Tips For the Non-Art Librarian (or Notes From the Field)

This post is in the vein of the Hack Your Art Librarianship Program series from awhile back, but has been tailored to reflect what some people may be experiencing professionally–working in a library but not an art library or as an art librarian. 

My ultimate career goal is to work as an art librarian. Even though I have this fancy new volunteer position as a feature post writer for ArLiSNAP, I’m not there yet. Currently, I work as the Collection Development & Assessment Librarian at a medium sized liberal arts college in the southeast. I’ve worked at a public library, and now two academic libraries, both in “paraprofessional” and “professional” positions, but never has it been my J O B to liaise with art faculty, perform collection development specifically for a fine arts collection, do instruction primarily for fine arts or art history courses, or any of the other number of things art librarians do.

However, I have forced myself my way in to some of these roles, and I’m going to offer tips based on my experience on how to do that now.  Before I get started, I will say that I had the advantage of teaching art history at the community college where I worked, so I had a bit of a foot in the door, but I think these tips will help anyone who is interested in the visual arts get involved on their own campus.

In my last position, I started as a reference specialist. Later, I worked as an instruction librarian at the same place, but I started before I finished library school. This meant that I was not a L I B R A R I A N, but I was allowed to staff the reference desk, assist students with their research needs, and get to know the campus staff and faculty as much or as little as I wanted to. I’m a gregarious sort of person, so I found myself on a number of committees and BAM I was “liaising” whether I meant to or not.

Here are a few personal tips I have for those who are gaining experience working in an academic (community college) library, but are not officially getting the experience they want to develop the skills necessary to become an art librarian.

1. Roam Around! All too often, we academic library professionals (and I use this term broadly, because I believe that staff members are professionals) are siloed in the library. Stuck there. Like, “Oh! You’re out of the library” style confusion when you’re not there. If [you’re able to] take a break and walk around, you get to know people, which helps you form connections that you can use later when you get a great idea for programming or the collection that relates to the visual arts, even if that isn’t technically your job (but don’t do SO MUCH that you are working outside of your pay grade…that is important. I will repeat it later).

This one can be difficult. Maybe you’re an introvert or the culture at your place of work doesn’t invite casual conversation or even allow leaving the library during work hours. I get that. But if you’re able to, I say take a break and maybe a little walk.

I would also like to add on here: if you find a librarian or faculty member who is friendly, turn to them with questions when you have them. One of my colleagues helped mentor me through library school and is now one of my closest friends. She’s not an art librarian, but she is an excellent librarian and was supportive of my goals. You just never know who is going to make an impact for you.

2. Get to the know the collection. In my position as reference specialist at a community college, I spent over two years getting to know the collection generally. But I also took the time to specifically get to know the art section. Because I walked around it regularly, touching the books, tidying up, and helping students find materials for their research, I often had ideas to share with the collection development librarian about how to improve upon what we already owned (she was very supportive of this, again, I was lucky). Through getting to know the area of the collection I loved the most, I straight up inserted myself in the collection development process. When a faculty member came to her to ask for some reinvigoration in the art history print collection, our CD librarian came to me to help. I was able to gain experience doing collection development as well as collection development in the art section. This also gave me knowledge of publishers of art books and helped me to get a feel for what is being published in our field right now. I realize not everyone will have this opportunity. But either way, the more you know about your collection, the more expertise you will have fine arts print collections when you go for an interview at an art library or as a subject specialist in an academic library.

3. Join some committees. This connects to the Tip #1 ^. Maybe this one is just an extension of #1, but I think it’s important. Here’s where I remind you though – if you feel joining committees is above your pay grade, do not do it. Don’t let them exploit you. Don’t let someone tell you it is your job to serve on some planning committee just because they don’t want to do it if it is not actually in your job description. Especially if you’re not being paid as a “professional” librarian. 

THAT BEING SAID…

If you, like me, are looking for a convenient way to make yourself known on campus and get the library involved in event programming related to fine arts, joining a committee might be a good starting place. First of all, it is an excellent way to get to know other staff and instructional faculty on campus. When you work together with people for weeks, they’re more likely to say hello when you pass them later. They might even answer your email when you ask if they want to combine forces on the next gallery exhibition and have the library be involved.

For me, Tip #3 is all about how I can insert my own agenda into what is already happening on campus. Having some events to celebrate Multicultural Awareness Week? Why not exhibit some artwork made by students in the library? Etc. It’s a good way to get connected.

4. Make friends with the Fine Arts and Art History faculty. Even if they aren’t on that committee you just joined, THESE ARE YOUR PEOPLE! They are the people who went through programs like you in undergrad/grad school, or saw the same Cezanne show you did last weekend. It will not only make your job more pleasant, but also making connections with them comes in handy when you have plans for art in the library. They can collaborate on exhibitions and programs with you, and they definitely want to be involved with the collection. They know it too, because they are the ones that use it.

In my case, I got to know our printmaking professor by asking him to lend the library display pedestals for an art show of biology inspired raku fired pottery during a special event week at the college. Later, I used the same pedestals to promote his printmaking courses which are often under enrolled. He saw the value of the library as a mutually beneficial relationship, and I did too. Hence, a professional relationship was born!

At that point in my time in that position, I was unable to teach library instruction (not enough master’s credits) or do “real librarian” work, so what I felt I could do is enhance our library through partnerships with art faculty. It help me feel unstuck to work on projects like this.

Photo of a neon sign that says art
Photo by Ian Williams on Unsplash

5. Continue to go see art. This one is so important. Actually, I’ve gotten away from it a little too much. So this one is also a reminder for myself. REMINDER: If you love art, GO SEE ART. It will lift you up when you are down, and it will remind you when you have your head in the academic sand that there is a purpose to your professional trajectory. When I was writing my thesis for my first master’s degree, we had a workshop where a former student came by and told us this same thing. She said something like “Stop writing sometimes, and go see some art. That’s why you’re here.”

Likewise, dear reader, that’s why you’re HERE. That’s why I started reading the ArLiSNAP blog in the first place, and now why I’m volunteering as a feature post writer. I love art. I love the messy process of artmaking (by other people, not me personally, though I do love a darkroom and also to fling paint at things when I’m feeling frisky). I also love the messy conversations we have ABOUT art and the various elements/social conditions that inform it. I love researching art and facilitating that research for other people. But all too often, I get caught up in the “what are the steps to become an art librarian” professional to-do list and forget what is most important, which to take it in.

So there you are! I hope that these are helpful for you, or lead you to think of other new ways you might be able to get involved on campus in different arts initiatives or with the art department. Good luck on your journey!

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