Hawks to Watch: Stephanie Stillo, Curator

Stephanie Stillo. Curator at the Library of Congress KU degree: PhD in Modern European History (2014)

Why Stephanie’s a Hawk to Watch:

Imagine a job that transports you to a distant, sometimes magical world every single day. You’ll discover fantastic beasts, long-lost languages, and entirely new ways of thinking about the world and our place in it. Nope, we’re not talking about Dr Who, this job exists and is currently being performed by College alum Stephanie Stillo, curator of some of the country’s rarest material at the Library of Congress. Stephanie graduated from KU with a PhD in Modern History in 2014. During her time here she cultivated several digital humanities projects that helped her stand apart when she entered the highly competitive academic job market in her field. She landed a postdoc teaching history and digital humanities at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, before moving on to her current prestigious role at our country’s national library. And that’s why Stephanie’s our October Hawk to Watch.

Tell us what you do for a living:

I curate the Lessing J. Rosenwald Graphic Arts Collection at the Library of Congress. The collection holds some of the country’s most rare printed books from the last six centuries, with major concentrations in fifteenth-century printed books (incunabula), William Blake material, and important livres d’artiste of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The collection has thematic concentrations in the history of printing, historic illustration processes, science and medicine, and decorative arts.

My day-to-day is largely devoted to working with visiting scholars and artists. However, I also plan exhibitions, conferences, and formal and informal talks about topics ranging from fifteenth-century woodcuts to how to best handle a rare book. I also act as a Purchasing Officer for the Library of Congress, meaning I work with antiquarian books dealers to find rare materials that complement the items in the Rosenwald Collection.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?

I was recently part of a team that organized the largest exhibit of material ever put on display at the Library of Congress. The event was in honor of a prestigious group of visiting bibliophiles, the Association internationale de bibliophilie. The exhibit presented hundreds items, including books by Galileo, William Blake, Picasso and many contemporary book artists. We also displayed wondrously rare maps, prints, and manuscripts including a 1540 land map from colonial Mexico, Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, and a page from Frederick Douglass’ memoirs describing his escape from slavery. It was a singular privilege to be able to share that much history.

What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?

I had a fabulous two-year postdoc appointment teaching history and digital humanities at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. My colleagues were marvelous and the students were utterly brilliant. However, I was constantly vexed by the question of “what’s next.”  I had several great interviews, but nothing seemed to fully materialize. I think the only way to get through these inevitable moments is a good bottle of scotch and the determination to get up the next day and try again. It’s frustrating, but I like to think that it gave me a permanent sense of humility and a genuine appreciation for what came next.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

"I adore my collection and cannot think of a better place to work than the Library of Congress. That said, in 10 years I would like to be able to say that I helped foster more public interest in the amazing resources at the Library of Congress. Our national cultural heritage institutions belong to the American people. I would like to be part of public projects that support Americans taking more ownership of these resources."

What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?

True, meaningful success is not a straight line. Just because you are frustrated, unsure, or even unhappy with your current position does not mean you are failing. It takes grit and determination to get what you want. Don’t be afraid of the low points. Most importantly, when you’ve ascended, make sure you take time for those who are still climbing.

What’s your best career pro-tip?

Take risks that will make you stand out on the job market. There are small armies of PhDs looking for jobs in Washington, DC. Luckily I had cultivated several projects in digital humanities that helped me stand apart. These projects often meant I was overloading during my graduate career. However, they made all the difference when I hit the job market.

How did your College of Liberal Arts & Sciences degree prepare you for your career?

KU’s History Department placed a tremendous emphasis on writing. Being able to write clearly and to multiple audiences is one of the most useful and valued skills I cultivated at the University of Kansas. In this way, my degree prepared me very well for a job that is fundamentally rooted in interpreting complex ideas to audiences that often have no context or frame of reference. Never underestimate how important it is to communicate effectively.

My degree also taught me to be sensitive to researchers working with heady theoretical frameworks, such as global and environmental history, transatlanticism, queer theory, and digital humanities. It is important that researchers have someone that can not only lead them to resources, but can (at least try) to understand their methodology. Making that connection with a researcher – and becoming a touchstone for their research – is very rewarding.

What do you do after you’ve clocked out?

I’ll let you know once it happens.

Stephanie working on an old book in a dark room with purple UV light.

What is a fun fact about you that surprises people?

I’m totally obsessed with 1970s and 80s science fiction movies. I think the future through the lens of the past is totally fascinating.

Stephanie hijacks the College Instagram account to show us around the Library of Congress:

Introductions and a tour:

Good morning KU! My name is Stephanie Stillo and I’ll be taking over the KU Insta today from the Library of Congress. I am the current Rosenwald curator of graphic arts in the Rare Books & Special Collections Division. I graduated from KU with my PhD in history in 2014. Really looking forward to sharing our day! I always enjoy our quiet moments before doors open at the most beautiful building in DC, and a sneak peek at a rare book vault.

Some of the rarest books on earth:

New rare book acquisition (part 1). Italian Jesuit printing from Canton, China (1671). Super rare and utterly lovely. New rare book acquisition (part 2). Sixteenth century costume book. Here featured: German Landsknecht, or early modern mercenary soldier.

More than just books:

Mark Dimunation (Chief of the Rare Book Division) and I put the final touches on our exhibit for the Prefect of the Vatican Library The Library is doing a big Halloween pop-up exhibit this week. In addition to rare books, our division takes care of “special collections,” which includes a ton of historical objects. This includes this life mask of Abraham Lincoln, created two months before his assassination. The Rare Books Division created a really fun table about Houdini. Our division has two(!) huge magic/spiritualism collections.

Hawks to Watch are disrupters. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it. Having recently graduated, they are just starting to leave their mark and we can’t wait to see how their story unfolds. These Jayhawks span all industries including business, non-profits, tech, healthcare, media, law and the arts.