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Open Forum on Diversity in the Field with Jesse Erickson

Fri., Oct. 25 | Jesse Erickson commenced the session by telling us why he came up with the idea to hold an open forum on issues of diversity that pertain to the study of printing history. When Jesse was at the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing) conference, the subject came up multiple times and it was not a subject that was on the program. As a result, he wanted to address it directly and make it part of APHA’s annual conference schedule in order to address any thoughts on the issue of diversity.

Jesse began talking about his experience with APHA. He pulled us back to 2006, during a difficult period where he mentioned he was almost stable enough to have housing and that he had recently quit washing dishes to get a job as a messenger clerk in Los Angeles. In his job as a messenger clerk, he had the mentorship of Linda Rudell-Betts in the library and he mentioned to her that he wanted to become a rare books librarian and she recommended APHA so he could meet people and network. However, his first APHA meeting was a week after his mom’s passing. He recalled making the great decision of attending because it changed the direction of his life. Kitty Maryatt was very welcoming at the meeting and he added that at the time he wasn’t knowledgeable about fine press printing and knew very little about rare books. This meeting would open the doors for him and lead him to where he is today; he thanked APHA SoCal. In 2007, he officially became an APHA member and recalled going to the annual conference on Aldus Manutius, where it became obvious that he was standing out and that APHA was not diverse. 

When Jesse became the programs chair for the Southern California Chapter, he wanted to introduce various topics such as the printing histories of diverse groups into the events he organized and for this APHA’s 2019 conference. It was important to him to get themes of diversity and make the effort because he had faith in APHA. It was important for him to note that this issue of diversity wasn’t just with APHA, but with the world of printing history and book history such as in journals. This is a quote in response to the lack of representation: “It’s curious to me because it’s not as if underrepresented groups don’t have a printing history and book history.” He went to add that the risks were high for these groups such as incarceration for radical printed material and for these reasons they should be discussed. Jesse then went on to share the obstacles that prevented these changes for diversity such as outreach to communities and costs. He talked about the difficulty he faced attending his first conference and how both UCLA and APHA awarded him with a student scholarship to attend it. I could relate to Jesse on so many levels, but he was correct about the cost being an obstacle for a diverse outreach and representation. I was fortunate to get a scholarship from APHA in order to attend and report back to you. His enthusiasm for this year’s theme: Diversity in the History of American Printing came from the conference, Black Bibliographia where the history of Black book arts was the topic. He hoped that topics and conversations such as diversity can happen more.  

He began with the question in the open forum “What does diversity mean to you all?” Anne-Marie, who worked at the library at Harvard was glad that this question was asked because there are similar conversations that are taking place in the library and museum world, and she was frustrated with “the lack of specificity” on diversity. She asked what does this question specifically pertains to as it can pertain to numerous things such as in her field, the audience she is working for, or the country she is in. Jesse asked this question because there was not one solid definition for some. However, for others, it can mean gender identity, socio-economic status, neuro-diversity, or racial-ethnic. Sarah, from SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship), talked about how her organization was currently struggling with this question of diversity. To her, diversity was who you invite and what you study and she thought of it generally in terms of race/ethnicity and gender identities. Lisa, from CABS (Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar), promoted a scholarship named after Belle da Costa Greene, an African American librarian, and director of the Morgan Library. Lisa went on to note who they encouraged to apply for the scholarship: Latinx, African American, Asian/Pacific Islander, LGBTQ, working-class, and people with disabilities, and other self-identified groups). To Lisa, diversity was creating scholarships such as these to encourage underrepresented communities, but she made a point that it doesn’t happen unless you get involved. Mathew, from the University of Maryland, brought up the challenges of diversity in physical materials such as collections.

Jesse also posed a question: “what challenges have you experienced and the work you have done in your area for diversity?” Nina, the chair of the nominating committee for APHA, answered that although there was an equal number of women and men on the board, she thought it was “still monochromatic.” She discussed how she wants to help diversify APHA by ethnicity and geography, but her primary challenge was knowing who was out there. She also brought up a great point that the people she meets at these conferences have financial support to attend and that might be a problem. Anne-Marie went on to suggest that maybe APHA could start collecting demographic information as she had to do that with applications for a fellowship. Anne-Marie received opposition because some of her colleagues thought demographics weren’t necessary since the topics their students posed to study were already diverse. In addition, challenges of work, reward, and availability were also mentioned. However, Tia, an associate professor at Scripps College, made a great point that in terms of who is going to do the work for outreach and the rewards, “the payback is there and that is helping to do what all of these organizations like APHA should have been doing for decades, which is diversifying and amplifying varying voices.” Suggestions for a diversified outreach went from reaching out to state universities to input from local chapters. Lisa, made a point about coming to students who are in state universities mainly in the west as they tend to have students who are working full time and don’t have the time to discover organizations such as these. Erickson added that if it wasn’t for his mentor that he didn’t know how long it would’ve taken him to become aware of APHA. 

Lisa then asked Jesse what was the first thing that he saw that made him want to go into studying rare books. Jesse answered that it was his mom, the Huntington Library, and a picture of a rare book that he found to be beautiful on a slideshow from a lecture. I thought Lisa was really onto something when she asked that question because exposure to the world of print and book history is very limited to some groups and the means to do it also play a role. In the talk, I was also able to discuss my experience with what made me appreciate print, even though it was so long-winded response because I was nervous and intimidated by how all this was very new to me. I was very fortunate to take a letterpress class that was at City College of San Francisco tuition-free through my graphic design program. I was also lucky to take graphic design history and have a professor like Grendl, who infected me with her fervor for print and who taught me how to print impacted graphic design. I learned about APHA through her and became a mentee. In the talk it became obvious that I was moved by Jesse’s background story because I could relate to him so much in terms of race/ethnicity, socio-economics, geography, and so on, but that I didn’t feel represented as much in print, only in terms of gender identity with the research of widow printers. Jesse then went on to discuss how he shared this sentiment and he began to see the parallels between fine press printing to manuscript tradition such as graffiti and other cultural productions and that during grad school he wanted to find ways to introduce people to the world he was from and bring those two things together.

Lastly, he asked us “what would success look like in these efforts that were talked about today?” To Anne-Marie, success looked like not having conversations like these anymore and that there’s just “a variety of offerings” and material for everyone so there isn’t alienation. Another attendee mentioned that success to him is if you can get someone excited about what they do and they can teach you, then I think it’s a success. Melanie, who worked at the Folger Shakespeare’s Library said that to her success was welcoming and being helpful to both researchers and readers because researchers can be anyone such as artists and undergrads, not these collections are not just limited to readers. Another attendee mentioned that this answer to this question will be constantly changing with time. To finalize, there was a wide-range of visions on what success looked like in diversity and Jesse got us to wonder so we could take the first steps of obtaining these visions. We all immensely thanked Jesse. Thank you, Jesse, for making my first APHA conference inclusive!