Voices from the Field: An Interview with Jamie Vander Broek

Color photograph depicting outdoor plaza. To the left is the school of art and design. The top and left are flanked by green trees.
The University of Michigan Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your current position? What drew you to this position and art librarianship in general?

I’m currently the Librarian for Art & Design and the Manager of the Arts Group at the University of Michigan Library. My role is a combination of a traditional subject specialist position with some supervisory responsibilities. I also started a Book Arts Studio a few years ago, and have been getting that off the ground.

My job involves curating the print and digital contemporary art and design collections for the Library (including artists’ books), working with students, faculty, staff, and the community to advance their research, and supporting the work of the other art subject specialist librarians.

My background all feeds perfectly into my work, but it took quite a while for it to coalesce this nicely. My parents worked as an industrial designer and an art educator, so I was always surrounded by artists and designers growing up. As an undergraduate at Wellesley College, I had intended to go the other direction and major in cognitive psychology. But I happened to stop by the Art Library’s booth at a job fair the fall of my first year. I started working there, and was immediately hooked. I became an art history major and was thoroughly devoted to the Art Library from the start. I also started taking book arts workshops and fell in love with those, too, eventually taking all the credit courses offered on book arts and doing an independent study in Special Collections.

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a librarian, so as much as it all looks natural to me now in retrospect, it took me a while to fully process the idea of librarianship as a career. And after I went back to school to get my master’s degree I learned how competitive and crowded the field can be. At first I focused on non-art librarian jobs, but always kept up my association with ARLIS/NA, going to conferences, presenting, and joining committees and SIGs.

Now I use a combination of my background and interests in my work every day, and that’s really satisfying. I’m actually less interested in artists’ books now, though, than I was in college. I’ve become much more into interiors and house design over the years. I think it’s good, though to not be buying what I’m personally obsessed with. It gives me some useful professional distance from what I’m supposed to be evaluating. And my colleague buys the house stuff, so I’m not so far from it that I can’t enjoy the fruits of her labor while I’m working down in our Special Collections.

What are the most important things emerging art librarians should know?

Over my ten years with ARLIS/NA, I’ve watched my cohort gradually get settled. Things that seemed impossible or immovable at the start have, of course, changed. Things open up, people move around. But you have to be paying attention. I think that if you know you really want to be in this work, that staying involved with the society can be a really useful grounding tool. It gave me an art outlet when I wasn’t getting much of one in my day-to-day work, allowed me to continue to network with “my people,” and now that I’m finally working as a full-time art librarian, it feels like home.

Do you have any job-hunting advice for aspiring art librarians?

I think there are different strategies you can take. Definitely coming to conferences when possible is helpful, because it’s so helpful to be able to make face-to-face connections with people in the field. I personally think it’s a good idea to dig in and take on some responsibility within the organization, because that demonstrates your value to the community in a way that’s helpful when you’re looking for a job. It seems like some of my peers were really focused on getting an art librarian job specifically, regardless of where the position might be. I was a little more open to considering other positions at certain institutions, and I don’t regret that — I thought for sure that there would never be an opening at my institution in art, but eventually there was.

Color photograph of variety of letterpress type
Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash

Can you talk a little about the Book Arts Studio at the UM and how this space came about? What is your role, and the library’s, in relation to this space?

There was (and is!) a Book Arts Studio in the Library at Wellesley, where I went to college. It actually wasn’t in the Art Library, but in the general collection’s building attached to Special Collections. When I became the Librarian for Art & Design at Michigan, I thought we should have one, too, because I had seen at Wellesley what a difference it makes to not just view something but to get to learn about it by making it as well. I wanted to be able to “do” artists’ books.

I started with a stack of green cutting mats and some bone folders. Then, coincidentally, another department of our Library purchased an entire letterpress studio and didn’t have a place to put it or a person dedicated to taking care of it. I put my hand up, and the studio arrived while I was away on vacation a few summers ago in enormous cardboard boxes that I could crawl into, they were so big! I hired a graduate student to help dig out of the mess, and then started working with local letterpress experts to offer an open studio program and workshops.

It’s been such a dream to have the ability to demonstrate and teach letterpress and to be able to give students a space to make book works of their own in the Library. Now, of course, the biggest problem is capacity. We have the equipment and a skeleton crew, but we need to figure out how to increase the Library’s investment in the endeavor so we can bring more support on board.

I feel that the Artists Books collection is a special and unique collection we have at the U-M Library. I’m wondering if you could talk some about how you’ve used this collection in your position, maybe in teaching, engagement, professional development, or any other kind of work. Do you have any particularly interesting stories regarding this collection or its works?

Only one person has cried while looking at the artists’ books collection with me, which surprises me. It tends to engender powerful reactions in people, though really the cheese book (American Cheese, 20 Slices) has taken the cake as far as strong feelings are concerned. Over the past few years, I’ve developed a better sense of whether I’d like to add something to the collection, and it’s essentially whether it makes me think to myself, “F–k yes, we have to have that.” I add things that don’t make me feel that way, for more logical reasons (it complements another item in the collection, it matches our overall collecting priorities, etc), but when I have the “f–k yes” feeling, I know people are going to dig into the object when they come to visit the collection with classes. Recently I bought a Hermès pop up book because I had that feeling, and it’s been rewarding watching people pour over the animated scarves that are inside the book.

I think the most rewarding part of the collection is getting to see what people make after they’ve seen items from it. You can really see the difference it makes to have experienced some artists’ books before attempting to create one — the student projects are so much more boundary-pushing and interesting.

Irregular purple shape in the center with darker purple text "greetings from Paris Kentucky." Brown and green marks accent the purple center piece.
Lessons from the South / text and design by Susan E. King

Tell us something fun about yourself! Do you have a favorite library? A favorite artist?

I just got back from Amsterdam, so I’m really into Dutch design and designers. Sigrid Calon is my current favorite. She works with risograph a lot, and in a few weeks I’m going to Mills College to learn more about how risograph works as part of their summer intensive workshops.

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