Canadian Librarians Spotlight: An Interview with Mark Black

What is the name of the employer/institution you work for?

Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity

Can you tell us a little bit about your background, your current position, and how you got into the field of (art) librarianship?

I’m currently the manager of the Paul D. Fleck Library and Archives at Banff Centre. I have been working libraries in a variety of positions from clerk to marketing to home delivery to programming to youth librarian since 1997. I also have worked in television as a researcher and production coordinator.

My arts background is mostly in music and the literary arts. When it comes to fine arts, I would say my formal skill set is somewhat lacking. I spent a few years working in this library as a clerk back in 2001-2003 so I have called on that experience a lot. Luckily I wasn’t hired to be an artist, I was hired to be a librarian. I do need to modify my approach depending on needs, but ultimately the goal is to put people in touch with what they need in order to create and learn.

It’s been a very circuitous route. I was lucky to have worked for a number of librarians who encouraged me to pursue librarianship. My grades were not good, but everything I did from 1997 until I entered grad school had a library or research focus. I made it hard for them to not accept me because I wouldn’t settle for anything but a yes.

What brought you to your current position? 

I was a youth librarian at an under-resourced and heavily used public library.  I loved the staff and kids I worked with, but it could be a very taxing job. I’m probably describing the work of every public librarian ever. I wanted to prove myself in a leadership role and the opportunities to do so weren’t present. I had promised myself that after two years in my position I’d re-evaluate where I was headed career wise. Almost exactly two years to my start date this job was posted and it seemed like fate. I had worked at Banff Centre in the library early in my career and thought it might be the right fit for me again. I was lucky that they thought so too.

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

Check email, meetings with departments, staff, faculty, and artists on how the library can support their work – whether through our current collections, increased access to resources, or hosting programming, reference questions, taking care of paperwork (HR, budget, scheduling, health and safety, purchasing), trying to plan for and prognosticate the needs of our users – I want to make sure that we not only react to their needs, but anticipate them, drink too many cokes, and a steady iTunes soundtrack.  Also in there is reading to stay on top of trends and news that impacts our library and our community of users and trying to squeeze in professional development.

What were/are some challenges for you as an art(s) librarian? What do you think are current challenges in the field of art librarianship/librarianship in general, particularly within Canada?

One of my greatest struggles is developing a collection that is inclusive. We work in an industry that is primarily white with materials that are predominantly produced by white people. Our collections and our practices have a lot of blind spots. We have to be better. It’s a big conversation that has to happen at so many levels – collections, library schools, hiring practices, programming, etc. and I’m not sure we as librarians are actively having it

Do you have any advice for current students and/or those on the job market? What are the most important things emerging art librarians should know?

Be honest in interviews. Know your value, know why someone would want to hire you, and communicate that in an interview.  Formulate a game plan of how you are going to sell yourself and your abilities in an interview and make sure to hit those notes.

You’re trying to create a relationship in an interview as quickly as possible.  It will help you make a decision on whether this job is a good fit if you do your best to be you throughout it.

Can you talk a little bit about ways that you draw on the more conventional aspects of your LIS education? What are some things you’ve had to learn on your own?

I’m not entirely convinced that my LIS education sufficiently prepared me for what I would encounter in the field so to speak. I had a lot of well educated, distinguished, and intelligent professors, but what I was taught in the classroom and what I encounter in practice are often quite different. There can often be a gap between library academics and library practitioners. It’s not a right or wrong situation, it’s just that my experience in libraries didn’t always match up with what I learned in the classroom.

The three biggest areas where I had to learn on my own were: public outreach and community building, leadership/coaching/managing a staff, and finances (budgeting, grant applications, business proposals).

Luckily there are lots of colleagues who have been in the same position and you can draw on a diversity of opinions and experiences – that has helped a lot.

What would you consider the most rewarding parts of your job, and what are your biggest challenges as an information professional in a special library environment?

Most rewarding: Putting someone in touch with something they didn’t know existed or didn’t know was accessible– as librarians we can often make the impossible seem possible and that is a great feeling.

Biggest challenge: No library is free from this – there are still a lot of people who do not understand the possibilities of the library and what a library can offer (whether it’s academic, public, special etc.). It’s an ongoing struggle to prove our relevance to people who not only haven’t been through our doors, but don’t even know where our doors are.

Do you have any insight or advice as to how ArLiSNAP can assist in connecting emerging Canadian and American information professionals?

Mentor partnering, informal meet-ups and chats, opportunities to partner with more established information professionals for presentation or writing opportunities – really just anything that gives people a chance to speak honestly, connect, and share knowledge in an environment that drops ranks and allows everyone to be themselves. We all need a place where we can ask earnest questions without feeling dumb or judged.

Tell us something fun about yourself! What do you do in your spare time? If you could take a trip right now to visit any library in the world, which would it be?

Baseball, music (mostly punk rock), reading, and travel are my biggest outlets. I’m trying to  get back into ice skating and skiing now that I am back in the mountains – my mileage will vary.

Easy – the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York. I have dreamed of working there for almost 20 years.  Some day?

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