AHA Member Spotlight: Libby Cook
Libby Cook is an architectural historian at the Nevada Department of Transportation. She lives in Reno, Nevada, and has been a member since 2007.
Alma maters: BA (history/theater), University of Southern California, 2007; MA, College of William & Mary, 2010; PhD, College of William & Mary, 2017
Fields of interest: material culture, built environment, architectural history, cultural landscapes
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
I got productively distracted. As I went deeper into the PhD process, I realized how tenuous the job market was and I did not want to put all my proverbial eggs in the academic basket. I pursued other interests that dovetailed with my academic interests, but also exposed me to different aspects of what a historian can do. I have spent summers as an archaeologist, worked as a cultural resources consultant, developed public history programs, framed and raised timber-frame buildings, and told a slew of ghost stories. As I got out and worked with people, I saw that they cared about the history I was sharing with them, far more than most folks seemed to care about my academic work. Ultimately, that depth of care is what led me into historic preservation full time. It is no longer just me in my little research box, but me as part of a much larger team of people working to preserve the past and to make it accessible.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
Nevada has an amazing palette of colors. The mountains, lakes, trees, valleys, clouds, sunrises, and sunsets—they look different every day. Because the Nevada Department of Transportation cultural resources crew is a small one, we cover the entire state and I get to see all of it.
What projects are you currently working on?
On the clock, I am learning a new architectural language. My previous work was on early 19th-century state architecture, and now I am looking at mining camps, ghost towns, and mid-century motels. On my own time, I have a book under contract about maintenance practices in Virginia’s political buildings (spoiler: leaky roofs are timeless), have a couple articles in the works about the stranger sides of Virginia’s building culture, and am writing National Register nominations. I am also a contributor to the Penitentiary Project, which is working to complete the field reports for excavations done at the Virginia State Penitentiary in the early 1990s, including working to identify the remains of over 100 individuals who were exhumed in the process.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?
My intellectual interests have not particularly shifted. My primary research questions still focus on craft labor, production practices, and material goods; namely, how craftsmen thought about the things they made. They produced objects that were transitory for them (raw materials to finished object on the sales floor to out the door), but functioned as a more permanent displays of taste and status for the individuals who owned the object. It is a different relationship between human and object than people tend to think about.
What has changed, however, is my interest in the medium in which history is conveyed. Are scholars engaging meaningfully with stakeholder communities? Are they looking for different ways to talk to people? Are faculty listening to their students when the students say they do not want to be academics and then supporting those students in developing new skills? Are historians creating access points outside the general and known audiences? If not, how do we do that? How do we build trust with communities that have been previously overlooked and ignored and give them the tools to become champions of their own histories?
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
A series of letters written between Benjamin Henry Latrobe (architect of the Virginia Capitol) and Thomas Callis (undertaker for the same), in which Callis essentially calls Latrobe a spendthrift and Latrobe basically calls Callis an old man who can not do math. I always find it amusing when grand historical figures prove themselves utterly human.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
My best recommendation right now is to go out and do history: talk to people, connect with communities, listen to stories, laugh with people, joke with them, make history human and personal.
What do you value most about the history discipline?
It gives us a sense of historical empathy. “Historical figures” become people when you start reading their letters and journals, and you realize that they were working with the best information they had, weighing choices, and figuring things out as they went. Not all of them did it well and some did it catastrophically poorly. Understanding the hows and the whys of people’s behavior in the past helps us create connections to history, and ideally to each other.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you?
It connects historians from across the employment spectrum, and allows us to learn from one another. I am happy to see more representation from historians who did not pursue an academic career. I hope one day that we no longer need to discuss “alt-ac” careers (because my career is not an “alternative” to anything—it is my career) and instead can discuss how vibrant history is because practitioners of history are in every field, finding a plethora of new and exciting ways to understand it and engage others with it.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
As a Southern California native, I had no idea my hair could freeze until my first AHA in DC.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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