Category Archives: Interviews

Living Online with Our Libraries

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated memory and cultural institutions’ ability to offer in-person presentations and programs, many information professionals are spending their time finding new ways to optimize the impact of online presentations and programs.

Brooklyn Public Library’s Center for Brooklyn History Reference Librarian Michelle Montalbano and Rhode Island School of Design Research and Instruction Librarian Emily Coxe offer us some insight into their experience with this now-virtual world.

In this colloquial yet engaging transcript, Montalbano and Coxe discuss the challenges with maintaining the “wow” factor in presenting archival pieces over Zoom, how they have adapted existing programs to a new format, the digital divide, potential benefits of online programming, and more!


Michelle Montalbano is a reference librarian at Brooklyn Public Library’s Center for Brooklyn History, where she handles instruction, outreach, reference, programming, and exhibitions, among other things. She received her MLIS from Simmons College in 2016. She has worked in publishing, digital archives studios, classrooms, bars, and restaurants, and she loves a good list. 

Emily Coxe is a research and instruction librarian at the Rhode Island School of Design. She received an MLIS from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2016. She has worked in commercial art galleries, media archives, public schools, and other unspeakable places.

Emily and Michelle met in 2012, a few years before starting MLIS programs simultaneously on opposite U.S. coasts. They have been comparing notes ever since. 

Note: This transcript has been edited for length and clarity, but most of the supportive and validating “yeahs” remain. Imagine laughter at all the appropriate places.


I feel like it should be stated that we are in fact recording this on Zoom, brought to you by Zoom. 


As is everything in the last year. 


Just to get the really boring, dry technical stuff out of the way. Do you actually use Zoom?


Yes, Zoom is the primary video conferencing software I use at work.

I wanted to give you props for your comparison of Zoom to Kleenex, because I use that same one when I’m explaining to students how JSTOR is not the only database, it’s the Kleenex of databases and they need to know there are other brands out there. Sometimes I even get into the weeds of trying to explain the structure of databases and how they contain smaller informational units and I’ll be pantomiming pulling tissues out of a box and going on about how this tissue is, like, Artforum and this tissue is October


I think everyone tried different platforms at some point. I remember there was a week when I had some Google Meets, and also Microsoft Teams meetings, and a few Zooms, like we were going for video conferencing software BINGO. But now it seems like we have returned to the tried and true.


Yeah, you know, I’m not a big fan of software monopolies like this, but it’s definitely helpful to have a consistent thing that many people know how to operate.


I’m sure this has come up for you as well, but we were also thinking a lot about equitable distribution of devices and access to the internet, though I think this is more of a public library concern maybe than for an academic institution. I lead workshops and virtual tours for college and grad students, and senior citizens too recently, which was cool, so a lot of our initial questions were around: Are students engaged with their devices, does everybody have a device, is internet connectivity at people’s homes going to support really active bandwidth usage, etc. Some initiatives have rolled out during the pandemic to expand internet access into neighborhoods–literally boosting the signal while we’ve been closed–since there are people who rely on coming into the library for their internet access. 


Yeah, that definitely hasn’t been as much of a concern in my work zone. Working at a private institution helps with that, though still not everyone has equal access to things. In March we sent our loaner laptops home with some students who needed them, for example. 

Michelle: This question applies to staff too. My own laptop died right before an important virtual program and I had to borrow a Surface Pro from work. And the Surface Pro didn’t have video capabilities.


Oh no.


Which was specifically what I needed it for, so I had this small tablet device and a virtual camera, or whatever, a webcam, that was almost as large as the Surface Pro just balancing on top. It worked but it was a Franken-situation. 


Cobbling together the technology to do certain things has been a sort of fun adventure for me. But I’ve always liked that sort of thing. I see how other people I work with find it incredibly frustrating.


What have you cobbled together, what sort of workarounds?


In terms of physical equipment, there was a class where I used an overhead camera setup that our Special Collections crew thankfully already had. I’ve done similar things from home that weren’t so easy. This was an advanced typography class in our Graphic Design program. Essentially, what I had done with them in previous years was give them a tour of new magazines and our zine collection, pointing out interesting publications and their professor, who has a much stronger knowledge of typography than I do, would go around picking up things that she wanted to show.

