Polly Cancro joined the Bard Graduate Center Department of Research Collections as the research services librarian in August. BGC spoke to Cancro about her past academic and professional experiences, her work at BGC, and her interests.

BGC: Tell us about your background. How did you find your way to BGC?

Polly Cancro: I had a sort of meandering route to special collections and art librarianship. Initially, I went to graduate school for anthropology and education at the University of Pennsylvania, and then I ended up going back to get a dual master’s degree in art history and library and information science from Pratt Institute, which nicely synthesized a lot of my interests and skills. There, I focused on special collections, rare books, and medieval art—particularly manuscripts. My MA thesis focused on portraits found in late fifteenth-century books of hours (prayer books) from northern France. I presented a paper that built on this at the SECAC conference (formerly known as the Southeastern College Art Conference) last October.

My first position working closely with special collections was at the Morgan Library & Museum, which aligned well with my interests as it’s known for its collection of rare books, including incunables (books printed in Europe before 1500) and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. They also have incredible collections of literary and historical manuscripts, archives, drawings and prints, ancient Western Asian seals and tablets, and more. I worked in the Morgan’s Sherman Fairchild Reading Room for about seven years where I facilitated and oversaw access to the Morgan’s special collections, and then I briefly worked at New York University Special Collections before landing here at BGC!

BGC: In your career so far, what have you done that you’re especially proud of?

At the Morgan, I was one of the founding members of a staff-led DEAI advocacy group that formed in response to and in solidarity with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, and I served on its Steering Committee from its inception. The majority of the Morgan’s institutional DEAI initiatives grew out of the collaborative work of this grassroots group, including advocating for frontline and essential workers; rethinking exhibition, acquisition, and cataloging practices; developing new and inclusive programming; advocating for pay equity and transparency; and critically engaging with the history of the Morgan and its collections. Among these initiatives, I participated in the Critical and Ethical Cataloging Group and led the development of an institutional living land acknowledgment in collaboration with the Lenape Center. I was also part of a team that worked on critical cataloging related to the Morgan’s Edward Curtis Papers, including the lantern slides associated with a twenty-volume book project funded by J. Pierpont Morgan titled The North American Indian. This work intersected with my interest in the Protocols for Native American Archival Material, which I advocated for in a paper entitled “Decolonizing the Archives: Culturally-Responsive Care of Indigenous Material in Non-Native Institutions” that I presented as part of a conference panel on “Power, Agency, and Representation in the Archives.”

BGC: Can you share what your day-to-day looks like here at BGC?

Cancro: Every day looks different! I’m responsible for a wide range of services including reference and general research support, bibliographic instruction, special collections access, interlibrary loans, orientations for new students and fellows, coordinating consultations for outside visitors, and maintaining the department’s web and social media presence. We also have some specific departmental projects that we’re hoping to work on this year as time allows. For me one of those projects is to devote some attention to our special collections, specifically our rare books.

BGC: What excites you about being part of the BGC community?

Cancro: I’m excited to be part of a vibrant community of researchers generating new and critical scholarship on material culture and design history, and to not only facilitate that research but also in turn be inspired by it for my own work. I’m looking forward to working alongside colleagues who similarly value social justice and equity and am interested in plugging into the ongoing DEAI work at BGC, which could potentially include critical/reparative cataloging. I’m also hoping to be able to bring my experience with special collections to the position by providing bibliographic instruction to students and potentially growing BGC’s collection in a way that serves research needs.