NYPL Researcher Spotlight: Tatjana Bergelt

By NYPL Staff
January 19, 2021

This profile is part of a series of interviews chronicling the experiences of researchers who use The New York Public Library collections for the development of their work.

Drawing of two butterfly wings, from Vladimir Nabokov's Butterflies of America.

Drawing of two butterfly wings, from Vladimir Nabokov's Butterflies of America. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 5041419

Tatjana Bergelt (b. 1966 in East Berlin) is based in Helsinki, Finland. She studied painting and printmaking at the University of Art and Design Halle Burg Giebichenstein, Germany and at the Ecole Nationale Supériere de Beaux Arts à Paris in France, and has a Master in Fine Arts.

What brought you to the Library?

The extraordinary Berg collection with most of Vladimir Nabokov’s manuscripts and drawings.

Describe your research routine

I try to arrive at opening hour to have the luxury of choosing my seat and plunging right into the world of Nabokov. One way of preparing my research visit is to access the NYPL digital databank, copy those items I wish to examine and have a list ready the day before. Another method relies on old fashioned reading, underlining interesting facts or sentences, which steer my attention towards a new point of view. This way I collect a number of items I want to examine. In the library my routine is to check the index cards of the Vladimir Nabokov collection, which I then copy one by one to request the item at quest.  According to my previous notes I look and read passages through, take a photo to remember the text or image and cross this item from my initial list. Usually I would stay from 10 AM until 2:30 PM without interruption.

What's your favorite spot in the Library?

I do not really have one. I admire the room with the geographical maps, but most of all I like silent corners. The Berg collection is definitely silent.

When did you first get the idea for your research project

This idea came to me in 2017, when realizing a connection between Vladimir Nabokov the writer and Nabokov the lepidopterist, by reading an article about the research by Prof. Naomi Pierce from Harvard University about the Polyommatus blues butterflies. Those were the butterflies Vladimir Nabokov developed an outstanding theory about, suggesting possible evolutionary movements via the Bering strait in his paper Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae in 1945. His classification of species and his timing of evolutionary events were incredibly accurate, as proven by Prof. Pierce’s DNA-informed findings.

What’s the most unexpected item you encountered in your research?

The drawings of male butterflies’ genitals by Vladimir Nabokov.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I see more and more that Nabokov was not only accurate in this specific entomological research but also in his approach towards literature and life, refusing to allow banalities and modish messages to take over.

What's an essential item or tool you need when you're in research mode?

I would not want to give up pen, paper and my camera.

Describe a moment when your research took an unexpected turn.

While visiting the butterfly collection in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard I had the chance to see a butterfly wing under the microscope. The structure and visibility of scales were unexpectedly impressive.

How do you maintain your research momentum?

I think in the language of Nabokov and I travel in mind, being part of those past events.

What's your guilty pleasure distraction?

A walk through the reading halls gives a distraction.

After a day of working/researching, what do you do to unwind?

I like to walk for a while, to meet friends and go to eat with them.

What tabs are currently open on your computer?

At the moment I am looking into Eumaeini Lepidoptera Lycaenidae and research about “A butterfly with olive green eyes…”

Where is your favorite place to eat in the neighborhood?

Usually I bring a sandwich with me, so I don't have to go out or get distracted. I like to stay in one world.

Is there anything you'd like to tell someone looking to get started?

Do not be scared off by the magnificence of this institution or the demand to submit an abstract, which will be examined. Go for what you want, a library is only as important as its potential readers, remember that.