Stewart Whitmore Plein
Stewart Plein (E&H ’82), Assistant Curator for West Virginia Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian at West Virginia University, has received her certification in rare book librarianship from the University of Virginia’s renowned Rare Book School (RBS), the top professional development program for rare book and special collection librarians, rare book sellers and collectors.
“Rare book librarianship isn’t for the faint of heart,” said Tom Congalton, an RBS instructor. “There is an enormous barrier to acquiring the necessary knowledge and practical experience required to be an effective special collections librarian, and it isn’t always easy to know where to start. Stewart has the energy, the motivation and the tenacity to go out and acquire that knowledge in order to master a subject that isn’t always inclined to reveal itself easily.”
Jay Cole, senior advisor to the president at WVU, applauds Plein for her dedication to the Rare Book Room and work to enhance the academic environment at WVU. “The library is the heart of any university and information circulated by the library is a university’s lifeblood. Within our wonderful Libraries, WVU is very fortunate to have an outstanding Rare Books Collection, with items from William Shakespeare to Isaac Asimov,” Cole said. “We are equally fortunate to have a rare book librarian such as Stewart Plein, whose passion is matched only by her expertise.”
Stewart’s love of books took her from reader to researcher to bookseller to librarian. She says she had a career direction change after attending a seminar for antiquarian book dealers in 2003. She decided to volunteer at the West Virginia University Library in Morgantown, and ended up an assistant to the Special Collections Librarian.
At E&H Stewart had a double major in history and religion. She then earned her degree in library science at the University of South Carolina before succeeding her mentor, Harold Forbes, as Rare Books Librarian and Assistant Curator of West Virginia Books and Printed Resources, and as Assistant University Librarian. She has duties in the Downtown Campus Library and the West Virginia & Regional History Center, both in Morgantown.
She is also extensively published. Her work covers a wide range of topics, including the impact of art and design on the marketplace and nineteenth century book manufacturing and technology; books as historical artifacts; the cultural impact of books; dissemination of ideas and rare book pedagogy as primary resources for undergraduate research; 19th- century publishers’ book binding design and manufacture; the history of Appalachian law books and newspapers; and the impact of book binding design and the development of stereotype in Appalachia.
Stewart said the most inspiring part of the RBS course came from a guest lecturer who raised the question about how to go forward with collecting rare material. “It gave me a new insight into the future of book collecting institutionally. It’s about looking ahead rather than back at things we already have.” As a result, she is focusing on materials that are now becoming rare. For example, there is a growing interest in items from the 1940s through the 1990s that already are becoming scarce despite being mass produced. For instance, WVU Libraries recently acquired a collection of magazines (or zines) that were published in San Francisco by West Virginia poet, Sutton Breiding, in the 1970s. “Zines have become quite collectable,” Plein said. “They were just things that were traded between friends, they didn’t really have a production run, they were printed off on mimeograph machines, but they documented important pop culture moments so they really need to be collected or we’ll lose them.”
She is also turning her attention to what has long been an under-represented area in the rare books collection, the works of African-American West Virginians from late 19th to early 20th century.
West Virginia was home to many of the nation’s most important African-American activists and leaders: Booker T. Washington, author and educator; Carter G. Woodson, author, historian and journalist; Anne Spencer, Harlem Renaissance poet; and J.R. Clifford, Civil War veteran, newspaper publisher, co-founder of the Niagra Movement with W.E. B. Dubois, and West Virginia’s first African-American attorney.
Stewart says introducing students to primary sources with rare books is the best part of her work day. “I never tire of seeing that moment when a student’s eyes light up when they handle a rare book for the first time!”
“It gave me a new insight into the future of book collecting institutionally. It’s about looking ahead rather than back at things we already have.”
— Stewart Whitmore Plein, E&H ’82