A Success Story: An Interview with Kraig Binkowski, Chief Librarian of the Reference Collection at the Yale Center for British Art

Can you tell us a little bit about your background, your current position, and how you got into the field of art librarianship?
I went to undergraduate school in Detroit, at Wayne State University where I majored in fine arts – printmaking. From there I went to Ohio State University for an MFA degree in printmaking with a focus on intaglio. I returned to Detroit and tried for several years to put food on the table by making prints and teaching. After a particularly lean summer that included working on a bread delivery truck and pressing tile in a pottery, I decided that I needed to change course. I had been exposed to the library science program at Kent State while at OSU and was curious about the program at Wayne State University. I immediately fell in love with Purdy Library and was excited to be able to apply my humanities background to my coursework and then eventually (I hoped) in a professional position. I was drawn to special collections librarianship and though I hoped to be able to work as an art librarian, I was happy to be in any special collection — I worked in the Law Library throughout my time in the LIS program. Shortly after graduation, I was very fortunate that a position as an assistant librarian opened up at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a museum I had loved since childhood. I admittedly had little knowledge of the research library but I immediately clicked with the Head Librarian, Jennifer Moldwin, who took a chance on hiring a librarian/artist with little museum background. Jennifer went on to teach me what it means to be a museum librarian. From the DIA I moved to the Delaware Art Musuem where I was in charge of the small but focused library collections, one of which was a rich research and manuscript collection devoted to the British Pre-Raphaelite artists. This was my first real exposure to British art and artists and it would prove fruitful several years later when I applied for the position of Chief Librarian of the Reference Collection at the Yale Center for British Art. I have been here at Yale for over 12 years now and really love and appreciate not only the work, but also my colleagues and the physical atmosphere of the Center at Yale.

What does a typical day at work look like for you?Unfortunately, many of my days include too many meetings. But, my days always look different from each other and that’s one of the things that initially attracted me to art librarianship – I do research, acquisitions, bib instruction, reference, training; I work with other librarians, interns, students, faculty, museum staff and the general public – all of this means I have to be good at prioritizing and focusing when I need to but it also keeps each day interesting.

Do you have any advice for current students and/or those on the job market?
The scariest thing for a manager and a librarian to do is to hire a new staff member. It’s a daunting task to try and get to know a potential new librarian over interview meetings lasting only a few hours in one day. So, it is very helpful to already have some insights about a candidate, particularly if they have interned or volunteered at the library, or worked with the hiring librarian through ARLIS or some other professional organization. If I don’t know a candidate, I put a lot of stock in the recommendation of my friends and colleagues in the profession, particularly those that I know fairly well. I would recommend to any candidate that they try to let the hiring librarian get to know them in any way possible before the interview – and enlist the help of colleagues that know both you and the hiring librarian.

What were/are some challenges for you as an art librarian? What do you think are current challenges in the field of art librarianship or librarianship in general?
Well, I think funding is a challenge for art libraries and librarians, but that’s always been a challenge – it’s nothing new. I feel one of the biggest challenges for art librarians (particularly in museums) is to stay relevant in an institution – and while that’s a struggle, it’s also one of the things that makes art librarianship exciting. Scholarship is always changing and evolving, the rise of digital scholarship and the technical analysis of objects has opened up new doors that librarians have to be aware of, and to excel at. We never want to be seen as lagging behind the field, but in the forefront, pushing the boundaries.

Tell us something fun about yourself! What do you do in your spare time?
I am a printmaker, as I wrote earlier, and I still make woodcuts for exhibitions in New Haven and around the Northeast, mostly. I have a small etching press that I adapt for wood blocks and commandeer my dining room with the press, paper and tools when I need to print an edition. I have two children that take up a lot of my spare time but I have started to learn to play the guitar recently – so far, I only know two different songs (and not even completely), but it’s a start.

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