And this is sort of getting to another question you’ve asked, which is, the Zoom version of this course was much more equitable in terms of student experience, because when we did it in person, we’re on this tiny balcony. And the professor was standing like 20 feet away from half the class holding a magazine and shouting about it. Being able to use the overhead cam to just let people see it on their own screen, I think was a lot nicer, actually. I could stop and zoom in on details on request, lay things next to each other to compare them, etc. And nobody had to yell.


Totally. I mean, to answer the primary question [about maintaining the “wow” factor with digital programming] right off the bat, I’ve been using digitized versions of archival materials that I have been selecting and curating for the whole time I’ve been with the Center for Brooklyn History, so I have a sense of which are most compelling, and doing sort of photo mapping exercises, or like a really standard educational model of observations, inferences and questions that come out of interactions with these images. That kind of stuff was part of our in-person workshops, but again, it’s more equitably distributed now. And I think people can actually get more in-depth with their examinations of these materials, because they can literally zoom in, and they can spend more time looking at them on their own devices, right? And so I find that the conversations around the materials themselves are a lot richer. 


Yeah, I work with someone who has her own camera stand that she set up on what looks like a wire kitchen rack, with an iPad on the top rack that she’ll turn on to camera mode, and then stream that camera view into the Zoom so that she can show folding exercises and artist books and things flat on her desk, page through them, and you know, participants can see what the camera’s seeing from above.


That’s so cool. I mean, that’s a necessary kind of innovation for demonstrations when you’d otherwise be doing hands-on work, right? Can you talk more about that? I love that. 


Yeah I’ve been really curious about what other people are doing. This person is a colleague who is really knowledgeable about artists’ books, book structures and paper folding techniques. I knew that she had been making videos and doing classes on these things with students, but I hadn’t seen any. And then we had a staff meeting recently, and she was kind enough to share with everybody a sort of a mini-exercise that she had been doing with classes. What she did was show us an artist’s book by Clarissa Sligh called Transforming Hate. After a little intro to the project, she asked us to grab a piece of paper, and just fold. We could fold whatever we wanted, but just do it, while she turned the pages and read the book to us. Her rig allowed us to see the pages as though we were looking through her eyes. It was probably only 10 or 15 minutes, but it was a really sort of wonderful, calming reflective experience. It was great. Being explicitly allowed to take your hands and do a separate activity, and let your mind sort of focus on the screen in a secondary way was really nice.


Uh huh, yeah. And I think too, maybe that’s another sort of secondary gain or hidden benefit of virtual meetings of all kinds, is that it is no longer frowned upon to be multitasking. Or, I guess it’s an open secret that we’re all doing it, but I think it’s allowed people to relax into the kinds of productivity that feel good, or to be able to be more engaged in better and deeper ways, because you do what you need to do.


Yeah, or to take advantage of that impulse. I had to do a presentation on my summer research project and I included a series of gifs that were all of dogs swimming. I put a little tiny one in every slide corner, just to maintain a continuous thread of distraction, you know? 


“How I spent my summer vacation.” That’s a great segue into talking about taking advantage of the multimedia range in all kinds of digital programming, because PowerPoints are sort of the original digital programming. I remember being completely blown away the first time I saw somebody embed a gif or a video in a slide presentation in grad school.


I’m trying to think about when the first time that I saw something like that was.


Well you went to art school though, so it was probably much earlier than me.


Yeah, I was hanging out with some net art people in college, and I remember back when the awareness of powerpoint as a potential art form was coming to the surface for me. But it was also like, it wasn’t high, fine art-type intentions at the time, it was people who were into subverting Microsoft Office for their own Satanic purposes and inside jokes.


I mean, yeah, Microsoft is more like Microhard, so it needs to be subverted. 


I want to show you this article by Shannon Mattern that came out last year in Art in America called “The Art of the Slide Deck.


I think we’re getting into territory around compulsory productivity too, right? And ways in which working from home has bled into all parts of our existence and the need to have firmer boundaries. But also a neurodiverse appreciation of the different ways in which people focus. There’s no one way of doing it.

So maybe let’s go back to basics for a sec. And talk about what kinds of virtual programming you personally have done, or your library as a whole has done? What have you been offering during the pandemic?


My library as a whole has cut back on programming through the pandemic. We have tried to maintain the level of instruction that we do across different library areas, and I think we’ve been succeeding in that. As an academic institution, we have this sort of captive audience, and the school as a whole has been doing a really good job with programming artist talks and career workshops and student life type entertainment stuff to that point that it seems like everyone’s time is pretty saturated. 

