RIHS Names Richard Ring Deputy Executive Director for Collections and Interpretation

Career Spanning Two Decades Includes Libraries, Exhibitions, Higher Education

After an extensive search, the Rhode Island Historical Society announced today the appointment of Richard J. Ring, M.L.S., as Deputy Executive Director for Collections and Interpretation, a position which includes management of the largest and most significant historical collections in existence relating to Rhode Island.

During a career defined by his “goal to transform the perception of archives and historical collections from arcane and intimidating spaces into places of engagement and inspiration,” Ring was most recently Head Curator of the Watkinson Library at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and has also served in such positions as Reference and Acquisitions Librarian at the John Carter Brown Library and Special Collections Librarian at the Providence Public Library.

At the RIHS, Ring will lead a talented and experienced staff of seven at the institution’s Mary Elizabeth Robinson Research Center – which is responsible for cataloguing, acquisitions, and conservation – while coordinating with the Goff Center for Education and Public Programs, as well as the Museum of Work & Culture, on exhibition planning and visitor services.

“We could not be more thrilled to have Rick joining us at the RIHS,” said Executive Director C. Morgan Grefe. “We had an impressive pool of candidates, but what really stood out to us about Rick was that he so clearly shares not only our commitment to the highest standards of care for our collections, but also our dedication to students, teachers, researchers, genealogists, visitors, and history lovers of all backgrounds and interests. It didn’t hurt that he wears his passion for the public good provided by libraries and museums on his sleeve.”

Ring said he looks forward to “making sure the Executive Director and the staff are provided with the tools and support to carry out the mission of the RIHS to honor, interpret, and share Rhode Island’s past to enrich the present and inspire the future.”

The RIHS’s appointment of Ring to the crucial position of Deputy Executive Director for Collections and Interpretation comes as the organization ramps up preparations for its bicentennial celebration in 2022, and on the heels of a recent decision to make tours at the John Brown House Museum, Robinson Research Center, and Museum of Work & Culture free for schools and other educational organizations. Named a Smithsonian Affiliate in 2015, the RIHS continues to make history more accessible to the broadest public possible, and Ring is the latest addition to a team assembled to care for and build collections representing all of Rhode Island, available to residents from across the state and visitors from around the world.

“There are several things that drew me to the position at the RIHS. It is a homecoming, in many ways: My family lives in Cranston, and I’ve kept up my relationships with former colleagues across the state,” Ring said. “Above all, it’s the honor inherent in the work that drew me. Historical societies serve as the evidence rooms of the human past, where the investigator must often go to re-open a ‘case.’ But they are also sites where people can reach for stability and authority in the face of increasingly confusing and misleading online spheres.”

About Richard J. “Rick” Ring

“My love affair with books began around 10 years old, when my family moved from the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, to a deeply rural area about 40 miles northeast of the city – to an old farmhouse with a coal furnace, surrounded by cow fields. No cable TV, long before the Internet – books were my ticket to Elsewhere. It began with weekly trips to the public library, where I would check out stacks of the Hardy Boys series.” Later, along with his library career, Ring would open his own used bookstore in Rhode Island, Book by Book, which existed in Warren (2006) and in Pawtucket (2007), before he “submitted to the inevitable in the Age of Amazon.”

Ring attended The Ohio State University, majored in English, and worked in a series of bookstores (new, used, and antiquarian) to feed his habit. In his second year of graduate school, where he specialized in medieval and early modern English literature, one of his professors suggested he focus on rare books librarianship, and referred Ring to a colleague – the Curator of Rare Books of the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Joel Silver, who is now the Director of the Lilly, “took me back into the stacks, where I was dazzled with seven floors of rarities, and shown everything from a Gutenberg Bible to the First Folio of Shakespeare, to the original manuscript of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. I was hooked.”

