Astrida Orle Tantillo joined the Newberry as our tenth President and Librarian on December 1. In this installment of Meet the Staff, she talks about her history with the Newberry, the state of the humanities, and what the Newberry offers to contemporary and future audiences.
How did you first encounter the Newberry?
The first in-depth encounter I had was as an assistant professor teaching a graduate-level German literature course at the University of Illinois Chicago. I was looking for a way to make the eighteenth century feel more tangible and alive to my students, and I knew the Newberry had opportunities to bring classes for collection presentations with its curators. The presentation was absolutely amazing–it really brought the period to life for the students. The curators highlighted aspects of the objects, including features of the graphic designs, illustrations, the composition materials of the books themselves, the history of their printing, etc. so that suddenly, the students had a new way into the past. As a result, they were empowered to talk about so many different aspects of the period that they didn’t even know to ask about, or to think about, until they actually had the physical objects in front of them. Over my years of teaching, visits to the Newberry were often the highlight of the course for students and were at times their first visit to a major Chicago cultural institution. I know that many students came back for subsequent research after their class visit and were glad to know it as a resource.
Much of your academic career has focused on the life and works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). How did you choose him as your primary focus? Do you have a particular favorite work from among Goethe’s vast oeuvre, or one would you recommend as a starting point for a Goethe novice?
I would describe myself as an interdisciplinary humanist. Even as an undergraduate, I wanted to explore the connections between literature and science, and I was especially interested in literary figures who were also working in the fields of science and natural philosophy. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1626), and I thought I would continue with Bacon in graduate school.
The more I was exposed to Goethe and his corpus, however, the more I was convinced that I wanted to work on someone at that particular time period. Goethe is mostly known for his literary works, but he was also a scientist; that confluence was interesting to me especially because of the ways in which Goethe’s eighteenth century was a precursor to so many aspects of our own, contemporary culture. I was curious to explore what we could learn about what was happening in his time, whether about educational policy, scientific perspectives, or aesthetic principles and then to trace these intellectual and cultural influences to our own time.
I often recommend as a first exposure to Goethe his novel Elective Affinities, from 1809. The title more literally translates to “relations by choice,” and refers to both marriage as well as an eighteenth-century chemical theory of attraction; the novel plays on both of those themes and maintains a compelling ambiguity on the question of whether forces of fate or free will determine human outcomes. It was also scandalous in its time for its portrayal of “spiritual adultery.”
As dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at University of Illinois Chicago, you focused heavily on increasing access to knowledge and an education, especially for students who might have been the first in their family to attend college and so might not have imagined that such a future was open to them. What lessons from your time at UIC do you think will be helpful at the Newberry?
I think there are many. One of the most important lessons is that knowledge is a two-way street. It is not just the institution giving knowledge to students and the public at large, but also learning from the students and the communities which we serve about what they need to thrive and what they would like out of an education.
One of the reasons I was really interested in serving as dean is that I knew how much a liberal arts education had benefited me, and I wanted that same experience for UIC students. Many of the students were the first in their families to attend college; almost half were from historically marginalized populations. I wanted to give them the opportunity to receive what is often considered an “elite” education. I wanted our students to have the opportunity to pursue their passions, pursue their interests–all of them.
While the scope is more focused at the Newberry than at a college (i.e., the humanities specifically rather than liberal arts and sciences generally), the audience is so much more expansive. The Newberry serves scholars, students, the general public, all curious learners–the Newberry is for everyone. I am truly excited to focus my energies on promoting the humanities and expanding access to them for everyone.
How do you view the state of the humanities at this current moment?
There is a tremendous opportunity for the humanities at the current moment. The humanities offer an avenue not only to understand our present time, but also to influence what our future might look like. The humanities are often uniquely positioned to help us understand contemporary anxieties and turmoil. For example, artificial intelligence (A.I.) is the source of great current anxiety but one could think of the humanities as an antidote to some of those anxieties: they help us think about how to preserve and treasure the things that make us flourish, make us laugh and, really, make us human.
One of the most important features of the humanities at this current moment is that they offer an escape. When times are difficult, we sometimes need an escape to catch our breath and recharge our batteries and to remind ourselves of imaginative and creative experiences outside the stresses of our daily lives. In this sense, the humanities are tremendously valuable.
Are there any items in the Newberry’s collection that you are particularly excited to check out or encounter?
One of my starting points will be to look at the collection’s most popular items with our readers, including the Popol Vuh and Shakespeare’s First Folio and the books of hours in our collections. A seventeenth-century book of magical charms has been viewed online over 70,000 times! In other words, I look forward to experiencing the works directly that are the most compelling to our audiences. I am, however, particularly excited to learn about the collection through the eyes of our expert curators and librarians. The Newberry has such a breadth and depth of materials, and I cannot wait to learn more from our knowledgeable, expert staff about our wide collections and to experience the lesser-known but wonderfully illustrative and important items across hundreds of years of history.
For personal exploration, the Newberry holds some papers of Ottilie von Goethe, Goethe’s daughter-in-law, and it is rather remarkable that I can view these materials in Chicago rather than having to travel to archives in Germany to do so!
What excites you most about the year to come at the Newberry?
There are so many things! I’m looking forward to learning even more about the collections, our staff, and the diverse audiences of the Newberry. I am excited and awed by the opportunity to steward one of the best collections in the world. I look forward to growing the collection, fostering the public's love of research and inquiry, and helping preserve the culture of the humanities in the years to come. The Newberry is fortunate to have such committed and generous friends and supporters, and I cannot wait to meet them and to learn about why the Newberry means so much to them.
This story is part of the Newberry’s Donor Digest, Holiday 2023. In this newsletter, we share with donors exciting stories of the work made possible by their generosity. Learn more about supporting the library and its programs.