Librarian sees beauty in tools of the trade


Paul Schaffner was at a garage sale when he spotted a rather dilapidated dollhouse up for grabs.

He recognized it immediately as one he had come across numerous times while working in the library at Jackson Community College, now Jackson College. The dollhouse likely used to call the president’s house its home but had been relegated to the library, where it sat under a plastic box for years before ending up at the garage sale.

His wife was the children’s librarian at the Saline District Library, so he asked her if she thought it would be a useful addition to the children’s room there.

Her response of “maybe” was enough for Schaffner to load up the dollhouse on a trailer and undertake the work of bringing it back to life.

A photo of a man sitting on the floor reading and surrounded by books
Paul Schaffner is surrounded by the reading materials at his home office. (Photo courtesy of Paul Schaffner)

It’s just the sort of work that is in Schaffner’s wheelhouse — using tools to take a piece of history and make it accessible to a modern audience.

Schaffner, who came to U-M in September 1989 and to the U-M Library in 1997, manages the creation of electronic texts as well as the revision and upkeep of the university’s 90-year-old Middle English Dictionary.

You can add tool aficionado and dollhouse caretaker to that list. He serves as the team lead for hardware for the Kiwanis Thrift Store in Ann Arbor, and he makes it over to the Saline District Library about once a month to tend to the dollhouse.

“Salvage is what I do. Reuse, repurpose,” Schaffner said. “Words, books and all that Kiwanis stuff, too. I don’t like wasting things, and (the dollhouse) looked like something we could maybe do. And once we got started, it’s hard to stop.”

Although Schaffner’s wife retired from the library last year, the couple make it a point to ensure the dollhouse in the children’s room offers a fresh experience for young visitors. He spent years rehabilitating the house, adding a greenhouse to the structure, before it went on display.

For several years now, Schaffner and his wife have created an attraction by decorating the house according to the season — but not in the traditional sense. During Christmastime, rather than adorn the house with lights, Schaffner has the grandfather of the residence perched precariously on a ladder trying to hang lights.

When a windstorm struck the area and toppled trees, Schaffner displayed a tree crashing through the greenhouse roof with people working to repair the damage.

“We’ve felt the need to keep updating it because it becomes a point of interest or attraction,” he said. “Little kids come in and say, ‘Has anything changed?’ or ‘What’s new this month?’ And anything that draws people into the library is good. And it’s kind of fun.

“We think of it as telling stories, so we try not to make it a static thing, but a dynamic thing.”

Repurposing the dollhouse is only one way Schaffner makes what is old new again. As the hardware team leader for the Kiwanis Thrift Store, he and his group collect, restore, organize and price the plethora of tools donated to the organization.

It’s a labor of love for Schaffner, who counts among his own collection thousands of tools, many of which belonged to his grandfather, who bequeathed them to his father.

It’s such a passion, Schaffner has joined the Midwest Tool Collectors, Early American Industries Association, Tools and Trades History Society of Great Britain, Collectors of Rare and Familiar Tools of New Jersey and the Missouri Valley Wrench Club.

A photo of old hammers
As the hardware team leader for the Kiwanis Thrift Store, Paul Schaffner and his team take donated “junk” on the left and refurbish it like the ones on the right for sale at the store. (Photo courtesy of Paul Schaffner)

“Some weeks I fill up my entire front porch or driveway with donations that I’m sorting, refurbishing, sharpening, repainting to put them on sale,” he said.

“You’re organizing things to make them useful to people and presenting them in a way that allows unhindered access. If it’s not working, I try to make it work. If it’s dull, I sharpen it. If it’s rotting or rusty, I de-rust it and often paint it.”

That’s essentially what he’s doing with the Middle English Dictionary and the Text Creation Partnership. The former has been a major effort since 2016 to revise and position the MED on a new technical platform, while the latter has involved producing full-text transcriptions of about 73,000 early printed books over more than 20 years.

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“I think of lexicography and librarianship as two of the last resorts of the mythical creature, the generalist,” he said. “Both reward someone with broad curiosity, as opposed to most of the academic world, which rewards specialization. The Platte River in Nebraska, they say, is a mile wide and a foot deep, and that’s where my curiosity lies, so these jobs are suited to me for that reason.”


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

My work group was always rather on its own; standout moments were those that broke that isolation. Whether a visit by our vendors from Hyderabad, a visit from our Oxford-based staff, a visit to our corporate partners in Cambridge, several days with librarians at the National Library of Wales, or a sit-down confab with fellow-lexicographers at OED headquarters, it was always a joy to learn that we were all in the same boat.

What can’t you live without?

My wife, Paula, (looking over my shoulder) intervened at this point to say, “Me.”

Name your favorite spot on campus.

The depths of Hatcher North, where the strata reveal traces of earlier versions of the building, the floor records the passage of millions of feet, and relics like gas lights and vacuum message tubing witness older technologies that once excited and are now forgotten. (Also, as a member of the Squirrel Club, the Diag in peak squirrel season.)

What inspires you?

The footpath to Thwaite in Upper Swaledale at dusk. Easter service in York Minster. Watts, Wesley or Pantycelyn sung with fervor. The Ribblehead Viaduct. A well-worn tool or book passed down through generations. A library that truly lives up to its definition (in the Golden Encyclopedia) as a congenial “home for books.” Grace under pressure.

What are you currently reading?

Every night I read Middle English in search of words and meanings missed by MED, currently including Osbern Bokenham’s version of the “Legenda Aurea,” from which I have already extracted 1,500-plus quotations for the dictionary. Am just finishing up a binge-reading of the mysteries of Catherine Aird and Leo Bruce.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Aside from my own peculiar character (I probably ended up where I was meant to be), and many superb teachers, I’d cite some mythical figures: the romantic philosopher (C.S. Lewis), the cranky philologist (J.R.R. Tolkien), the autodidact lexicographer (think James Murray), and the antiquarian librarian (M.R. James).



  1. Sherle Abramson-Bluhm
    on March 8, 2024 at 6:15 am

    And on top of all that, he has interesting taste in music; a great editor who helped me vastly improve my personal statement when I (successfully) went up for promotion and overall a really nice guy.

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