In 1998, after two years of working at the Lilly Library as a graduate student pursuing an M.L.S. at Indiana University, Ring was appointed Reference & Acquisitions Librarian at the John Carter Brown Library, on the Brown University campus. As the liaison to the trade, he received catalogs and direct quotes from antiquarian booksellers, compiled a lineup of possible purchases on a monthly basis (consulting the curators), and ran the acquisitions committee meetings – laying out the items for comment and critique. Through active buying and regularly attending the antiquarian book fairs in Boston and New York, he formed relationships with dealers from all over the world. This, along with giving presentations on items in the collection to a wide range of Brown undergraduate and graduate classes, assisting faculty and in-residence research fellows, and mounting his own exhibitions, taught him the collection and engendered his interests in maritime history, voyages and travels (including imaginary voyages), European theories of the origins of Native Americans, and especially the history of collecting books in America. He also worked closely with the students and faculty involved in the Slavery and Justice steering committee at Brown, which examined the university’s role during the colonial and early national periods. With Professor James Egan (English) he created and team-taught a course in early 2007 called “Lives of a Text,” which traced how canonical literary works crossed the Atlantic from 1700 to 1850.

In late 2007, eager for new challenges, Ring left the JCB for an impressive and underserved array of rare book collections at the Providence Public Library (PPL). Lacking the funds and the readymade potential constituencies of faculty, students, and alumni which academic libraries enjoy, Ring reached out to community arts organizations like AS220, and schools in the downtown area to generate readers and volunteers, as well as faculty interested in bringing their classes in for presentations – mostly from the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence College, and Rhode Island College. To raise money he built a list of subscriber/donors and produced a quarterly called Occasional Nuggets. With the proceeds of that effort, Ring was able to acquire some significant items for the collections, and he recruited a cohort of more than a dozen volunteers (from college students to retirees) to work on projects ranging from manuscript processing to inventory to digitization. He also created a blog, “Notes for Bibliophiles,” which is still maintained today by PPL staff (see https://pplspcoll.wordpress.com/).

For the past seven years, Ring has served as Head Curator of the Watkinson Library at Trinity College. In 2011, he had the opportunity to teach a graduate course on exhibitions for the museum studies track of the American Studies program at Trinity, during which the students would curate their own small exhibitions, and raise funds through social media to produce a full-color, professionally designed booklet and hold a catered opening event. This course ran for six years each fall semester, and its success led to others, which included “Introduction to the World of Rare Books” (for first-year students), “The World of Rare Books in America” (a version for graduate students), and “America Collects Itself: From Colony to Empire,” which traces the history of the relationship between the collecting (by individuals and institutions) and the writing (by historians) of American history.

Among the more innovative programs Ring implemented in 2011 is a “Creative Fellowship” program for undergraduates. This is funded primarily by a trustee who was a former student worker in special collections, and consists of a $1,000 award for a student to deliver a creative project based on or inspired by items or collections they encounter in special collections. Now entering its sixth year, at this writing there are 30 alumni of the program. Students have produced blogs, videos, artwork, published books, scrapbooks, music, poetry, fiction, plays, food, and even textiles. The tangible benefits of this program have been manifold and various – the program has spurred donations from parents, alumni, and trustees, and several of the students have used their projects to help them into graduate schools, jobs, or further fellowship opportunities.

Ring has also generated engagement through acquisitions, most notably the purchase of the first edition (Brooklyn, 1855) of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In the summer of 2013, Ring decided to test his ability to pull the campus together to support a high-spot purchase. Working with a well-respected bookseller in New York, Ring was able to display the desired copy of the book on campus for six months. There were two courses teaching Whitman at the time, so Ring coordinated a marathon reading of “Song of Myself” from the first edition’s text, at which a dozen faculty and nearly 20 students participated. Then he partnered with a first-year seminar on writing poetry, having them choose a line by Whitman to set in metal type and print as a keepsake. Once everyone had set type, the class took a field trip to a local letterpress studio and printed 500 bookmarks. One of the staff at the press was a recent graduate of the University of Hartford Art School (printmaking), who designed and donated copies of a 3-color “art print” with a Leaves of Grass theme to Ring’s fundraising campaign. Professor Ed Folsom (University of Iowa), a world authority on Whitman and founder of the Walt Whitman Archive (whitmanarchive.org), was brought to campus to speak. The end result, with the help of a $25,000 grant from the Breslauer Foundation and the support of many private donors, was to bring a great rarity to campus through a real team effort, and Ring still occasionally gets the question “Did you ever get the Whitman?”

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