored books anywhere in the country.
Q: What do you like to do with your free time?
A: I make stuff out of wood. I started taking classes at this woodworking school in Eastampton, Massachusetts, where I live, called The Workbench School, and I’ve taken every class that they offer, and I am slowly replacing all of the crappy IKEA furniture in my house. I will talk about this thing as enthusiastically as I talk about our Native American literature collection. But yeah. Wood.