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UVM Special Collections Librarian Connell Gallagher turns up the volumes

Published March 9, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

A row of computers is the first thing you see when you enter the University of Vermont's Bailey-Howe Library. These days, old-fashioned book repositories have become just another place to hop online. But UVM Librarian Connell Gallagher, Director for Research Collections, encourages students, faculty and staff -- heck, anybody and everybody -- to connect with the bibliotheque on another level. Namely, the basement.

Gallagher oversees the Special Collec-tions department, which is tucked into a corner on the library's bottom floor. It's open fewer hours than the rest of the library, and is separated from the rest of the building by walls of windows and a metal door. This isolated fiefdom -- along with an annex building on East Avenue -- houses the 70,000 items that make up UVM's Vermont archives, as well as a variety of rare and unusual books. Few who frequent the library find their way down.

That isolation is unacceptable to Gallagher. The 60-year-old librarian -- whose pale, owlish visage reflects a career spent underground -- has logged nearly 35 years cataloging and improving the library's special collections, and he wants the entire community to appreciate them. His ambassadorial efforts earned him a Distinguished Service Award from the New England Archivists in 2001. He prompts UVM professors to incorporate the collection into their classes, and invites students from schools all across Vermont to visit and check out the books themselves.

Not "check them out" literally -- all viewing is limited to within the monitored reading room. But at UVM, you don't have to be a graduate student or credentialed researcher to handle the collection. Gallagher loves to see students actually turning the pages of rare, valuable books. "I don't just acquire stuff to put it on the shelf," he says during a leisurely weekday tour. "If it just sits there and gathers dust, you're missing the purpose, in my book."

His mission is evident on a recent Monday morning, when students from a digital art class trickle into the reading room for an introduction to the "book arts" collection. Gallagher asks Jen Nelson, a UVM senior majoring in art education, if she's visited before. She says it's her first trip down. "That's great," he responds in a quiet but excited voice. "You're going to get a surprise."

Gallagher instructs Nelson and her classmates to sign in and pull on a pair of disposable white gloves from a box. On a long table at one end of the room, he's placed an assortment of limited edition, handmade artist books, each of which is worth between several hundred and a few thousand dollars. Before he launches into his lecture, he invites the students to discover the books for themselves.

Most don't look like books at all -- they're more like three-dimensional sculptures. Gallagher's predecessor, John Buechler, began building the library's fine-art book archive, and Gallagher has continued his work. It's his real passion.

It's easy to see why. Murmurs of surprise and delight are audible as the students explore these colorful objets d'art. One woman opens a silk-covered box containing a copy of Julia Chen's Evidence of Compression. Inside, protected by a suede-lined cradle, is what appears to be a rock with a brass hinge on its side. It opens to reveal several circular lines of text descending into a crater containing two small, seed pod-shaped books. Someone lets out a muted "wow."

At the other end of the table, a guy opens a copy of Octopus, another Chen creation. He spreads it accordion-style across the end of the table. The book has become a tunnel. To read it, the students must crane their heads and look inside. They see a series of pages cut to depict a wavy blue hole that shrinks as it recedes. Lines of a poem appear on the edges of each page. "Who are you to talk of rigorous intellectual honesty?" it asks. "You who use ink as an octopus does / for whom words are a decoy and a disguise."

"It's like Christmas or something," says one white-gloved female student.

During his talk a short while later, Gallagher explains that artists often create just a handful of these concept books. Chen made only 25 copies of Evidence of Compression, for example. That's why it sells for $1200. Why, he asks rhetorically, would an artist spend so much time handcrafting dozens of copies of a book instead of painting a picture, or sculpting a statue? "You can sit down with a book," he answers. "You can get close to it."

A better question might be why librarians like Gallagher collect these specimens. He picks up another volume, this one by Buzz Specter. It contains 181 copies of the same page, torn so that when you open the book, only a tiny sliver of each page is visible, just enough so that all the pages, seen together, read like a page of unbroken text.

When it came in, he tells the students, "I heard rumors that they said, 'Connie Gallagher has gone off the deep end. He paid $1000 for a book with all the pages torn out.'" He laughs off the criticism.

In an earlier interview, he explained the need for this obscure collection. "It's not something you can really run into anywhere," he observed. "I want Vermonters to be able to look at it . . . I like being able to show them something really beautiful, so when they leave they want to make something really beautiful."

