Interview with Dr. Erin Blake

IPI’s work with the Folger Shakespeare Library began in 2008 with a request for dataloggers and an interest in expanding their environmental monitoring and analysis program. An initial on-site meeting led to a successful NEH Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections planning grant for “Mechanical System Optimization and Environmental Data Analysis” in 2010. This application, developed by Dr. Erin Blake, was used on the NEH grant guidelines website as an example of an exceptional project. Based on the success of that work, this year the Folger received an NEH SCHC Implementation grant to follow up on recommendations made to preserve the quality of the storage environment and to reduce, or at least maintain, the current level of energy consumption. Erin Blake is the Curator of Art & Special Collections at Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.

Erin BlakeName:
Erin Blake

Current Title:
Curator of Art & Special Collections at Folger Shakespeare Library. Twelve years ago, I came to the Folger as “Curator of Art.” The “and Special Collections” was added a little later, not because the job had changed, but because -- in addition to some fairly important fine art -- I’m responsible for things like porcelain figurines of Shakespeare, snuffboxes depicting actors and actresses, and shelf after shelf of scrapbooks. “Curator of Things that aren’t Manuscripts or Rare Books” was too long for the business card.

Where were you born?
I’m fourth-generation Canadian, raised in Vancouver, BC, but was born in New Haven, CT. My parents tell me there was a long waiting list for Married Student Housing at Yale, but people with children went to the top of the list, so at least I know I was wanted. 

What was your professional training?
Most of it seems to have come from insatiable curiosity and observing the good examples around me, but I do have a PhD in Art History from Stanford.

What was your very first job?
Selling knives at The House of Knives.

What would your dream job be?
The one that I’ve got, only not so much of it, and without deadlines. Also, it would be in a dream-world where there’s no potential harm in having coffee and snacks while working with rare collection materials

How did your partnership with IPI begin?
We knew we wanted to replace the Folger’s recording hygrothermographs with dataloggers, so we visited local institutions to learn what colleagues liked and didn’t like about theirs, and the one thing everyone agreed about was the importance of Climate Notebook. Jim Reilly happened to be consulting at the Library of Congress at the time, so he came across the street to the Folger to talk in person about the then-new PEM2 datalogger, and things took off from there. 

Why does the preservation of museum and library collections matter to you?
Personally? I love learning how things work, and it’s necessary to study cultural heritage objects in order to learn how the world got to be the way that it is. Other people can and will do that better than I can, so I guess the interest in preservation comes down to not wanting to be blamed for things deteriorating on my watch.

What is your favorite work of art or your favorite artist?
I’m an art curator, so I need to maintain my objectivity. I don’t pick favorites. On the other hand, you never forget your first love: there I was, a despondent teenager in London, wandering around the National Gallery convinced that nobody loved me and nobody ever could, when suddenly, as I turned the corner, he looked up at me and softly said, with his eyes, “Hey, it’s going to be okay.” Other people call him “Andrea del Sarto’s Portrait of a Young Man,” but he’ll always be my young man to me (click here to view the painting).

What other hobbies or significant interests do you have?
I like building things, but live in a small apartment so the things I build can’t take up too much room and have to be useful, so I design and make clothes, online databases, presentations on the history of book illustration, websites, and so on.

What book (or books) would you take with you to a desert island?
Besides a book about how to survive if marooned on a desert island, I’d like a book of marooned-on-a-desert-island cartoons from the New Yorker, so I could enjoy the irony.

What is your most treasured possession?
The tire iron from the 1968 Ford Econoline van we had when I was a kid.

What is your greatest indulgence?
Carrying a tire iron from apartment to apartment purely for sentimental reasons.

What was the most surprising thing to you about IPI?
Honestly? It’s that such a small group of people has done -- and continues to do -- so much at such a high level. The fact that the Graphics Atlas, the Photographic Activity Test, A-D Strips, PEM2 loggers, and more all come from the same place is astonishing.