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Rare books curator receives I Love my Librarian award

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
December 17th, 2013

WVU Today

In a national celebration of beloved librarians, West Virginia University’s rare books curator is among the top 10.

Harold Forbes was named Tuesday one of 10 winners of I Love My Librarian Award by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and The New York Times, through the American Library Association. The award has been presented to just 60 librarians nationwide since 2008.

Forbes’ colleagues say he clearly deserves the award, which recognizes select librarians for service to their communities, schools and campuses.

Forbes, who is also associate curator of the West Virginia and Regional History Center, has served at WVU since 1973 when he was hired as assistant curator and will retire at the end of the month. In that time, his work has ranged from assisting thousands of students and faculty with research in the collection, preserving history by collecting and converting to microfilm newspapers from throughout the state, making the University’s rare book room more accessible to the public and students, and contributing to the WVU Press’ West Virginia Classics series.

While his contributions span academic fields, it is his personal attention that those around the University, state and academia point to first.

Stewart Plein became a special collections librarian largely due to Harold Forbes, she wrote in the award’s application. She was a library volunteer who asked to work with rare books and was able to work with Forbes to analyze the newly arrived Bacon Collection.

“From this first project onwards, Harold gave me freedom,” Plein said. “He gave me the freedom to touch, to explore, to research, to develop and to create.”

One of the most poignant moments for Plein with Forbes was when she accidentally dropped a rare book in the collection. She went to him to confess, and his response was to later that day hand her Shakespeare’s First Folio as part of an assignment.

“This eloquent gesture of trust and faith in me was so meaningful that I treasure that moment to this day,” Plein said.

Associate Professor Marilyn Francus says her English students have been able to learn and become excited by cultural treasures as she brings them to the rare book room to learn from Forbes surrounded by books that are hundreds of years old.

There, her Jane Austen and Popular Culture class is able to examine first editions of Austen novels and learn about archival research and 1800s-era publishing.

“As my students start assessing the texts, questions arise: why isn’t Austen’s name on the title page? Why were her novels published in this size and in multivolume sets? Was this format typical, or not? These are precisely the sorts of questions that my students should be asking – and suddenly early 19th-century England is not a hypothetical place, but tangible and real – where real people wrote and published and read books, and where their concerns about audience, critics, circulation and profits were very much like our own,” Francus said.

“None of this would be possible without Harold, who provides the framework and support for my students to engage in the intellectual work that they need to do.”

Interim Dean of Libraries Myra Lowe said Forbes’ name is synonymous with rare books at WVU. He took over the “outstanding” collection in the 1990s, reviewed, preserved and opened up this cultural resource to many more than were using it at the time.

It is also his ability to build relationships with the researchers he assists that makes him an excellent librarian, Lowe said.

“That’s especially what research librarians aspire to—to be that kind of helpful professional,” she said. “And that’s certainly characteristic of Harold.”

John Cuthbert, curator of the West Virginia and Regional History Center, and Forbes’ supervisor, agreed.

“Harold is not only a remarkable librarian but also a remarkably fine person,” he said. “He has a mild, disarming demeanor and genuineness of character that make him almost instantly endearing to all who make his acquaintance.

“He is a people person, not so much in extroverted gregariousness as in his sincere ‘simpatico’ concern for others and in his desire to help them succeed in all endeavors.”

The other librarians selected to receive the award work at institutions that include the University of Southern California Libraries; Chattanooga (Tenn.) School for the Liberal Arts; Cleveland Public Library; Atlantic City (N.J.) High School; Buckeye Library, Medina (Ohio) County District Library; Covington (Ky.) Branch of the Kenton County Public Library; Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School, Bainbridge Island, Wash; Sweet Briar (Va.) College; and Missoula (Mont.) Public Library.

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