And so we as a library haven’t really been focused on providing, I guess, enrichment in that way for the community. It’s been mostly virtual one-or two-shot research workshops within classes. I definitely have been doing more faculty development than ever since the pandemic began. We had never done online education at RISD before, and so everyone had to pivot really quickly and dramatically to an online learning environment. The other big thing is–and I will probably touch on this again, because it’s been a huge thread through the pandemic in my library–is that before March 2020, most of our community didn’t utilize our online resources. 


Hmm, yeah, yep. 


And so, you know, we simply had a physical-resources-oriented community where the vast majority of people had never logged into their library account, never tried to access our databases, never used a VPN, and that includes faculty. And there’s nothing wrong with that at its core, because we have lots of other collections that had been doing their job, but all of a sudden, a lot of people needed to learn how to do it at once. So yeah, that’s been the focus.


There are some parallels here, I’m sure you’re not surprised. Brooklyn Public Library and the Center for Brooklyn History have been really pushing the shift to virtual programming, adapting our service model as whole, which includes ramping up our virtual reference services. There are 59 branches of BPL, and there’s this step-based system for how open to the public they all are based on infection rates in the city, and so most have been hovering at like, grab-and-go. 


Is it neighborhood by neighborhood? 


Yes. But the mayor and the governor haven’t been in agreement about the metrics by which we determine what’s dangerous and what’s not. I don’t think there are any branches that are open for what we call Step 4 service, which is that patrons can actually come in and browse and use computers and print things–that is not happening. So a fleet of librarians have descended upon our LibAnswers [Virtual Reference App] to answer chat reference questions, and this ranges from customer service, library card functionality issues, to more in-depth reference questions. So part of what I have been doing is offering instruction to colleagues on the breadth of our digital resources and how to use them. These include digitized newspapers, like historic newspapers that cover from 1841 to–actually this range just changed because my department has also officially merged with Brooklyn Historical Society, which is why we are the new Center for Brooklyn History. So also all of our online resources are also actively expanding with the merger…


Do you know how far back their collection goes? 


I got this email from my boss this morning. So this is breaking news, hot news. It looks like we go back as far as 1809 now, and 1999 is still the latest.


1999… The year history stopped.


It’s true. Y2K.

Before all of this, we were planning on doing a sort of road show. We were thinking about offering the same kind of instruction on a regional basis, but it would have been less in-depth, right? Like, I’m actually spending an hour, an hour and a half going over our key digital resources. And I have examples for how to search for a specific date or a specific headline or I use reference questions that I myself or my colleagues have answered and demonstrate live how to find the answer to the questions using all of the databases, and then have people practice themselves and then report back. It’s actually much more interactive and hands-on than a one-way, in-person lecture. 


Yeah, interactive is a good word for it. I was thinking about the word intimate, because, like the example that I gave with the typography class, but also with a lot of these peer workshops, it seems a lot more intimate in a strange way, but I think it’s because of that interactivity. I mean, sure, you could be in a room together looking at the same projection, but in a strange way, everybody’s on a machine or a device that enables this way of all having a similar vantage point.


Yes, definitely that. And also, you’re making me question the longing for being in the same room together again, because maybe there’s something about the fact that we’re all beaming into each other’s homes that conveys a sense of shared intimacy.


That’s a whole other tangent we could go on. 


Another extension of “conducting business online” means that, as I’m sure is true for you, I’m in, like, five meetings a day often. And I’m involved in projects that maybe I wouldn’t be otherwise, like with our marketing department, we are now building out the new Center for Brooklyn history’s website, which involves combining our two organizations’ collections, the real like meat of the tomato level, but also wireframing and discussing what needs to go in there.

 I think we also have covered the benefits of virtual programming pretty extensively. And I really like that this conversation has ranged into our experience of working digitally as well as the public facing programming that we’re doing because it’s all very of a piece.


Yeah, it all sort of blends. 


And you’re right, I think this feels really intimate in ways maybe it wouldn’t if we were just having a conversation at a table in a conference room. It’s really weird because obviously I’m excited to get back to…[in-person programming] 


You know, there was another program that was the culmination of a four-part series called Research Refracted, that was specifically centered on and targeted toward Black artists in Brooklyn, I was working on with colleagues of mine from Boston, that we had to shift to virtual at the last minute. Their piece of it was called Managing Your Own Archive. We had another collaboration with Weeksville Heritage Center on Tracing Your Roots and genealogy, particularly within the African diaspora, and the first installment of that series was with an archivist and a performance artist, the founder of Archival Alchemy, who does incredible work.

