Nimisha Bhat is the Technical Services Librarian at the Columbus College of Art & Design in Columbus, Ohio. She is also an editor at The Librarian Parlor.
You’re the Technical Services Librarian at your institution, but it seems like you do a lot more than cataloging! Could you tell us a little bit about your background in libraries and how you got to where you are now?
I actually studied to be an Arabic translator in undergrad before realizing that a path that most likely led toward working for the government was definitely not something I wanted. Having volunteered at a few libraries and my college’s archive, I thought library school was the natural next step for me. I attended Pratt Institute and had the opportunity to work in some of New York’s major museum libraries including the Met, the Guggenheim, and the Frick. I made the shift into academic libraries and here at CCAD I’m able to pair my experience working with art collections alongside college librarianship. I am currently responsible for cataloging all materials at our library while also teaching and providing reference.
How do feel art librarianship differs from general academic librarianship?
The needs of art students and artists in general are unique – inspiration and visual culture are not restricted to texts but can come from a variety of different sources. It requires art librarians to have a wide breadth of knowledge in order to know how to find more information about, for example, pastoral themes in fashion or what city life looked like in Paris during the Belle Epoque. We have to have our own kind of creativity to know where we’ll be able to find the best sources for all of the unique requests we get, be it for an art history paper or to inspire someone’s future runway collection.
Do you have any advice for current students and/or those on the job market?
Advocate for yourself. I came out of library school feeling grateful anyone would want to hire me that I didn’t even think to ask for more when I could and should have. I thought getting a job offer doing something I got an advanced degree to do was all that I needed and negotiating came across like I wasn’t satisfied with what a future employer was offering me. Know your worth and your skill set, and use that to negotiate things like professional development budgets and job titles. You deserve a job that will listen to you and respect your needs.
What do you feel are particularly difficult challenges in the field of art librarianship right now?
I had the assumption when entering art librarianship that diverse voices would be plentiful across collection development, lesson plans, and staffing. But it’s one of the many fields that still has a lot of work to do. I’ve been actively working to survey our own collections for non-cis/het/white/male works by and about LGBTQ+ people of color and engaging with our diverse user communities to make sure they’re seeing themselves in our collections and spaces. From analyzing our catalog and the subject headings we use to describe these items to curating displays with diverse art books, graphic novels, and zines, I think what we do should be holistic no matter what your job title is.
What is your favorite part of your current position? What do you hope to do next?
I love that every day on the job is different. One day I could be cataloging, another day I could be helping a student hunt down information on an obscure medieval Guelph medallion, and another day I’ll be teaching a MFA class and discussing how they place themselves within the art world. I feel enriched by all of the amazing things my students are researching and creating. Whatever I do next, I hope to remove barriers and create opportunities for young women of color in the field.
Do you have any other reflections on art librarianship you’d like to share for the newbies out there? Things you wish you had known or done differently?
Wherever you find yourself working as an art librarian next, talk to everyone around you. Learn from students, go to faculty lectures, and immerse yourself in art and scholarship that you’re not familiar with. I’m not an artist myself, but I appreciate the curiosity, investigation, and creativity of the artists I work with. I never want to tell a student what the “right” and “wrong” type of information source is because that makes a lot of unfair assumptions about a person’s lived experience. Instead, I strive to work with a student’s way of learning and reasoning to find a way to research that makes sense to them. Libraries hold up hierarchical systems of power within their institutions, and we should be stewards for meeting our users where they are instead of repeating elitist frameworks back to them. Always be learning.