Gallagher likes regular books, too -- the kind with pages and a spine. His windowless office is full of them; plastic bags on the floor bulge with donations, random volumes crowd his desk. He's devoted his life to studying and preserving them.

Gallagher grew up in Brooklyn, earned an English degree from Pace College and a Master's in English from the University of Wisconsin, then worked as an archivist at the Wisconsin Historical Society before marrying and moving to Vermont. He became UVM's Manuscript Librarian in August 1970.

The Special Collections department had only been established eight years earlier, after UVM's library moved from Billings to Bailey-Howe. Prior to the move, most of the rare items had been inaccessible to the public. During his early years at UVM, Gallagher helped bring some of those materials to light. In the 18 years between the time he arrived and when he was appointed Director for Research Collections, he catalogued more than 100 of the University's collections, including archival documents and personal papers.

He also worked to expand the library's holdings, which already included prizes such as the papers of Vermont politician and scholar George Perkins Marsh, and a rare cache of letters from writer Willa Cather. In 1990, he spent his sabbatical in Washington, D.C., locating and archiving the legislative papers of Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy and Robert Stafford.

When describing how he finds artifacts to add to his collection, Gallagher sounds like a rakish, daring Indiana Jones clone. He tells tales about diving through dumpsters and excavating burned buildings to salvage documents for posterity. For a time, he met monthly with a Burlington man he describes as "an old codger." The man called him offering papers that belonged to his father, who helped establish the Long Trail and the Green Mountain Club.

The man would leave a box on the porch in anticipation of Gallagher's visits, open the door a crack, and peer out at him. Eventually, the mystery man let Gallagher into the house. Careful sorting through the man's papers yielded an invaluable set of letters and slides that shed light on the development of the Long Trail. "Most of it was pure junk," says Gallagher. "But you never know."

He recalls another adventure, to retrieve the papers of former Vermont Governor and UVM President Thomas Salmon. Gallagher and Kevin Graffagnino -- the current director of the Vermont Historical Society, who was then the curator of UVM's Vermont collection -- drove to Salmon's house and carted boxes of papers out of a third- floor attic. The way Gallagher tells it, the day was hot and the stairs were steep. "That was a hell of a job," he recalls.

Graffagnino, nearly 20 years Gallagher's junior, relates a version of events that's slightly different from his mentor's story. He agrees it was hot up in the attic of the big Victorian house, but the way he remembers it, he did most of the lifting. Gallagher spent most of his time downstairs schmoozing with Salmon's wife.

"Connie is an extrovert," says Graffagnino fondly. "He gets along well with everyone. He breaks the librarian stereotype of a mousy person who would rather not see human beings in the flesh." And Graffagnino's not bitter about doing more than his share of the work that day. "Without the schmoozing," he notes, "we wouldn't have gotten the collection."

Gallagher also uses his people skills to fundraise -- to buy those artist books he's so crazy about, he has to write grants and cultivate donors. It's a major part of his job.

Vermont artist and bookmaker Claire Van Vliet is grateful for his efforts. The Newark resident, who often collaborates with writers such as Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppet Theater, praises Gallagher as "an ideal librarian."

Van Vliet's publishing house, Janus Press, will celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year. Gallagher is planning a January exhibit at the library, and will produce a published catalogue celebrating her books. Van Vliet, who has perhaps garnered more fame nationally than in Vermont, will also have shows at the Grolier Club in New York City and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

She notes that UVM is the only Vermont library that collects her books. "It certainly makes you feel like your community is interested in what you do, and that it's accessible to the public at large . . . they might see something different there from what they'd see at Barnes &; Noble."

Gallagher is happy to provide that exposure. He looks forward to the day when Special Collections moves out of the basement and back to Billings, probably around 2008. Unfortunately, he'll probably be retired by then.

For now, he contents himself with coaxing visitors down the stairs. Last week he hosted a local Boy Scout troop. The kids were researching Burling-ton's New North End, and he let them sneak a few peeks at the artist books. One of the boys was really impressed. "He asked me, 'Is this your library?'" Gallagher recalls. "I said 'yes.' He said, 'This is the coolest library ever.'"

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About The Author

Cathy Resmer

Cathy Resmer

Deputy publisher Cathy Resmer is an organizer of the Vermont Tech Jam. She also oversees Seven Days' parenting publication, Kids VT, and created the Good Citizen Challenge, a youth civics initiative. Resmer began her career at Seven Days as a freelance writer in 2001. Hired as a staff writer in 2005, she became the publication's first online editor in 2007.


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