The first couple of those happened in person, but because the genealogy workshop and managing your own archive workshops were both digital, they  reached much wider audiences and involved folks from a lot more organizations. The flip side of that was that I really wanted to celebrate with all my colleagues after we’d accomplished all this and obviously we couldn’t, so that was a bummer, but the benefits certainly outweigh the drawbacks in this case. 


Yeah, collaborating is definitely feeling different. I meant to tell you about this earlier: last March, I had been working with folks from the RISD Museum,  Brown University, Providence Public Library and the RI Center for the Humanities to organize the Providence Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon, which I’ve been involved in for a couple years. We were planning to host it in the RISD Museum inside a Pablo Helguera project space that highlighted Latin American artists in the RISD Museum collection, part of Raid the Icebox Now. But I think it was March 19th or 20th, so we wound up pivoting to online at the very very last minute too, and it was oddly much better attended than the last several years as a result. We had not just locals, but people from all over who were doing homework for their own upcoming online Edit-a-thons, which was really cool, because we were able to get feedback and trade advice at the end.


I had asked a question we haven’t touched on yet about whether you’re tailoring programs specifically for a virtual format or whether you’re adapting your programming to the digital format, and an Edit-a-Thon obviously exists outside of the digital-only format, but seems to slot very neatly into it.


Yeah, it did work very neatly, I will say. Most of us who were facilitating were novices at Zoom at that point because we were only a few days into remote work, but aside from the inevitable hiccups you get as a Zoom user, it worked very well. And in a wonderful way, demoing online skills and splitting people into breakout groups and having group chats dovetailed really nicely with the whole ethos of the event. We were just sad that we didn’t get to do it in the glamorous museum space.


I feel like taking exhibitions into an online space is maybe the sequel to this conversation. 


That could be a fun one to bring more people in on. I hope institutions keep an awareness of the possibilities of having joint digital and in-person exhibitions, because the digital ones are so much more accessible. People can really take their time and dive into something online, whether it’s the works themselves or related ephemera or a mash-up of material. And it doesn’t have to be high-tech. 


Does RISD prioritize digital exhibitions? 


The college last spring had to very quickly figure out a solution for the huge number of exhibitions that we have every spring for graduating students. The graduate student exhibition is sort of the pinnacle of their 2-3 year programs and it’s exposure for them too. And all the undergrads have degree project exhibitions, that’s usually a highlight of everyone’s spring. We thankfully have a small team at the school that is dedicated to putting up exhibitions and was able to work with the museum on setting up digital platforms. 


What kind of digital platforms did you end up using? 


The RISD Museum has built this awesome digital publishing platform, and they’re supposedly going to be releasing it openly, although I don’t think that’s happened yet. It’s called Ziggurat. They have been building multimedia, public domain exhibition catalogues that are very cool. And they’re multimedia, so there can be images, text, audio and video embedded in them. Simone Leigh’s project for Raid The Icebox Now is a great example. And that’s the core technology they used for the online exhibitions.


I’m familiar with Omeka from my work, which is also open source and community supported. But yeah, I really wanna see more of that. As we continue to recognize the benefits of engagement with digital platforms, the ability to have this real close contact with multimedia formats and create these more interesting exhibitions in a single space. I’d like some “key takeaways” from this time to be prioritizing more digital access, and I love that an open source community supports that.


These projects obviously require a lot of work, too. Especially open source – it’s not typically plug and play. Even Omeka isn’t, I hear from many librarians! So you have to have the people and the time to make it happen. And that’s not something to take for granted.

Just to plug one of my current pet issues, open publishing, open educational resources and open pedagogy are these incredibly wonderful growing movements in academic libraries and academic institutions and I think that there’s a lot of room to grow in the art and design education world specifically. Typically open textbooks have been pretty heavily focused on STEM fields and social sciences and I’ve been trying to get together some folks at RISD who would be willing–including the people who designed this online publication platform–to publish things openly that everybody can access that originate in RISD and the knowledge of people here that other people can take and use without paying for it. Extricating some of this stuff from the for-profit models that it has naturally over the years grown into. We’re increasingly aware that they can be restrictive and that they inhibit growth and inhibit–as much as I hate this word–innovation. 


