Continuing Blog Post Series: Medievalists Beyond the Tenure Track – A Medievalist in the Stacks

Dr. Matthew Z. Heintzelman is the Curator of Western European Collections & Special Collections at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, a position he has held since 2004. He was awarded a MA and PhD from the University of Chicago, in Germanic Studies and later earned a MLIS from the University of Iowa, Iowa City. He has presented and published widely and has curated more than nine exhibitions for HMML since 2015.

A Medievalist in the Stacks

Finding your path

Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, the founding director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) once described his initiation to library work as follows: “The career began one month after completing the novitiate in July 1923 when Abbot Alcuin Deutsch, like myself, out for a morning stroll after breakfast, called me: ‘Father Oliver, come here.  I want you to work in the library.’”

Father Oliver went on to spend more than four decades working in libraries, both at Saint John’s University and elsewhere, capping this with several years leading HMML’s microfilming project in Austria (1965-1972).

For most of us—who are not members of a monastic community—such clear-cut occupational direction is an extremely rare commodity. In my own case, a path through medieval studies only converged with librarianship after several years of educational and professional twists and turns. The following account—somewhat unremarkable in itself—relates only one path to alternative careers for medievalists. There are countless more.

Upon entering college in the mid-1970s, I needed to discern a major field of study. Being a rather practical person, I decided on German, which I had just begun to learn, after four years of learning Spanish in high school. While not the most promising major from the standpoint of earning an income, language studies did offer a means to nourish secondary interests in history and cultural exchange. But what does one do as a language major?

Teach or translate

Over the course of my undergraduate years, I frequently heard the assertion that language majors had two professional options: teach or translate. You either studied to become the eventual replacements for your own teachers, or you toiled in the free-lance world of translation, primarily business translation. During the time I was in college, it happened that a large German pharmaceutical corporation bought out a local company, which led to an alternative suggestion that I should take courses in business German and pursue a lucrative position in private industry.

After some consideration, I recognized that one of my fatal flaws was a lack of interest in corporate profit and business practices. It was apparent to me that my motivation lay more in learning about cultural history than selling product. Of course, had I opted for a career with a German corporation, I would likely be wealthier now and probably retired.

Suffice it to say that upon graduation from college, I was still unclear what one does with a major in German language and literature. So, of course, I entered graduate school in German studies at the University of Chicago.

Becoming a “medievalist”

Given the opportunity at Chicago to focus my attention on German, my research interests soon settled on medieval German literature: Wolfram von Eschenbach, Gottfried von Strassburg, Walther von der Vogelweide, the Nibelungenlied, and especially religious drama.

During my many years in graduate school, I did have the opportunity to try both teaching (English in Vienna and German in Chicago) and translation (with a computer-aided translation company). There were many things about each that I found exciting and frustrating.

After taking two years off to teach English in Austria (where I visited many medieval sites, including libraries, churches and monasteries), I returned to graduate school. Taking time away from studies to earn a living became a pattern that prolonged my graduate studies in the 1980s and 1990s.

During my second, longer break from studies (mid 1980s), I worked in a translation bureau where I gained some initial experience with computers (anyone remember DOS?). Unfortunately, the (mis)management at this company dampened any enthusiasm for the business world.

Returning to graduate school in the late 1980s, I soon found I still needed an outside income and accepted a low-level, part-time position at the University of Chicago library. This proved to be a critical moment in my search for direction as a German major with a focus on medieval studies. Over the course of eight years at the library, I held four different positions. Each new job brought higher pay, more responsibility, and new learning opportunities. The last of these positions was overseeing the rare-book office in the special collections department. With this, I had embarked on a professional path that I found exciting and which appealed to my innate curiosity.

Moving on

After serving in special collections for about one and a half years, I had to give up my position at the library to follow my wife’s job. We moved to another state, where I spent three years as a stay-at-home dad, while completing my PhD dissertation and investigating library science programs. My hope was to solidify my knowledge of how libraries function, cataloging unusual materials, and supporting the study of rare books and manuscripts.

In 2000, I completed my dissertation on late-medieval German religious drama and after graduating that June, I applied to the University of Iowa to pursue the MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science). I imagined myself moving into a role as subject-area specialist in a college or university library.

A few months later, in January 2001, I was officially received into the MLIS program. About that same time, I was approached by a fellow student from the library school, who was about to graduate. In conducting his own job search, he happened upon a posting for a position in Minnesota that called for

  • Fluency in German
  • A degree in medieval studies
  • Experience with rare books and manuscripts
  • Emphasis on service in a library (i.e., not a teaching situation)

His comment to me was that he could not think of anyone else who matched this description, except me.

I was a bit flabbergasted, as my thoughts in 2001 were centered on finishing library school (which I had barely begun) and I was not actively searching for a job. In the end, however, I did apply for this opening at the HMML, was hired, and moved to Minnesota in July of that year.


The past 19 years at HMML have not always been smooth, but I cannot imagine any other job—whether in teaching or library work—could have matched my interests so closely. In my work as a curator for western manuscripts, I support scholars in their use of nearly 50,000 medieval and early modern manuscripts on microfilm from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. In curating the library’s own collections, I have cataloged about 9,000 rare printed books (15th-20th century) and provide access to a very wide range of fascinating materials from around the world.

Other perks of the job have included the opportunity to meet with classes, curate exhibitions, represent the library at major conferences on medieval studies, and much more. Working in a multicultural collection like that at HMML has enabled me to learn about manuscripts and books from traditions I had never encountered previously.

In sum, it still amazes me that my path contains so many elements that other medievalists would share—interest in other languages, computer skills, search for knowledge, etc. In that sense, my path has been somewhat unremarkable. And yet, at every stage of my studies, I have been able to acquire skills and knowledge that directly supported the next advance in my work.

Matthew Z. Heintzelman, Hill Museum and Manuscript Library

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