Morell Old

Taylor Nunley, Staff Writer

Liv Hage

When Morell Old `23 was in elementary school, they told their mother their favorite day was test day because “everyone was quiet.” On Grinnell College’s campus, Old continued to find respite from the bustle of student life in Burling Library’s books and tranquility. 

For Old’s four years at Grinnell, they have had a toe dipped in a little bit of everything — double majoring in classics and biology, leading as co-president of the Fiber Arts Club and a two-year stint at the S&B are all just a small fraction of what Old has filled their time with. But one of their defining traits is their hate for competition. 

“I do not like competition really in anything, especially games. I will avoid playing board games to the best of my ability because I’m a really sore loser, but I’m also a sore winner,” Old said. 

Old said they see the biology field as filled with competition and, despite their love for the subject, if they were to pursue their specific interest in ecology, it would feel like “competing for grant proposals my whole life.” 

However, Old found a different passion while at Grinnell — librarianship. Old has worked at Burling Library since the summer of 2021. Burling was where their passion for librarianship was first fostered, and Old will be pursuing a Master of Arts in Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this upcoming fall. To them, a future job environment of a library would curb the competitiveness that comes with academia. 

With Old’s choice of their majors growing out of the childhood love they had for the disciplines, Old’s pursuit of librarianship only seemed natural. 

“I was the little kid who knew all the facts about animals,” Old said. “And also my particular biology interest is taxonomy, which is like organizing everything … it reminds me of classics in a way of making sure everything is organized in its place and understanding the world.” 

Paul Hansen

In the summer of 2021, when Old began their job as a cataloging and processing student assistant at Burling, they had a number of academic opportunities taken from them because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Near the end of their first year in 2020, before the pandemic sent students home, Old had applied not only to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, a study abroad program in Greece, but also to a number of Research Experiences for Undergraduates. But in March 2020, these opportunities were pushed back to 2021 and, eventually, outright canceled. 

“I was like, ‘it’s not meant to be,’” Old said. “So I’ve actually not studied abroad or done research in my entire time at Grinnell basically … ​​That never happened, but it’s okay. I move on, and I find sources of joy in my life.” 

Old found solace between the pages of Burling’s books and from their roommate’s cat, Butterscotch, in the summer break between their second and third years.    

One of Old’s favorite parts about their job at Burling is their chance to be a “tastemaker and an influencer.” As part of their job, Old is one of the people who choose what books go on the library’s current and popular shelf, and they also design the monthly themed display in front of this shelf. 

“The other thing I do that is influencer-y that I make jokes about with my supervisor is that whenever I would put up a display, they would take a picture of me with the display and put it on the Grinnell College Libraries Instagram. That is the joke that I make. That I’m basically an Instagram model,” Old said.  

Old found subjective fame in the classics sphere, too. In a Latin seminar on Vergil, an ancient Roman poet, Old recalled their professor saying it was near impossible to keep the integrity of the original Latin of the epic poem the “Aeneid” when translating it into English. Old, who greatly enjoys creative writing, took this as a personal challenge. 

Old said they were “not really expecting anything” when submitting their translation to “Animus.” Old’s translation was accepted and  published at the beginning of 2023. 

“It feels very validating to be published,” they said.

Old’s translation is not the only work they have published. They have also been published in the Grinnell Review and the Grinnell Underground Magazine. They said writing is their “hobby outside of school.”

“I feel like words and written language have become natural to me in a way because I’ve written and read so much that I sort of know how words fit together on the page,” Old said. 

In class, I don’t like the ambiguity, but when you’re translating a poem for yourself, you can choose the meaning. Like with the ablative, you can translate it as causal or instrumental … It makes it interesting to translate, and you can make choices

— Morell Old

Despite common beliefs that English translations of classical works often are not faithful to the original texts and are instead boringly dense, Old still sees the beauty in translating their ancient Greek and Latin class readings over the years. 

“In class, I don’t like the ambiguity, but when you’re translating a poem for yourself, you can choose the meaning. Like with the ablative, you can translate it as causal or instrumental … It makes it interesting to translate, and you can make choices,” Old said. 

The ablative case, a noun case in the Latin language, often can be translated in a variety of ways, sometimes functioning as an adverbial phrase or even as a phrase denoting place. 

In a fitting Burling Library student worker fashion, Old recommended their top two favorite books in Burling — Sharma Shields’ “The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac: A Novel” and Ian McGuire’s “The North Water.”