Voices from the Field: An Interview with Caitlin McGurk

Caitlin McGurk is the Associate Curator for Engagement & Outreach and Assistant Professor at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. She recently curated the exhibition Tell Me a Story Where The Bad Girl Wins: The Life and Art of Barbara Shermund at the BICLM that closed on March 31. She also happens to be my colleague and new friend. Caitlin is a badass in the field and keeps it real with her colleagues, too. It is a delight and inspiration to work with her.

Photo of Caitlin McGurk standing next to case in exhibit "Koyama and Friends."
Caitlin poses next to a display case in “Koyama and Friends,” an exhibition curated by her at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in 2018. Photo provided by Caitlin McGurk.

Hey Caitlin!!! So excited to have you on the ArLiSNAP Blog this week. What you do is a little different than your general art librarian position at an academic institution. Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are now?

Absolutely! The full answer is a really, really long story, but I’ll do my best to summarize. I’ve had a passion for pop-culture and comics for most of my life, and started making my own mini-comics and zines in my late teens/early 20s as an undergraduate student at CW Post (Long Island University). I was getting my degree in English with a focus on Creative Writing, and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life after that. At the time, one of the many part-time jobs I was juggling was at a nostalgia auction house/record store called Just Kids (located at the time in Huntington Village, NY), and one of my duties while working there was to essentially document items/list them for auction (sort of like digitizing and cataloging them!) WELL, one of the first auctions I worked on was a major Underground Comix auction, and I was in my glory. I saw the light! I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Damn, if only there was a way I could spend the rest of my life researching/organizing/cataloging comics…” After that, and while participating in the small press/zines community as a maker, I sought out to make myself an expert on comics. Especially comics outside of the mainstream. It became my whole life! Somewhere along the way, someone suggested library science to me as a career option. I knew I didn’t want to become a teacher and didn’t want to write for a living either (and wasn’t sure what else I qualified for as an English major!) so I started investigating the option of an MLIS, despite having never worked in a library.

When I decided to go for it, I went in hoping that I could find a way to bring comics into whatever kind of library job I could get, assuming that, at best, it might be a public librarian gig where I could cultivate a graphic novels section. Never in my life did I think I’d end up where I am, in my dream position at the largest collection of comics and cartoon art in the world! While getting my MLIS, I focused every school project possible on comics, and secured as many volunteer opportunities and internships related to comics and librarianship as I could (including at Marvel comics, Columbia University’s Bulliet Comics Collection, and the Center for Cartoon Studies). In 2009 just before finishing my degree, I was honored with The New York Library Club for efforts in helping to make comic books and graphic novels more widely available at libraries and universities. Throughout all of this I was working full time, usually at frame shops. So nearly all my comics related work was through internships and volunteer opportunities. And I did a LOT of them! I continued this hustle after graduating, and eventually was hired as the first full-time librarian at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT. Seven years ago I started at OSU as a “Visiting Curator” at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, and 4 years ago my role became a faculty position. My career trajectory has been very focused but also a bit of a gamble – I feel exceptionally fortunate that it all worked out, and that I was able to turn my passion into an extremely rewarding career.

How do feel your day to day differs from say, my job (Art & Design Librarian in The Fine Arts Library)? Do you feel more like a museum librarian or does curator really sum up more of what you do?

My position is pretty unique in special collections and academic libraries in general. I suppose I feel like curator sums up my position more than librarian does (I spend little to no time answering reference questions or doing any collection processing or acquisition), but even the curator title is a bit vague/inaccurate. The bulk of my day-to-day is spent working on outreach initiatives for our special collection (events, student programs, etc), curating exhibits, teaching classes, and engaging with collection donors. It’s not a job description that is particularly easy to pin down, but overall my role is to elevate the visibility of the Billy Ireland and the credibility of comics overall on a local, national, and international level. This ends up including everything from coordinating with media and public relations, to teaching Ohio State classes, to running comics making workshops for the Girl Scouts of America, to traveling to give talks about comics at other intuitions, to giving tours of our exhibitions to retirement communities, to conducting studio-visits with cartoonists who are considering donating their work to us. It’s all part of the broader outreach vision.

Do you have any advice for current students and/or those on the job market?

Yes – build on your strengths! I had no idea that a position in outreach (let alone in comics outreach) could even be possible in librarianship, but I am proud that I was able to make it so by nurturing my abilities as an event planner, people-person, and overall strong promoter of comics. I feel like one of the wonderful things about librarianship, and special collections/archives in particular, is that if there is a subject area you are particularly passionate about (like comics for me) you can totally find a way to bring it into the work that you do. There are archives for just about everything, and those places need people who have that added subject-expertise/passion. I also always stress with students that networking really is essential – I know it can be anxiety-inducing, but you truly have to push yourself and put yourself out there. Utilize your mentors and connections, and don’t be afraid to take chances and ask for what you want. I also think librarians can often be humble and quiet, and I think it’s important to learn how to promote yourself and your passions. Especially when you’re in the start of your career.

What do you feel are particularly difficult challenges in the field of art or specifically museum librarianship right now?

While this has ramifications way beyond art librarianship, I think born-digital material is still one of the biggest issues facing librarians, and one that we haven’t truly found a great solution for yet. In our library, what used to be a semi truck of material that showed up at our doors when an artist donated their life’s work to us, now it’s a hard drive. Great for space-saving, but really unnerving from a preservation and access standpoint. Something we’re trying to figure out is how to make born-digital work (like many webcomics) displayable in an appealing way in our museum.

What is your favorite part of your current position? What do you hope to do next?

It’s tough for me to pick one favorite part — I really love what I do in all ways. One of my favorite parts is working with a team of extremely skilled, hardworking, kind and inspiring women. The Billy Ireland crew is like family to me. Most of all though I love that I’ve been able to marry my passion to my career, and that there’s always new discoveries and more to learn. With a collection of over 3 million items, I don’t think I’ll ever see it all!

What do I hope to do next? I hope to get tenure and live happily ever after among the comics. Maybe write a book or two.

Do you have any other reflections you’d like to share for the newbies out there? Things you wish you had known or done differently?

Hmm. Some general thoughts, some of which I’ve mentioned but will reiterate:

  • Never be afraid to ask for what you want
  • Work on your public speaking and networking skills. If you can manage yourself confidently and let go of your shyness or anxiety for a bit, it will put you leagues above others on the job market. I know this is can be a real struggle for some people.
  • Even is you think there must be more qualified people out there than yourself, apply anyway. Don’t underestimate your abilities.
  • Always be on time and professional
  • Never burn bridges
  • Find as many varied volunteer opportunities and internships as you can handle. This is where/how you will meet the people you need to meet, and figure out what you want and what you don’t.
  • Don’t settle for a job that makes you miserable. Stay confident and driven.
  • Stay positive, don’t panic, it’s gonna be okay.

Thanks, Caitlin! We loved hearing from you. 

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