You’re making some really astute points about the for-profit, proprietary models, there’s also a lot of planned obsolescence in those models, so in terms of innovation, if there’s a whole community of thinkers who are working under the hood on a piece of software, that means it will be continually updated and adapted to a growing range of situations, whereas something that is proprietary is likely to become stale if there isn’t more money thrown at it.



You asked me a question about doing programming specifically with the digital environment in mind vs. adapting existing programming. I feel like I have absolutely adapted my existing strategies for remote teaching, but that’s been a real growth experience for me. Like a lot of early career instruction librarians, I have not had a lot of pedagogical training, and a lot of what I know was learned on the job. In a weird way, it feels like being part of a college that is all at once transitioning to digital teaching has made me feel more solidarity, and we’ve been able to talk and share resources in a way that I personally was a little intimidated to do before this. But I’m also beginning my arc out of the ‘early career’ stage and feeling more brave, which could be part of it. 


Right. The assumed disadvantage of being early career isn’t necessarily the case, and also the difference in technological proficiency and ability sort of leveled the playing field too I bet. 


Yeah, I have a few faculty who come to me as tech support pretty reliably at this point, and that gives me perspective one everyone’s different strengths. 


I think, too, I find myself landing in a place where I think we’re better instructors because of this shift. I think it’s made me slow down and focus on the iterative process of teaching. I’ve really gone back to the beginning, to the types of lessons that I want to offer, my methods, and I think because we’re forced to reexamine everything we’ve been doing really, I’m doing that from top-to-bottom with the way that I’m instructing. I’m thinking here too about removing nerves around public speaking too. 

We’ve been forced to examine so much that I have been realizing that there are ways that I can improve, ways I can demonstrate the resources better, planning more in detail, refining the types of questions that I ask. I didn’t use breakout rooms until way too late into the game, and it was when I was doing a workshop for teachers (of course), and I had to ask them how to use it. It was like thanks, we’re all learning from each other here. 


Yeah, there’s a level of generosity I’m seeing. I had been working as an instruction librarian for about 3 years when the pandemic hit, and I’d definitely settled into some teaching methods and strategies that felt comfortable. I should note here for the ARLIS audience that I work at an institution that has a really tiny instruction team, so we don’t operate the same way that big academic library instruction teams do, we don’t do the same sort of assessment for or use the framework in the same ways. A lot of our strategies are more informal, we don’t have the same sort of culture of data collection and I appreciate that, personally. We also don’t have the technology setup to do sort of structured, top-down technology workshops you might see at big academic libraries. So discussion and group exploration and little activities were my favorite way to approach teaching, but when we transitioned into the remote environment, I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t working. 


I’ve found the same. You can’t really elicit conversation as easily in a digital environment. To what do you attribute that? 


You and I have maybe a different audience when it comes to this, because when I started doing my online instruction, I had classes of students who were not there of their own free will. I had been invited into their virtual classroom by their teacher, and these students had been through a lot, packing up their lives and moving away from school. I think especially earlier on, I’d come into a Zoom room and most people would have their cameras off and be clearly unengaged. That didn’t really bother me, I felt a lot of sympathy for what I was hearing people had gone through. Some things seem to have stabilized since then. 


I have led a couple of workshops for high school students about neighborhood history, and that is what was coming to mind when you were talking about this, the blanket of silence when I was trying to facilitate more Q&A discussion. But yeah, students and teenagers in particular have taken the brunt of this seismic shift in our daily lives, and I have from the beginning adopted a policy that nobody is being forced to participate or turn their camera on, it’s all engagement at the level of comfort that feels right. And I also think it’s perfectly fine to engage in the chat.


I think making use of the chat is a really excellent way to do this, if you’ve planned it in. I’ve definitely had to adapt my engagement strategies, whether that’s chat, or breakout rooms, or doing an activity on your own for 5-10 minutes, I found that works a lot better than verbally posing a question to a grid of faces and blank squares and just waiting to see if anybody cares. There’s an interesting social dynamic that happens in person, if you sit there silently long enough waiting for somebody to answer, there’s somebody in that class who’s gonna feel the need to say something.


Yeah! But that’s completely eliminated when you’re each at your own homes. 



