Accidental time traveler

Lynne M. Thomas, head of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, answers the Proust Questionnaire.

Interviewed by Kim Schmidt

Photographs by Abigail Bobrow

Lynne M. Thomas
Head of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts
MS in library and information science, 1999, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
MA in English and American literature, Northern Illinois University

At the back of the Rare Book Room there is a metal door, unassuming and painted an institutional beige. Its inconspicuous appearance belies the literal wealth of cultural treasures that lie just inside—and its security system.

This is the entrance to the vault in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) at Illinois, home to nearly 600,000 volumes and over 5,000 cubic feet of manuscripts. And while those numbers are impressive, they can’t quite communicate the feeling one gets when exploring this remarkable collection. Inside you’ll find fragments of an original Gutenberg Bible (the Book of Genesis and the first page of Exodus); the original storyboards for Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane; original works by Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus; first editions of every Ian Fleming novel featuring his hero, James Bond.

It is awe-inspiring and a little bit overwhelming.

Lynne M. Thomas (iSchool ’99) is the head of the RBML, which is the largest publicly-accessible university rare book and manuscript collection in the nation. What that means is anyone can request any item from the collection for viewing—as long as they follow the rules set forth by the RBML to ensure the item’s safety.

“I firmly believe that rare books are for everyone. This is a public institution, and we have a public mission,” Lynne explains. “Our job, ultimately, is to make the materials that are part of our collective cultural heritage open and available to the public in a way that is helpful to public and safe for the materials. That balance is something we struggle with sometimes, because the things that are most popular are often the most fragile.”

While some items are requested more often, Lynne emphasizes that there is something for everyone in Illinois’ collection. “What we do is provide paths into the past, but the point is not to produce only one path—it is to produce multiple paths. People find different things that resonate with them—sometimes people resonate with the seventeenth-century cookbook, sometimes with letters from H.G. Wells, sometimes people resonate with Gwendolyn Brooks’ recipe for orange cake.”

“My favorite thing, always, is when somebody interacts with the thing that moves them,” she continues. “I had a moment when I was graduate student when the First Folio was out for a sophomore Shakespeare course, and I was babysitting the books as the class went on. I watched as a sophomore burst into tears when the Folio was opened and then freak out because she was crying near the books. I’m like, ‘It’s okay! Just don’t cry on the book and it will be okay!’ It is that kind of interaction that I think is really important.”

We wanted to get to know Lynne a little better, so we’ve asked her to answer an abbreviated version of the Proust Questionnaire for STORIED. Once a popular Victorian parlor game made famous by Marcel Proust, the Proust Questionnaire has been used by reporters over the century and across the globe to reveal a side of leaders, artists, actors, and public figures we may not usually see. You might recognize the format from the back page of Vanity Fair, which has had celebrities answer the questions since 1993.

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What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Loving relationships & friendships, financial security, good health, and safety for myself and my family, good food, meaningful work, and opportunities for adventures and relaxation in appropriate balance. (I want everyone to have this, actually, not just me).

What is your idea of misery?
Never learning something new again. A world without the arts. Losing the ability to be delighted. Boredom. Grayness. Nothingness. Hospitals.

Which talent would you most like to have?
Playing an instrument. I was a choral vocalist in my 20s, but I never learned to play an instrument, after the Great 4th Grade Clarinet Disaster.

What is the quality you admire most in a person?

Who are your heroes in real life?
People who approach the world with kindness, integrity, sincerity, and hope, and who try to make the world slightly better for everyone wherever possible. My husband, Michael, who caregives for our daughter, Caitlin, while running our jointly owned online science fiction magazine, Uncanny Magazine. My daughter, Caitlin, who is living her best life with Aicardi Syndrome. My closest friends.

Who are your heroes throughout history?
It changes often based on what I’m reading or thinking about, but if we’re going with the “invited to a small dinner party because they’d be interesting to chat with” option: Jane Austen, Catherine de Medici, Leonardo da Vinci, Colette, Jonas Salk, and Gwendolyn Brooks all come immediately to mind. I could just as easily produce similar lists within music, television, and films specifically.

Lynne gets in character wearing a Regency-style gown that replicates dress from that time period (1795-1837) at an exhibit earlier this year called, “Making Mr. Darcy: Cultural Context for the Regency Gentleman.” UI NEWS BUREAU/FRED ZWICKY

What is your most treasured possession?
A stuffed Tigger that Michael gave me when we first got together.

What is your motto?
It has changed over the years, but right now I’ll go with one of my favorites from Doctor Who: “Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.”

What motivates you?
Equal measures of stubborn hope and anger. I want the world to be better than it is; I am often frustrated that we are still so cruel to one another, and so selfish in our refusal to believe in the common good and the strength of communities. I desperately want us to be the best, kindest, most charitable versions of ourselves.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
In a general sense, probably nerdy references from Doctor Who. I’m also prone to slipping in occasional Jane Austen-isms lately, after recently putting together an exhibition about her work. I tend to overuse words or phrases for a period of time, and then move on to a new set of them.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I have two deeply fulfilling careers. As a science fiction and fantasy editor and podcaster I can point to seven Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy editing and podcasting, and a successful online science fiction magazine. I also have a deeply fulfilling career as a rare books librarian at Yale, Northern Illinois University, and here at Illinois.

Those are all important and great, but my greatest achievement is every day that I get to spend with Michael and Caitlin. No career achievement will ever be greater than the love I have been blessed with.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be?
A pampered housecat (and I have a very specific household in mind).

Who is your favorite musician? writer? artist?
All of these change daily with my moods, but today the answer is: Prince, Jane Austen, Henri Matisse.

Where is your favorite spot in the world?
Paris. I spent a very formative year there as an exchange student while completing my undergraduate degree at Smith College. I hope to continue seeing more of the world so that I can add to my list of favorites, though.

This story was published .