Campus Life staff spotlight

A librarian of human stories

Meet Ms. Emilie Songolo, Head of Distinctive Collections

10569 emilie songolo
Emilie Songolo is the head of MIT's Distinctive Collections.
Photo courtesy of Myriam Burcher

Name and Title: Emilie Songolo, Head of Distinctive Collections 

Department: MIT Libraries 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


What made you interested in becoming a librarian? 

Being a librarian wasn’t what I pursued at first. I wanted to be a translator because in Cameroon, where I grew up and went to college, [being a translator] is amazing and has many opportunities. So I got a B.A. in French and English as a foreign fellow, and immediately I figured that opportunities for translation in the US are very hard, and so my horizons will be limited. So I started thinking of different areas. Library and Information Science became very interesting when I found out about it.

I discovered libraries when I went to Cardiff in Wales for my language training during my junior year university, and I was wowed. In my country, book buying means buying a lot of your materials, so the library is not well stocked. Some libraries are mostly made up of gifts that are like 20-year-old books. 

So I started looking for library schools and programs because a lot of people have lives, experiences, histories that aren’t even represented in these libraries. So that became my passion: I wanted to use my language expertise to make sure that we have materials in languages other than English in American university libraries, so I applied to UCLA and to USC.


What is the day in the life of your job as the Head of Distinctive Collections? 

I don't want to open my Outlook calendar. I spend a lot of time in meetings, most of them are on Zoom in front of a computer screen. 

Distinctive Collections are a collection of archives that are special and rare materials. For example, we just purchased an artist book that is so big in size you cannot close it. It is like an art piece with a QR code. When you scan that code, you get access to digitized manuscripts in Arabic from Timbuktu. There are a lot of manuscripts going back to centuries that are a risk. A number of us in the community work collaboratively to make sure that these manuscripts are preserved and made accessible, because they're very important for learning and research.

I work in the area of collections and strategy for implementing the goals of the library. We are a digital-first library, so we make sure that we expedite acquisition and access to materials that are in digital format. One of our philosophies is to promote and advance this area of computational research. I oversee the material of five amazing teams: the Aga Khan Documentation Center, the Institute archives, the Conservation Lab, the visual collections, and the public services. 

In my work, I call my manager's my think tank, and we collaborate on projects. We work on tools that make our work easier and up-to-date. For example, one of the things that we are actively working on is reparative description. You have materials that have been in the collection but they're not described positively in the way that the people who are studied in the material would see themselves. Today, one of our philosophies is diversity, equity, and inclusion,, and we're committed to doing this; my team is just top-notch in this work. 

I meet with students and faculty to let them know about us and how we can meet their research needs and teaching needs because there are some classes where the curriculum really could use architectural collections. As stewards of these types of materials, it's our role to raise awareness. 


How does MIT collect rare, old documents? What is the process of organizing and storing them? 

We want to make sure that we collect materials that are the core of mens et manus (mind and hand) and also materials that advance learning in science and technology. A large percentage of what we have is donated to Distinctive Collections. We have papers of MIT faculty, students, staff, and leaders. Some of these are records while some become archives because we are keepers of MIT’s history. We are the ones that store these [MIT’s] publications because in a given academic year, so much work is done and recorded and that is history that needs to be preserved. Our interest is in the past, the present, and the future.

Some of the things we have are donated, and we try to make sure that we have certain legal forms in place. We have questions about digitizing for access; if you don't want us to digitize something, we will make sure that things are done based on the wishes and the preferences of the donor. There are certain things that families donate after a loved one passes away. I have someone on staff who is in charge of relations. 

No library can have everything. Advances in digital information and computational approaches to curate and preserve make it easier for people to have access to materials that are on here. Our goal is to collect, preserve, and foster the use of these materials in all formats. Now, we're getting more and more papers in digital format because they were created digitally, and this is where our work is very dynamic. 

Sometimes we curate. Our work is not only collecting but also preserving and making it accessible. When the pandemic hit, the library was closed, and instruction was delivered online. Library materials were delivered online, and that was when our digital-first philosophy really stepped up. We had a team on campus when everyone else was home working madly to digitize and send you the digital version. 

When we curate an exhibit, there is a digital counterpart. When we had an exhibit [South Asia Meets the Institute] last year, it was so well received.  There is an online version that is going to live online for as long as that online space exists because the physical footprint to our gallery has been reduced. 

Campus life is very important to us. We collect ephemera; we collect campus events. Ephemera is very dear to my heart because that gap needs to be bridged. Considering the current events, we collected the posters that were made for commencement.  We are working with other units on campus to collect posters and signs related to the protests and encampment since October 7.


Are there any particular objects or documents in the Distinctive Collections that stick out to you? 


We have a program in Distinctive Collections called Women at MIT that is extremely important. Why? Because women’s access to MIT was problematic at that time. What the early women went through is a story that needs to be told, known, and shared. People have been donating materials to us: women who went to MIT, women who taught at MIT, the first women to get a degree here at MIT. These women made things possible, and some of them became leaders in the field. There are fields that even exist today thanks to the first woman at MIT, chemist Ellen Swallow Richards.  

People say that she is the founder of home economics. When she came, it was very difficult for her to work in the lab when she needed to use the restrooms because they were designed for men. Thanks to her, there were restrooms for women entering the lab space at MIT. So that collection is extremely important. 

Right now, we are working on a project to repair the description of materials that are audio materials in indigenous languages. These are the kinds of things that we really need because we have to make sure that they aren’t lost. The old audio tapes that professors collected have stories that shouldn’t be sitting somewhere, not getting used. To summarize my answer, materials that increase visibility of the historically marginalized stick out to me.


How can more students and faculty members at MIT make best use of MIT’s Distinctive Collections? 

You should explore it and go to our website. If you go to the distinctive collections website, there's a link there to explore and browse our collection. You can search by keyword. You can search and enter the name of a scientist that you write about. You can even search by the name of a professor. You'd be surprised to find someone who's currently teaching; we may have materials donated by some professors who are currently teaching and doing research here. You can search by scientific advancement. You can search by a time period that is important in what they're studying. You can search via all kinds of ways. 

They not only can search, they can also contact us. They can schedule an appointment with us. Maybe they're working on a research project in a class, and they want to know whether we have materials that they can use. A big part of our work is learning and research support. It’s very important for students to use distinctive collections in their own work. Online, there's a link also on requesting something for a class—“I'm teaching this course number, and I would like to bring my student to show them what you have.” So, we work with the professor and design a class. The student can do that also for their own purposes, whatever the purpose. 


Is there anything that you wanted to say that I did not get a chance to ask you?

Well, I just want to say something about the core principle of MIT Libraries. We have our director, and [she is] a very dynamic person [Chris Bourg], who leads us into approaching our work in a way that is meaningful to the research community.

This work is centered on what is called our general philosophy of “enduring vision.” So, everything we do, we want to make sure that it hits one of the six tenets of this philosophy. The first one is the “digital library.” The second tenet is the pursuit of a more open and equitable scholarly landscape. The third one focuses on the digital collection as the essential core. The essential core being collections that cannot be replicated in the digital or online context. The fourth one is equity, diversity, and social justice. The fifth one is being socially responsible and advancing computational research and learning. The last one, in particular, is bold leadership.

[Chris Bourg] inspires us to really be bold. I’ve been here for almost two years, and you see the action. Collaboration is a big part of this, you know, because, as an African, I grew up steeped in my culture. We have a saying that one hand cannot tie a bundle — you are stronger together.


June 13, 2024 (7:53 PM): A previous version of this article had an error in Bourg's name and pronouns. This has since been corrected.