What are some of the coolest ways you’ve seen people take advantage of Zoom? 


It’s been really interesting to participate in more interactive workshops myself. Doing them in Zoom has been really eye-opening for me, and I generally take strategies back to my own teaching from them. One that was great was a Library Carpentry workshop that I took through the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. I wanted to learn how to use Open Refine, which is really cool for anyone who does a lot of Excel spreadsheets and data wrangling. 


Yeah, in my past life I did a lot more digital librarianship stuff, and in the expanded range of projects that I’ve taken on during the pandemic, I’m also working on some straight up metadata cleanup and exercising my Excel function knowledge, and it’s really fun. 


Sometimes when I’m doing that stuff I realize that I might be in the right field.


Yeah, it’s like the flow state that’s available to librarians. 

You bring up a really good point about the range of learning opportunities we have access to with this digital advent too, it’s not just about what programs we’ve been offering and what professional development we’ve been leading, but what we’ve taken advantage of as well. 


A lot of us have been able to take advantage of those opportunities, but as so many wise people have already said about this pandemic, it’s also true that if you’re not maximizing, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s a huge privilege that for me at least comes along with being a childless white collar employee.


Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Just in awe of parents with children at home, while also rejecting the guilt that creeps up around this. Like since I don’t have children, I’d BETTER maximize my existence, because I have no excuse not to–which is also a pretty gendered line of reasoning, I will say. In any case, I feel like you don’t have to immediately clench with guilt if you haven’t been optimizing. I think what I have mostly taken advantage of are the recorded panel discussions and lectures that are all over the place while I’m making stuff, which I’ve been also doing a lot more, and that’s actually to give myself a break and not because I’m optimizing.


There’s something I was thinking about earlier today, related to the general question of how to engage people with materials in the digital environment. It seems like people can be wowed in person with primary sources and archival materials and cool tangible ephemera, even if they’re not directly related to that person’s interests, because there are these artifacts, and they have this object value, you’ve got to wash your hands or put on gloves, it’s got this sort of glamor to it. And what I’ve found teaching online is that it’s much more important to make a direct connection to the class or the students’ actual priorities and areas of interest. Because if you’re just showing random stuff, even if it’s your rarest item, it’s not as likely that it will be exciting, but if I’m talking to a class of students and they’re working in a specific area and I show them something that has a clear connection to their interests or priorities, then I have them. 


Yeah, you are 100% right on that. One of my upcoming student workshops is for an urban archaeology class, and we’ve been doing some more intensive planning on Zoom to talk about what her coursework is about, and I’m engineering the resources, materials and the workshop so that it fits with what the students are thinking about right now, definitely. 


There’s also an increased sense of the value of our attention, especially since we’re staring at a screen all day. It definitely seems to me, working in an expensive private institution with a big reputation, that students these days are much more aware of what their time is worth than I was in college, and they’re much more focused on maximizing the ROI in college classes. Even more so in this pandemic environment where access to everything is throttled. 

Our college archivist has been showing students this amazing material, posters and petitions and student newspapers, that document the history of student activism at RISD starting around the sixties. The issues they face today are all there: racial justice, antiwar activism, tuition hikes! That stuff really hits home in the classroom. But I think it also helps students place themselves in a lineage of activism.


I’m really glad you brought that up, and I think your point too about some of the wow factor–maybe even like 60% of it–was coming to the archives in person. Often one of my first questions when students, particularly college students, arrived was “Has anyone ever been to an archive before?” and a lot of them had not, right, so they’re just like “Wow, what is this place?” And I have materials pre-selected for everyone to go through, and I talk about safe handling techniques and yes, there are some white gloves around and yes, there is glamor in the atmosphere and the historicity of the place. My tours ended downstairs in our morgue, and everyone loves that, just on its face. The seed of the collection is the Brooklyn Daily Eagle photo morgue, a journalism term for subject-organized photographic materials that you’d be able to pull out to run alongside a story, and so not only is the name of the place cool, but the space itself is in our sub sub sub basement and has a bunch of our materials. I had been in the habit of letting students go and look in the files and drawers after going over safe handling, etc. and letting them see what they find and enjoy the magic of discovery. I’ve been trying to work a little bit along those lines with just a Dropbox folder of materials, and many of those have been selected to, as you say, place the students in a lineage of antiracist activism, etc. Here’s a folder, take some time in breakout rooms to see what’s in there, and show us what you find. Show and tell never gets old. 


