My Job: Monica Varner in Rare Books

Monica Varner at an outdoor restaurant with a cathedral and blue skies in the background.

Monica Varner, taking some time off work. Photo courtesy of the subject.

Monica Varner is collections manager for the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.This article appeared in the Library’s Gazette.

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and went to H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program (“Hippie High”) before heading down to Lynchburg, Virginia, to study art history at Randolph College. During college, I spent a year at Reading University in England.

On returning to the Washington, D.C., area, I enrolled in the museum studies master’s program at George Washington University. I interned at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Scottish Rite Temple in D.C., and I worked in various museum or library-adjacent jobs, including as a circulation manager at the public library system in Alexandria, Virginia.

My coursework and experiences in fine arts, archaeology and conservation, historic preservation, fashion history, exhibit design and collections management made working at the Library a natural fit — it’s all here.

What brought you to the Library, and what do you do?

I’ve wanted to work at the Library since I was very young. During an early, formative visit here with family, my aunt reports that I was furious that despite the Library reportedly having every book in the world, I, a small child, was not allowed to go into the stacks and start reading.

In 2018, I started with the Serial and Government Publications Division as a newspaper deck attendant and was introduced to the wild world of rare comic books, colonial newspapers and the mysteries of the overseas acquisition departments. I also used a microfilm reader for the first time.

The following year, I joined Rare Book and Special Collections, and I recently became collections manager for the division. I help organize and make room for incoming and outgoing special collections, monitor the environmental conditions of the stacks, answer reference questions and assist with special tours and displays of our material. Baby E would be thrilled to know I ended up here!

What are some of your standout projects?

I love helping plan themed displays using our material, such as a Disney Cinderella gala a couple years ago and a recent class on the history of structure in architecture.

I’ve also slowly been organizing the division’s materials in a size-based system to maximize our stack space and improve storage conditions for the books. I’ve stumbled upon some great finds in that process. As a large public institution, the Library has become the final resting place for books from all over the world and from all different types of owners.

It’s fascinating to make connections across our material — for example, to learn that two books once in the same medieval monastery but dispersed after its dissolution ended up here together again after hundreds of years.

And any time someone finds a mysterious signature or stamp in a book, I pop up behind the researcher’s chair in the reading room to do some detective work. I love researching the people who read and used the books in our collections, especially children’s doodles.

During COVID, the division started recording videos about our collections, and I’ve enjoyed showcasing particularly interesting items in that way. The Multimedia Group has done an amazing job helping translate our research into this recorded format in an engaging way.

What do you enjoy doing outside work?

I just finished an October horror movie marathon we do annually in my home, and I’m almost done knitting a complex sweater vest (that I may or may not actually wear). Some friends and I meet once in a while for “Bad Book Club,” where we read goofy contemporary suspense novels.

My partner is an architectural historian, so during the summer I join him in Italy and help document 13th-century construction techniques. We both grew up in or near D.C. and enjoy walking around downtown seeing old sights in new ways. My dad was an architect, and I love visiting the buildings he worked on.

I also enjoy taking weekend trips in the area, visiting my family in the Pacific Northwest and hitting up yard sales and thrift stores to stock my ever-expanding cabinet of curiosities.

What is something your co-workers may not know about you?

I have never been pulled over and never used a card catalog until I worked at the Library. I also play the cello (but am way out of practice).

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8 Comments

  1. Olisaeloka Osita
    January 3, 2023 at 9:08 am

    Great Article

  2. John Vian
    January 3, 2023 at 9:09 am

    Do you have Robert E. Lee’s memoirs? It tells the true tail of the Civil War.

  3. michael hepler-smith
    January 3, 2023 at 9:17 am

    Have you scanned or are you scanning The Library of Congress’ rare books?

  4. Mark H.
    January 3, 2023 at 9:44 am

    A dream job I wish I had pursued in my youth 🙂

  5. Florita Robinson
    January 3, 2023 at 10:17 am

    You have a unique fascinating broad intelligence and talent about books. How they come into existence, what they consist of, and who and why has worked to put them together – the existence and consistence of books.
    From what I read from your interview is that you are able to “pluck, peel, and pull” not only from the book you come across, but also from the reader, or researcher researching the book. This gives me the inkling to notice there unlimited ways a book is put together by those bringing it into existence.
    What you do as a manager for the “Rare Books and Special Collections Division,” should be promoted and done in every local library. Maybe it’s being done already, but I’m not aware of it. You have a great talent m, which you have been able to bring to life at your library and share with others. Thank you. Have a blessed and happy New Year.

  6. Abdoulaye Sissako
    January 3, 2023 at 10:52 am

    Je suis un étudiant j’aimerais aller étudier et travailler

  7. Alden C. Sheremata
    January 3, 2023 at 11:04 am

    Me, I can read!

    Fiction wasn’t my fortĂ© as this young lady though I appreciate the view that good fiction borders reality. Useful in modern techniques of Investigative Scholarship after WWII.

    The library was always there, even when nobody else was.

    Me, I can read!

  8. Karen
    January 8, 2023 at 6:01 am

    Wonderful work and profession! I actually feel I’m reading about myself. I always wanted a job like this. I majored in English Lit. and Art History. But ended up being a Reading Specialist in the public schools in Westchester, NY. Been teaching for over two decades.:) And I paint and have had Art shows outside my career. I’m a lot older than you, but I am so happy that you have found fulfilling work! It is so important to like/love what we do, considering all the hours we devote to it. Keep growing!!!
    P.S. can we request a private tour with you?

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