A Success Story: An Interview with Kate Lambaria, Visiting Music & Performing Arts Librarian at the University of Illinois

In this Success Story, Kate describes her experience in the field of music and performing arts librarianship, wherein she has evolved from music researcher to graduate library assistant to branch librarian supporting the School of Music and the Departments of Dance and Theatre at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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

I have an undergraduate degree in music, with a concentration in ethnomusicology. I didn’t grow up using libraries and when I started college and was introduced to them, they were this mysterious space that I didn’t understand how to navigate. I learned eventually because having an ethnomusicology focus meant that I did a lot more research than some of my peers in the music program. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I spent some time stringing together multiple part-time jobs teaching marching bands and private lessons and working in retail. My patience for this didn’t last very long and that’s when I started to think about a career that would fit with what I knew I enjoyed: music, teaching (but not full-time), the research process, and working with people. Eventually, I realized that librarianship had the potential to offer all of those things, so I applied for and was accepted to the MSLIS program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I worked as a graduate assistant in two of the libraries on campus, including the Music & Performing Arts Library where I now work, and that experience really cemented my interest in academic music librarianship.

I’m currently the Visiting Music & Performing Arts Librarian at Illinois and I work in a branch library that is one of many on campus. My library supports the School of Music and the Departments of Dance and Theatre. We’re located in the Music Building and the School of Music is the largest of the three departments, so I get to put my background in music to use on a regular basis.

What is your favorite aspect of your job? What is unique or special about your role as a performing arts librarian?

I enjoy going into classrooms for instruction sessions and then seeing the same students later in the library, either using our resources or asking for help at our desk. I’ve heard some students mention how they don’t need to do research as performers, so it’s pretty rewarding to see them realize the benefit of research on their performance, in addition to the many other ways the library can support them as performers. I also try to make it to some student performances every year and it’s really neat to see students I’ve worked with performing on stage. I guess the students are really my favorite aspect of my job!

One of the ways that performing arts librarianship is unique is the collections and the many formats that are needed. For example, if I buy a book about a specific piece of music, that leads to many questions…. do we have a score for that piece in our collection? What kind of score is it (score and parts for each instrument, just the score, a vocal score)? Who published the score? Do we have a recording (audio or video)? Who was the conductor/ensemble/soloist/choreographer… the list goes on. This impacts public services as well as collection development. There’s a lot to take into consideration when helping performing arts patrons find the information they’re seeking, and it does help to have a background in the performing arts.

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

Like many librarians, each day is different for me, but it usually consists of some combination of the following: collection development, reference and research support (I staff our reference desk 4 hours a week and each shift at the desk is always a surprise), instruction (both in class and through developing online materials), supervising our graduate assistants, and participating in programming and outreach. Right now, we’re moving to a new system for room and loanable technology reservations so I’m spending a lot of time working on that documentation for our library, developing staff training, and adjusting our policies accordingly. I’m also lucky to be at an institution that supports librarians conducting research, so depending on the day, I might be coding interviews or working on a literature review for a new project. Oh, and meetings, there’s always meetings.

Do you have any words of wisdom for students who are interested in the arts and may be considering a career in performing arts librarianship?

I don’t think I’m qualified to be dealing out words of wisdom yet, but I think it’s important to remind current LIS students that you’re probably never going to feel ready going into your first position, you just have to be prepared for that and willing to learn. My first position was as a liaison librarian to the architecture, art, dance, film, music, and theatre departments and while I felt comfortable with some of those subject areas, I knew nothing about architecture and art. So, I joined ARLIS, started reading the literature in the art librarianship field, and tried to build a network of peers. While I only work with the performing arts now, I still keep up with what’s happening in art librarianship. It can be easy to stay in your own specialized world, but there’s a lot to learn from librarians working in other subject areas. There are also many types of careers in performing arts librarianship, but I only have experience in an academic setting.

What were/are some challenges for you as a librarian?

Being early career, I have a tendency to say yes to every opportunity that comes my way. There’s a lot about librarianship that interests me, but this can also make it challenging to focus and prioritize my time. Sure, saying yes to opportunities allows me to explore new things and determine if it’s an interest worth pursuing further, but saying yes to everything is completely unrealistic, so now I’m working on learning to say no. Or, at the very least, to take more time considering how new commitments will fit into my schedule and existing long-term projects before saying yes.

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