Kayleigh Ferguson will sometimes find a small bounty between the pages of the centuries-old books in her care at Old Library in Dublin.
“If the book’s falling apart enough … you can find chunks of medieval manuscripts sticking out of the back,” said the 28-year-old, over the phone from Dublin, 3,000 miles from her hometown of Elbridge, New York.
Catholic manuscripts went out of vogue during the Protestant Reformation, she explained, so they were sometimes used as scrap paper for book bindings. Occasionally she finds them while she’s cataloging books in one of the world’s most-trafficked libraries.
Ferguson is one of the “foot soldiers,” she said, of The Great Decant, a $95 million restoration of the Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin, which kicked into gear after the 2019 Notre Dame fire in Paris. She’s an incongruous fixture there, a New Yorker working busily among the stacks of venerated Irish treasures.
But Ferguson has been in and out of Irish libraries since she fell in love with ancient manuscripts during an undergraduate study abroad internship at Marsh’s Library in Dublin, which houses late-Renaissance and early-Enlightenment texts. Now, Maynooth University’s Russell Library is her home-base while she pursues a Ph.D. in musicology.
Her job in the grand Old Library at Trinity — “I don’t want to call it a fluke, but it was just kind of the job I was able to get,” she said.
On a regular day, she pulls out old books from the sweeping stacks and brings them to her desk, which on messier days resembles something of a workman’s bench. She’ll do some light dusting, paste on removable archival tape, wrap up the more fragile books with cotton strips and add a radio frequency barcode so the books don’t get lost while they’re away from their shelves during the restoration.
For a few weeks her desk was on the second-floor balcony, overlooking the tourists who streamed through the building to photograph the storybook “Long Room” and glimpse the famous Book of Kells. In October 2023, the library doors will close to visitors for three years for restoration work.
Up in the overlook between the bays, said Ferguson, the catalogs were “like mice up in the gallery, whittling away quietly on our tasks.” That’s the kind of behind-the-scenes work she loves, she said.
Ferguson is a qualified librarian but hasn’t held that post since her days at the Central branch and Jamesville-DeWitt libraries. She’s a full-time research student now, although musicology is more of a specialization than the core focus of her work, she said.
She’s interested less in the sound of medieval music than the books it was written in as an artifact — how it was bound, how it was built, how the music came to be preserved on the page.
She wants more people to study these old, old books, too. “All these little worlds are out there in our libraries,” she said. “Come study this stuff. Don’t be afraid. We’re trying to make it easy for you.”
In that effort, her Ph.D., which she will finish in 2026, is all about digitization.
“I grew up in Elbridge. Like, I would have never seen or known what early manuscripts were if it weren’t for online images,” she said.
True, it’s not every day that Elbridge sends one of its own off into the athenaeums of Ireland to dig through medieval manuscripts.
But Ferguson’s mom, Linda Ferguson, wasn’t too shocked that her determined daughter wanted to travel across the pond to study what she loves. Linda did have some questions about job prospects.
“As a mom, I was like, can’t you just be a librarian?” she said, laughing.
“Those who knows Kayleigh are not surprised,” said Linda, who works as an administrative assistant at Syracuse University’s School of Design. “She’s never seen any limitation. If this is what she wants to do, she’s going to do it.”
This is it, confirmed Kayleigh.
“Getting taken to a different place or a different time, and getting to exist in that time feels really powerful,” she said.
“Every day is a different thing. Some days you’re getting 19th century artist books, other days you’re getting 16th century religious texts.”
Her soft spot is for medieval texts, another reason why she loves the little bits of manuscript that fall out of younger books.
“I like the little bits that are torn up and no one really knows about them,” she said.
“It’s kind of a hidden gem stuck in the book.”