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Mike Kelly

April 12, 2011

Mike Kelly

In brief, Mike Kelly is the Head of Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College where he takes care of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts and a lock of her hair. But that barely scratches the surface of what this guy is about. He’s an Americanist scholar and expert in the nineteenth century book industry. We’ve seen him get excited about James Kirke Paulding and a mysterious substance called flong. Mike’s a member of the Grolier Club, America’s oldest society of bibliophiles, but lest you think that makes him a stodgy antiquarian, he was the first member inducted for collecting comics.

Since taking his position as Head of Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College’s Frost Library in 2009, Mike has begun diversifying their catalog of writings by College alumni and authors associated with Amherst. Their holdings have always been strong in the poetry of Amherst – Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, James Merrill, and Richard Wilbur among them – but Mike has begun an initiative to collect a wider range of creative work by Amherst alums, beginning with novelists. In a recent exhibition Novelists of Amherst, he showcased the range of Amherst authors; from Dan Brown and Scott Turow, to David Foster Wallace and Harlequin romancer Ann Haven.

With a goal of collecting comprehensively, Mike works hard to keep the archive alive and growing. It’s not just about preserving and hoarding the past, it’s about recognizing in the contemporary what might be missed in the future. 12 Questions is grateful that Mike offered his responses for posterity.

1. What is your hometown?

Rochester, NY. The Flower City and the Flour City. I grew up there during the glory days of Kodak, before digital photography made film obsolete. I spent a summer working twelve-hour shifts in 95% darkness operating the giant machine that puts 35mm film into the cartridges you put in your camera. The building where I worked was imploded a couple years ago.

2. With what fictional character do you most identify?

Call me Ishmael.

3. In the movie of your life, cast an actor to play you.

Jimmy Stewart or maybe Dick Van Dyke.

4. What work of art speaks to your soul?

Much of the work of Chris Burden. The Burden retrospective at the Boston ICA in 1990/91 was the first art exhibit I visited more than once. I tried to get all of my friends to see it, and I ended up going about a dozen times.

5. What books are you currently reading or recommending?

I’m in the middle of about five things right now. For fiction, I’m really digging Emma Straub’s short story collection Other People We Married. In work-related reading, I love The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities by Nicholas Syrett. Syrett did a lot of his research in the Amherst College Archives, so there’s a direct tie to my daily work. What I love about his book is that it’s a gender studies book disguised as a history book. It’s all about constructions of masculinity and youth in American culture from the 1820s to the present. Amherst College was one of the first schools in the country to have frats, though they were abolished in 1984. The devolution from somewhat noble clubs of earnest young men to the “Animal House” bastions of depravity is fascinating. Another amazing book is Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform by Martin Rudwick. I never imagine the history of geology and paleontology could be so gripping. This is the story of the people who started to figure out just how old the earth really is and that there used to be dinosaurs and other monsters all over the place. Amherst still has one of the largest collections of fossil dinosaur tracks in the world, so this one is directly related to our collections as well.

6. What song or album is currently in heavy rotation on your iPod?

The Fall’s last release – Your Future Our Clutter – is still getting plenty of play. The band I can’t get enough of these days is Dum Dum Girls. Their cover of “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” is amazing. Can’t wait to hear what they put out next.

7. What’s the last movie that made you cry?

Jane Campion’s “Bright Star”

8.  Cat person or dog person?

I prefer cats, but I definitely see a dog in my future.

9. What is more important, truth or kindness?


10.    How do you define sin?

Half woman, half poisonous serpent, sprung full-grown from the head of Satan.

11.    How do you define virtue?

A basket full of fluffy kittens feeding the poor.

12.      Design your headstone: What does it say? What does it look like?

Black slate with a winged skull at the top and “Oh Didn’t He Ramble” above my name. Except there won’t be one, because I’ll be cremated.


The Frost Library

Amherst College Archives photostream

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