Special Collections hires Dr. Julie Tanaka as its new director

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julie tanaka
Courtesy of Julie Tanaka

Julie Tanaka, former curator of rare books at Arizona State University and curator of special collections at the University of Notre Dame, will begin in her new role as director of Occidental’s Special Collections and College Archives (SCCA) June 1 following Dale Stieber’s retirement Jan. 7. Prior to earning her Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS), Tanaka taught undergraduate students at San Jose State University and the University of Puget Sound. Tanaka said she is looking forward to returning to a small school where she can work directly with students.

“This gives me an opportunity to get to know students and faculty and make your experiences with Special Collections and Archives more relevant and meaningful,” Tanaka said via email. “All your individual experiences are unique and bring richness to the interpretations of and projects developed from the materials in Oxy’s collections.”

Special Collections includes rare books and manuscripts, personal papers, maps, photographs, ephemera and historical artifacts, all in analog form, according to College Librarian Kevin Mulroy. Mulroy said the most heavily used section of Special Collections is the College Archives, a documentation of the college’s history from founding to present, preserved both digitally and in analog.

“The collections support Oxy events and programs — such as President Elam’s upcoming presidential inauguration — and we answer lots of questions from alumni and the broader research community,” Mulroy said via email. “SCCA is heavily engaged in collaborating with community cultural heritage organizations and Oxy’s Institute for the Study of Los Angeles (ISLA) to preserve local history and make it available to a wide audience.”

Jeremiah B.C. Axelrod, adjunct professor of history, art history and Urban & Environmental Policy (UEP) and founding director of ISLA, said Special Collections possesses a unique array of holdings that larger institutions do not have.

I have personally worked with many of the items in the collection over the past 17 years, often designing whole classes around specific groups of documents (like the mystery and detective fiction collection or the Abraham Lincoln holdings),” Axelrod said via email. “For someone interested in Southern California’s history, especially, Oxy’s Special Collections is a goldmine.”

SCCA most recently put together a handmade community book documenting the stories of over 300 students, alumni, parents, faculty and staff that offered to participate. The project was called “Belonging at Oxy.”

Tanaka said she hopes to become involved in existing projects to better acquaint herself with Occidental’s students, faculty and local community, while also introducing her own ideas. These projects include establishing a program to better document student experiences and gathering student opinions about materials they would like to see in Special Collections.

“I’d really like to know how SCCA can be an integral part of residential life at Oxy,” Tanaka said via email. “How might SCCA be able to help document the experiences of campus residents, including the activities and members of the TLCs [Themed Living Communities] and of the Greeks. In what ways would all of the campus residents like to be involved with SCCA?”

Tanaka said she is also interested in expanding instruction with the collection and archives into as many classes as possible across various disciplines, as well as introducing mentorship programs and internship positions for students with an interest in archiving and its adjacent fields.

“At Oxy, I envision collaborative teaching partnerships, joint projects such as co-curated student exhibits, and working with everyone on campus including students, faculty, and other campus partners like the Institute for the Study of Los Angeles and the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute,” Tanaka said via email.

Axelrod said Tanaka is armed with a host of skills and ideas that will build on what Stieber set in place, starting with putting Special Collections on students’ radars.

“It has always been a treasure for those who have run across it, through class tours or research projects, but Dr. Tanaka is going to really make sure students discover the collections through more exhibits, events, and an enhanced online presence,” Axelrod said via email.

Tanaka said past projects at Arizona State University and the University of Notre Dame taught her to listen and ask thoughtful questions when engaging with members of the community.

“This approach led to some wonderful collaborations with both faculty and students,” Tanaka said via email. “One of the highlights so far was when Rare Books and Special Collections at ND [Notre Dame] played multiple roles in a campus-wide, semester-long celebration of the bicentennial of ‘Frankenstein.'”

Tanaka said she stumbled upon the study of library sciences by chance after fulfilling her initial ambition of earning her PhD in order to teach undergraduate level students. When the academic market crashed, she had the opportunity to earn her MLIS and establish a 10-year career in library science, while maintaining her interest in undergraduate education and instruction as well as in medieval German studies.

“Even better, new doors opened to the world of special collections and archives, so now, I can still highlight my medieval Germans to undergrads, but I also get to introduce all of you to the really cool, interesting primary source material that can range from 3 millennia ago (like clay tablets) to today (including artist’s books and event flyers),” Tanaka said via email.

Axelrod said he expects that Tanaka will excel as a mentor, as she is empathetic and and energetic in presenting materials.

“It makes my day when a student who comes in with a class suddenly gets excited about touching the vellum cover of a 15th-century book or when students bring their parents or friends back to show them something they saw,” Tanaka said via email.