Voices from the Field: An Interview with Kai Alexis Smith

This week, we are featuring an interview with Kai Alexis Smith, Architecture and Design Librarian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries. Kai Alexis Smith is also Vice Moderator of the Architecture section of ARLIS/NA and will step into the Moderator position at the St. Louis Annual Conference. She is an active leader in grant/research initiatives, especially those which empower underrepresented people in the African Diaspora. In the following interview, our interviewee shares some unique experiences relating to career opportunities, networking, and making the most of a library education.

A portrait of Kai Alexis Smith.
Photo credit: Bryce Vickmark

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the field of (art) librarianship?

I am the Architecture and Design Librarian at MIT Libraries in Cambridge, MA and a mixed media visual artist. Before becoming a Librarian, I had a career in lifestyle and entertainment magazine and websites. I was at a fork in the road in my life and sought advice from my professor. At that time, I was on the path to pursue a PhD in Art History. My professor was able to take a holistic view of my skills and career and she suggested I think about Librarianship as an alternative path. Since I didn’t know any librarians at the time, I spoke with librarians in museums, public, and academic institutions about what they do day-to-day and eventually made some big life decision to pursue a MSLIS at Pratt Institute. Three and a half years of working 30-40 hours a week at a public library, commuting 5 hours a day, 4 days a week between states, going to school at night and doing 1-2 day long internships a semester later, I got my MSLIS degree from Pratt Institute. This was an accomplishment, not only for myself, but also for my family since I am the first to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

What “keeps you busy” these days in the field? What projects are you working on?

I am just a couple months in to my new position and am already busy in a good way. I am excited about the potential to work with great colleagues in the library and faculty and staff in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT.
I contribute to the community through my work as the AfroCROWD New England Branch Organizer. This work involves training people that want to organize Wikipedia edit-a-thons in the region with a focus on the African diaspora. I believe in open and equitable access to information and representation of the disenfranchised while empowering underrepresented people in the African Diaspora to research, write and edit content. I am thrilled that I get to do that work with AfroCROWD. AfroCROWD aims to increase awareness of — and participation in — the Wikimedia and free knowledge, culture and software movements among people of African descent and to connect Wikimedians of African descent while educating Wikimedians about the African Diaspora.
Aside from AfroCROWD work, I am a member of Wikipedia’s Simple Annual Planning Grant (Simple APG) committee where I review grant applications from the Wikipedia community from around the world. I am also an associate editor for the Wiki Journal of the Humanities.
Research is important to me. I get to do research I find interesting with two co-researchers Laurel Bliss and Ann Roll on the California State University (CSU) Art and Architecture Librarians, which we hope to result in a collaborative working group to help with shared resources and techniques in teaching, reference, outreach and collection development. I am also planning next steps for my research into the research behaviors of the Urban and Regional Planning Faculty in the United States. I plan to write about both projects.

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

This is just my two cents. I have three tips:

    • For those in school, be more of a generalist. I went into library school thinking I’d be a museum librarian and came out an academic librarian. You will have more job opportunities when you get out of school as a generalist versus the few openings that comes with specialization. You can always specialize on the job.
    • Network while you are a student and on the job market. We rise together. Your classmate sitting next to you might be your coworker or your boss one day. Our profession is small. Take the time to get to know folks over tea/coffee. Go to a networking reception even for a couple hours. Make sure you have business cards and start small. Make SMART goals. If you are new to this, maybe have a friend help and set reasonable goals for the event you attend. For example, you might try to only meet one person and exchange cards. Then follow up with a email.
    • Do informational interviews in person or by phone. This provides you the opportunity to learn about how librarians got to their positions, what librarians day-to-day work is and any advice they might want to give to a young professional.

If you could go back in time and do part of your career or education over again, is there something you would have changed? A class you would have taken? A missed opportunity?

Getting the IMLS grant off the ground for recruiting a more diverse workforce into the Art and Architecture Librarian profession. As someone who benefited from scholarship opportunities and participation in an ARL program, but still struggled financially through MSLIS school, I know how important financial support is to help attend Library school and how hard it can be to participate in an internship. Internships are important for developing skills as an early career art library professional, but ones where students are expected to work for free are exploitative and favor the privileged in our profession to advance. I believe internships should be paid. My ideal grant would help recruit early career librarians from traditionally underrepresented and disenfranchised communities into the profession by providing support with tuition and a paid internship at a local (to the applicant’s location) museum, academic, public or government library for one year. I still think there might be hope for a grant like this in the future.


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