It’s true, the framing has to be a little different now. I was just perversely picturing going online with a class and asking “So have you ever been to an institutional repository before?” to total silence. Awareness of place is a lot more natural in the flesh. Teaching information literacy can help, but there are also other ways to work with students on reading digital spaces.

A friend of a friend developed a virtual bar website, a little clunky, but you could make your own bar and invite people in. And I was thinking about what it would be like to teach a class in the bar instead of Zoom. Fewer tools and a totally different vibe. Maybe conversation would flow better?


I feel like we notice bad design but we don’t necessarily notice good design. If you’re in a well-designed and comfortable digital environment it’s just sort of like amniotic fluid or something. But if it’s bad, you can’t help but notice it. 


I love bad design though. This is a much bigger conversation but I don’t think all friction is bad. It can be very helpful in building muscle, like literally and metaphorically. 


Yeah,, for example. Terrible design, GREAT website. Also a late librarian’s labor of love!


What are you talking about? That website is perfect. So pure.


It’s one of my favorites, not despite but because. But, to your point earlier, the virtual bar website is like digital space that’s a specific analog to a physical space. Not necessarily a one-to-one but something that “captures the feeling” of what it’s like to be in a beloved physical space. 


And what are the capabilities that you have in that space that maybe you don’t in others? In the virtual bar you can grab the little box your face is in and move it anywhere on the screen, maybe just to the bottom left or something, away from other people.


You were doing a lot more just virtual hangs early on in the pandemic, right? 


I’m still participating in some from time to time, but they do tend to be more activity-oriented and less like “here we are.” 


Yeah, I feel like tracing the evolution of our virtual hangouts is a way of measuring how we feel about the pandemic as a whole or something. We’ve grown accustomed to this mode of engagement so now we have to go beyond simply hanging out at our computers together. 


Or maybe there can be a return to it, you know? I’ve definitely spoken about the phenomenon of feeling burned out and then going back over the hump and being okay again. I feel like that’s happened maybe 3 or 4 times for me with hanging out online. I’m definitely in a space right now where I could just chill in a Zoom room with some friends that I wanted to see and it wouldn’t be something I needed to face my burnout to do, but that may not be the case in a couple months again.


Yeah, I can relate to coming up against burnout and then trying to find antidotes to that, and I feel like what I’ve been missing the most is the ability to hang out in a room with a friend for an extended period of time and just make something together, do something quietly companionable, so maybe that’s where Zoom comes back around for me, maybe it’s the activities. 

Zoom came back around for us as we recorded this conversation too. Comparing notes about our experiences during this shift to digital was a lot of fun, and a great opportunity to clarify our thoughts around not only digital programming, but also what it’s like when an entire institution goes virtual all at once, the pros and cons of working remotely, texting before calling, when to listen to podcasts when you’re not commuting, lorem ipsum generators, and more.


RISD museum public domain digital publication:

Publishing platform developed locally called Ziggurat

RISD grad show, same platform:

Art of the slide deck by Shannon Mattern:

Meant to mention this nice slideshow on digital equity I just saw from Ray Pun:

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. 

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.


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.

Report Back from ARLIS/NA 2019: Two First-Timers Share Their Thoughts

Greetings ArLiSNAP-ers! Many of us volunteers are back at work after attending the ARLIS/NA Annual Conference in Salt Lake City, UT. A few of us were first-timers, and Courtney and Autumn got to thinking that some reflections might be useful or interesting to those students or new professionals who haven’t had the chance to attend yet.

Courtney Hunt is Art & Design Librarian and Assistant Professor at The Ohio State University. An early career librarian, Courtney graduated with her M.S.I.S from University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 2017 and an M.A. in History of Art & Architecture from Hunter College-CUNY in 2013. She is a feature post writer for ArLiSNAP.

Autumn Wetli is Consultation Coordinator at the University of Michigan Libraries. She is newly graduated (2018) with her M.L.I.S. from Wayne State University and is a feature post writer for ArLiSNAP.

View of the mountains from The Grand America Hotel.

Photo by Courtney Hunt. View from one of the meeting room terraces at The Grand America Hotel, Salt Lake City, UT.

