Behind the desk: meet the heart and soul of the fashion library

Madison Patterson

Edith Serkownek is the indoor Indiana Jones of the Kent State fashion world.

Lumpy beige mugs from Niagara Falls, relics of her predecessor, sit on her desk at the fashion library. Today she wears a sweater from the 1940s, threaded in shades of mustard and plum, as she often does. Her house, a 1939 construct, is bursting with “too many” animals and mid-century antiquities. As the Fashion School’s head librarian, she collects books, resources and information every day for the students of Kent State.

A self-described “museum person,” Serkownek said she has always been a proprietor of possessions and experiences. Growing up, she wanted to be an anthropologist like her idol Margaret Mead, an archeologist or a costume designer. Each “looks at how appearances matter,” she said. Initially she intended to pursue an undergraduate degree in anthropology, but eventually found a history major and a museum studies minor were a better fit. In 2005, she earned a Master of Library and Information degree from Kent State. Now, she lives and works at the cross section of all her primary passions.

Hearing only these facts about Serkownek, one might assume she fits the stereotypes typically assigned to librarians — and in some ways she does. She adores chunky sweaters and wears thick-framed glasses and explains that her Meyers-Briggs test, a popular personality assessment, shows a natural inclination towards introversion. She even refers to herself as a “resource junkie.”

But after spending only a few minutes in her company, a truer persona emerges: Serkownek likes to flip expectations on their head.

She is a spontaneous curator of opportunities. While driving through upstate New York on her honeymoon, she made her husband pull over first to visit a drain tile museum, then to stop by a Jell-O museum. This speaks less to her interest in drain tiles or Jell-O than it does to her thirst for peculiarities and curiosities. Her favorite museum is in Deadwood, South Dakota, where ancient wooden cases house boulders that were allegedly found inside Wild Bill Hickok’s boot. In the objects observed and collected, she uncovers forgotten stories and treasures.

A librarian knows better than anyone not to judge a book by its cover, but Serkownek’s cover can be a useful tool in detecting her complexities. She is 49 years old, yet her short, brassy hair is often accentuated with flares of blue and pink, a habit she attributes to her first acquaintances with punk in the ‘80s. Modern embellishments punctuate the storied vintage pieces she wears. Multifaceted and self-contrasting, Serkownek seldom makes choices devoid of a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

William Perrine, the international study away programs coordinator for the Fashion School, met Serkownek during his quests for information in the library. They hit it off immediately, he said. “Sometimes you meet someone and think, ‘I wanna be friends with you.’”

Now they meet every Sunday in Little Italy in Cleveland, where they bond over nerdy stories and fashion. Theirs is the kind of friendship Perrine said is as rare as the oddities she collects and digests. 

“I feel honored to be in her inner circle,” he said.

And though she’s a collector of objects from past lives, one could hardly call her a Luddite.

She met her husband, whom she refers to exclusively as her “sweetie” online, back when long information sections were a requirement and swiping right had not yet monopolized the scene. Although he was a “typical bachelor,” Serkownek saw some mid-century, red clay plates he owned while dining at his place and was instantly intrigued. Since then, their dueling interests in time periods have influenced one another. She loved the 1920’s, he loved the 1970’s, so they settled on a 1950’s theme for their home. “He’s brought me forward in time,” she said.

At the Fashion Library’s first-Thursday coffee hour later that week, she greets every group that enters. She has left out pastries and coffee, and encourages each entrant to learn to knit hearts with her. “I really love it here,” said a passing student.

Serkownek is consequential in the highest degree to the culture of the fashion library — a safe haven for many overworked and under-slept students. Perrine said he often comes down from his second-floor office to the library just to chat, sit or snack when he needs break from whatever hectic task he has at hand. He said he does this because Serkownek fosters an environment of openness and positivity. She’s even managed to make the library cool, he said.

One needs only to look at the fashion library desk to understand Serkownek’s importance. Taped to the edge of the desk where she and the other fashion librarians sit is a list of 20 important phone numbers, of which only 5 are highlighted: Police, Serkownek, Special Collections, Main Circulation and Serkownek cell, in that order. Here, she is only topped in importance by the police. 

As Perrine said: “She is the fashion library.”

Maddison Patterson is a feature writer. You can contact her at [email protected].