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An Interview with Nathan Dorn, Rare Book Technician

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This week’s interview is with Nathan Dorn, who is a rare book technician in our Collection Services Division.  Nathan is no stranger to In Custodia Legis; he recently wrote a guest piece on the Law Library’s Jewish law collection.

Describe your background.Nathan Dorn holding a book open while standing in an aisle of the Rare book vault.

I’ve been working at the Law Library for just over five years, first as a contractor and then as a federal employee, but I still think of myself as a newcomer to Washington. I grew up in Toms River, NJ and later lived in both Santa Fe, NM and Chicago, IL where I went to college. Later, I lived in Jerusalem for several years as a grad student and a seminarian. Along the way, I spent a lot of time in Germany and France as well. I speak Hebrew very well, French fluently but with flaws, and German with a swiftly diminishing active vocabulary. I can read and write the languages that a rabbinic seminarian has to know; namely, Biblical and medieval Hebrew and Aramaic.  And, thanks to that Chicago education, I read classical Greek and Latin. The Law Library’s Rosetta Stone initiative has given me a chance to brush up on the modern languages while also making slow progress on Arabic.

What is your academic/professional history?

I majored in Religion and the Humanities at the University of Chicago. After college I studied both at a yeshiva (a traditional rabbinic seminary) in Jerusalem and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where I earned an MA in Jewish Studies. Following that, I did some doctoral work at the University of Chicago, and later went on to spend a year studying political philosophy and philosophy of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Since coming to the Library of Congress, I have earned an MLS from the Catholic University of America, with a focus on Law Librarianship, History of the Book and Descriptive Bibliography.

How would you describe your job to other people?

Since January 2010, I’ve been assigned to a detail as the assistant to the Curator of Rare Books at the Law Library. The job includes a variety of duties. I’m responsible for physical control of the Law Library’s rare book collection, which involves end-stage processing, inventory projects, and managing shelf space in the Library’s rare book vault. Lately I spend most of my time on public services and outreach duties. I meet with patrons, answer reference questions and deliver rare book services to the public. I also research, prepare and present frequent rare book displays for groups of visitors to the Law Library. This last aspect of the job, the role of educating the public about the collection and interpreting the displays we put together, is especially rewarding to me.

Why did you want to work at the Law Library?

I’ve always been a big fan of the Library of Congress. So back in 2005 when I saw a job opening here for a contract position that required proficiency in Hebrew, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. That’s how I got here, but it was well after that – when I first saw the Law Library’s rare book collection – that I seriously considered making a career in librarianship.

What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the Law Library?

Working with the rare book collection, I am constantly discovering fascinating things about the Law Library. In keeping with the spirit of a couple of recent posts on this blog by co-workers Kelly Buchanan and Clare Feikert-Ahalt, I thought I’d mention that the rare book collection does not disappoint on the topic of sorcery and the law. Not long ago, I stumbled across the Law Library’s first edition copy of Cordoban jurist Francisco Torreblanca Villalpando’s 1618 work, Epitomes delictorum: in quibus aperta vel oculta inuocatio Daemonis interuenit libri IIII, which gives a fabulously detailed account of the various branches of magic, their origin, form, and power, and the criminal laws that prescribe their punishment. Included are descriptions of the invocation of demons (as promised in the title), and of the different forms of divination and operative magic. Torreblanca also explains the interior spiritual damage that practitioners of magic face because of their actions.

I can’t leave this topic without mentioning that the Law Library also has an extremely early edition of the godfather of all Renaissance works on witchcraft, the infamous Malleus Maleficarum of Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer. Our copy is an incunabulum, printed in Nuremberg in 1496 just nine years after the first edition of 1487 was produced.

Sometimes the wonders of our collection are somewhat subtler than these: an item that caught my attention lately was something from our Islamic law collection: an 1853 edition of Kitāb al-aḥkām al-sulṭānīyah by the great medieval Islamic jurist Ali ibn Muḥammad Mawardi (ca. 974-1058). The work is an exploration of the idea of the supremacy of the Caliph and the political constitution of the Caliphate. It was printed in Arabic, not in the Middle East, but instead in the city of Bonn in the Kingdom of Prussia (now Germany) with a title page and interpretive essay written in Latin – the way expensive editions of the Greek classics were and sometimes still are printed. The book "Kitāb al-aḥkām al-sulṭānīyah" by Ali ibn Muḥammad Mawardi open to show its title information, in both Arabic and Latin.The interesting thing about this copy, however, is the property stamp that I found on its title page and which my coworker Wei Wang translated and explained to me. It indicated that the book was previously owned by the East Asian Economy Research Department of the Southern Manchuria Railway Company. The Southern Manchuria Railway Company was a Japanese enterprise which operated in Northeast Asia from the close of the Russo-Japanese war until the end of World War II. From 1932, following the establishment of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, the research wing of the company, or Mantetsu, took on a quasi-governmental role, exercising control over most state and commercial functions, which it maintained until Manchukuo was conquered by the Soviet Union in 1945. Now that’s quite a voyage for a text from medieval Bagdad: from Germany, to China, to the Soviet Union and then on to the United States.  It’s a strange and fascinating reminder that all books have a destiny of their own.

What’s something most of your co-workers do not know about you?

I think I rarely mention to anyone these days that when I was in high school I thought I would follow a career in the fine arts. I even applied to the Rhode Island School of Design and was accepted to pursue a degree in painting. At the last minute I decided to go for a classical education instead.

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