Continuing Blog Post Series: Medievalists Beyond the Tenure Track – First and Foremost, a Medieval Manuscripts Cataloguer

Laura Light is the Director and Senior Specialist of Text Manuscripts at Les Enluminuresa gallery that specializes in selling medieval manuscripts and art from the Middle Ages. Laura is based in Boston.

First and Foremost, a Medieval Manuscripts Cataloguer

I attended UCLA from 1978 until 1985, when I left to work at the Houghton Library, Harvard University’s main rare book and manuscript library. At that point, my dissertation was almost complete, and that is the way I would still describe it, all these decades later. I realize that many academics may assume that the fact that I never completed my PhD was the circumstance that defined my career (I certainly have friends that probably believe that).  But it wasn’t, or at least I don’t see it that way.  Much more important in determining my career path, was my desire to work with medieval manuscripts all the time – not with manuscripts relevant to particular research projects on occasional (or even frequent) research trips to Europe, but with all sorts of manuscripts, every day, a desire that led me to choose a career as a manuscripts cataloguer.

For me, especially at this point in my life (do the math), the lack of a PhD does not seem very important.  But my years in graduate school, including the research and writing of my almost-finished dissertation under the incomparable guidance provided by Richard Rouse, certainly are relevant, since they were admirable training for my chosen career path, not as university teacher, but as a cataloguer of medieval manuscripts.   As I mentioned, my first real job was at Houghton Library at Harvard.  Those were heady days for manuscript cataloguing in the United States, when libraries recognized that providing the scholarly community with detailed, academic descriptions of their medieval manuscripts was an essential part of their mission.  Funded in part by the NEH, and inspired by the catalogues produced in England by Neil Ker and in Germany under the auspices the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, libraries such as the Huntington Library in California and Yale’s Beinecke Library, to name two of the earliest, embarked on ambitious cataloguing projects, culminating in published catalogues by Consuelo Dutschke and Barbara Shailor that are enduring works of scholarship used by the entire international medieval community.  When I learned that Harvard was beginning a NEH-sponsored cataloguing project, I did not hesitate to apply.  My years at Houghton proved to be challenging, but very satisfying. I was working with a wonderful collection and supported by colleagues who were endlessly generous with a then young, and still inexperienced scholar, albeit one with the right “tools” for the job (training in languages, paleography, and codicology).   And I learned an amazing amount.  Ultimately, there is no better path to being a confident and expert scholar of medieval manuscripts than writing descriptions of them day after day.

At Houghton I was hired to describe their medieval manuscripts, and to write a published catalogue.  This ensured that I spent almost all my time researching and writing about manuscripts in the collection.  Unfortunately, it is very hard to find employment as a medieval cataloguer in a library in the United States today, although opportunities come up from time to time.  The idea of government sponsored funding of medieval cataloguing projects through the NEH proved to be relatively short-lived. And academic cataloguing, medieval or otherwise, is sadly undervalued in many libraries today.

But I am still cataloguing.  When the project at Houghton came to an end due to a lack of funding, after a hiatus, I began working instead for Sandra Hindman at Les Enluminures, a gallery that specializes in selling medieval manuscripts (as well as other art from the Middle Ages).  Working for “the trade” might at first seem to be a major change from working in an academic library.  But working for Les Enluminures is not.  The descriptions I write now for our manuscripts are as detailed and “academic” as the descriptions that I once wrote for Houghton, although they are presented in a different format and are rather chattier, since our goal is not only to describe our manuscripts, but also to provide context that explains why they are interesting. Most people who sell rare books and manuscripts are experts in their fields who devote lots of time to describing their books; it is an essential part of their job.  The pronounced focus on scholarship at Les Enluminures, however, certainly reflects Sandra Hindman’s own background as a published scholar and professor of art history at Johns Hopkins and Northwestern.

During my early years working for Sandra, I was a freelance consultant, paid for each description I completed.  The job has evolved (and I have evolved with it), and I now work for Les Enluminures full-time overseeing our text manuscript site (  Most of our clients are librarians working in special collections at colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada.  It is fun to get to know collections, identify good potential “homes” for our manuscripts, and show prospective clients why a particular manuscript is appropriate.  I work on exhibitions at our galleries, travel to antiquarian book fairs, write about our manuscripts in print and for our blog (and these days spend time presenting material on zoom), and supervise our freelance cataloguers. I am involved in the process of identifying new inventory for the gallery to buy.  In short, my job now involves many activities, but I still describe a good number of manuscripts myself each year, and find it just as satisfying as it was when I started at Houghton.

For people looking beyond academia, becoming expert in a skill opens doors.  I was fortunate in having good training and experience with manuscripts during graduate school, and very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work at Houghton, immersed in manuscripts.  This background enabled me to continue my work with manuscripts at Les Enluminures, and ultimately led to new career, one that I never dreamt of in graduate school.

Laura Light, Les Enluminures

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