A Success Story: An Interview with Jenny Ferretti, Digital Initiatives Librarian at the Maryland Institute College of 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’m a first-generation American Latina; both of my parents emigrated to the United States from Central America. I never considered librarianship as a career because I didn’t know what librarians did. I had no real connection to the library or librarians. Before becoming a librarian, I had never met a Latinx librarian, which may have contributed to why I didn’t see myself in this profession.

I went to Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and got my BFA in Photography. If it hadn’t been for MICA, I wouldn’t have gone to college and I probably wouldn’t be a librarian. I was a difficult, underachieving student in middle and high school because I didn’t learn like everyone else, and no one, including myself, had the patience to realize this. If my fine art practice hadn’t been something I wanted to pursue in college, I don’t know what would’ve become of me. MICA led me to a career in librarianship because in order to graduate, the Photography program requires students to complete an internship. I interned at a private, non-profit museum/library and it was there I realized digitizing museum and library collections was a job. After completing the internship, I got a part-time job there and after graduating I stayed there part-time and got a part-time paid internship position at Smithsonian Institution’s Anthropological Archives. I stayed at both part-time jobs for about a year, then pitched a full-time job at the museum/library (complete with budget projections and digitization program plans) and ended up getting it. I stayed there for about five years before applying to Pratt Institute’s School of Information.

At Pratt I concentrated on Digital Humanities (DH), getting as much digital tools experience as possible in the classroom and as much archives-related experience outside the classroom. While in NYC, I worked at a variety of institutions, including Pratt Institute, Columbia University, New York Public Library, and Barnard College. Pratt’s program was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to be challenged, particularly in the area of technology and user experience work. After moving back to Baltimore in 2014, I worked in the Library & Archives department at Smithsonian Channel archiving their born-digital assets for about a year.

When I saw the opening for my position, Digital Initiatives Librarian, at MICA, I thought this would be the perfect job to engage two areas I absolutely love: tech and art/design. I had no connection to the library when I was an undergraduate student. This would be my opportunity to engage with a student like me when I was in college. I had what it takes to bridge the gap between artist and archivist/librarian. I wanted to share this knowledge and explore the ways in which DH work could be integrated in the fine art/design context.

Tell us something fun about yourself! What do you do in your spare time? If you could take a trip to visit any library in the world, which would it be?
If I had to base my response on my instagram feed, my favorite things are baseball, sneakers, plants, working, music, being Latina, dogs, family and friends, and eating! Some of my favorite things to do are go to the movies, Bike Party, and dancing. I come from a family who likes to have fun, so we’re generally in a celebratory mood!

I’d love to visit the Stony Island Arts Bank, founded by artist Theaster Gates and I’d love to visit libraries or archives in Nicaragua or El Salvador to try to find any records about my family.

What does a typical day at work look like for you?
This is a tough question because I don’t often have ‘typical’ days! One of the best things about my job is that my day-to-day can be unpredictable and varied. I could be doing a research consultation, in a meeting about something web-related (most recently I’ve been involved in researching a MICA-wide DAMS), creating social media posts for Decker Library, doing collection development for the Film and Video Collection or my liaison areas, less often teaching, etc. My team, the Digital Initiatives Unit, is in charge of the digital presence for the library (which includes the website and social media). Between that and being a liaison librarian, those are the things that take up most of my time.

Do you have any advice for current students and/or those on the job market?
My advice always includes do your research. Make a spreadsheet of all the places you’d like to work – I think my list had around 35 institutions – with links to their job opportunities and check them frequently. I would check them several times a week, especially when I was close to graduating. I looked at the job titles and anything else about people who already worked at these institutions. I would also research the institution, staff, and average salaries.

I would also suggest meeting with your advisor, a trusted faculty member, or using your school’s career development center. A career development center might also help with salary negotiations.

Also, keep in mind that your position might shift priorities. My position originally was not supposed to teach at all and I was not supposed to staff the reference desk regularly (granted I only do two hours per week). I was okay with these changes because I wanted to get instruction experience. But that meant that I had to start reading about pedagogy (which I wish I had done a lot more in school).

Finally, I’d say build up your peer network. Find people who will have your back and be honest about applying for jobs, read your resumes/cover letters, etc. Applying for jobs can involve intense, emotional labor. Find your people and support them as you would want to be supported.

What were/are some challenges for you as a librarian? Are these related to larger challenges in art librarianship or the field in general?
On a personal level, balancing my time between being a manager of a unit and liaison librarian has been the most challenging. I’m lucky our library director gives me room to vent, express what I like or dislike, helps me prioritize my time if I’m feeling stressed, etc.

In terms of librarianship as a profession, I think the most challenging has been to have an open, honest dialogue about what librarianship, particularly art librarianship, is and what our values as a profession should be. Lately I’ve been writing and presenting about whiteness and neutrality in librarianship. Coming to terms with the overwhelming whiteness of this profession is the only way we can hope to change the profession’s demographics. As a woman of color, this has been challenging because many people try to derail the discussion because they view it as a personal attack. After being awarded a Library Journal 2018 Movers & Shakers award for my work with the library and archive workers of color group We Here, I know now is the time to have these difficult discussions and rethink/redesign inclusion and equity initiatives.

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