First up, Autumn asks Courtney a few questions about her time at ARLIS/NA 2019:
This question is pretty generic, but I’m curious! What was your favorite part of ARLIS/NA?

My favorite part of ARLIS/NA this year was meeting like-minded people who empathize with the challenges of my particular job. I work as a solo librarian at the Fine Arts Library at The Ohio State University, which is a branch library. In addition to me, the librarian, there is a full-time staff member who has been with the institution for 25 years (who is great), as well as student workers, but I don’t always get to chat with others doing liaison or collection work during my day-to-day. And even when I do, many of my colleagues have a very different focus in their position, even though much of our work overlaps. It was really really really great to connect with people whose jobs and subject expertise parallel what I do. I also really enjoyed the reception at the Natural History Museum of Utah (wine, hello). I also liked your poster on DIY publishing and Riot Grrrl ;) .

What inspired you at conference? Is there anything you’re excited bring back to your own library or work?

I was really inspired by the last session of the conference I went to, which was the SIG meeting for the Critical Librarianship Special Interest Group. Jenny Ferretti and Andrew Wang did an amazing job facilitating crucial conversations we all should be having. I was in a breakout group about crit lib and library spaces, and we had a really wonderful conversation about being “space ambassadors” and what that could mean. It inspired me to take a close look at the space I steward and come up with ideas to make it welcoming, inclusive, and safe for everyone.

I was also really inspired by the session on teaching with artist(‘s, s?-inside joke from the session…which is it??) books. We have a small collection of artists books at my library, as well as a pretty big one across the oval in our Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, and instructors are really eager to share those with students–to let them know they’re there. I wanted ideas for how to teach with them, and I got them! So I’m really excited to bring that back to my own library.

Powerpoint Slide of Natural History Museum of Utah.

Photo by Courtney Hunt. A Slide from Natural History Museum of History Executive Director Sarah George’s lecture on the architecture of the museum.

How did you get involved, interact, collaborate with your colleagues at this conference?

Well, I volunteer for ArLiSNAP, first off, so I had a built-in community of people that I was regularly meeting up with semi-spontaneously. That was cool. The way I got involved with ArLiSNAP was to email the  group when there was an open position (which we have several of RIGHT NOW). Breanne got back to me really quickly, and I was in! I want to plug ArLiSNAP as a pretty low-stakes way to get involved with ARLIS/NA, especially for new professionals who might be working at a library but not an art library yet (I was doing general collection development when I started volunteering).

I’m also serving on the Professional Development Committee for ARLIS/NA, a term that began at the conference this year. I got involved with that by applying when the call went out on the listserv. There’s an open spot on the committee still so if you’re interested email me (hunt.877 at, and I can put you in touch with the chair!

I also interacted with my colleagues by getting social! This is not always an available option for everyone. People have different levels of social anxiety or a pretty set capacity for networking in one day. But I find it really beneficial to get to know other art librarians “off the clock” so going out for drinks and talking in a more casual way about our jobs was super beneficial and enriching to me.

Get on the listserv! It’s active but not overwhelming and really helps to stay plugged in to what’s going on in the association.

View outside the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Photo by Courtney Hunt. View outside the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Pitch attending the conference next year! What makes you want to go again?

Yay! Yes! I do want to go again! There are many reasons. I think now that I’ve been once, I know what to expect, and I also know that art librarians are the BEST. It’s honestly the people and the sharing more than anything else that makes me want to attend again. Of course my committee work and the fact that I’m a tenure-track librarian also make me want to go again, but even if I wasn’t TT I’d want to be involved. Next year though I’ve got to step up my wardrobe game, cause y’all are some stylish librarians!

Now it’s Autumn’s turn!
Hey Autumn! You were awarded a travel grant for the conference! That’s awesome, congratulations! For our readers…what was the process for applying for that? Any requirements? Were you happy you applied?

Thank you so much! I applied for this award when I was still a student and it is intended for current students or individuals who have recently graduated. I was shocked to receive it! I applied really not expecting anything to come of it, as I expected there to be a lot of applicants and I’m not currently working directly in an art librarian/art library position (though it is my passion!) The application process was extremely manageable. Applicants needed to answer 3 questions:

  • Please describe why you are eligible for the selected award.
  • Please describe your specific interests and expectations of the conference.
  • Please provide a brief list of your employment history, education, and professional activities.

I’m pretty sure you needed to submit a resume/CV and references, too. I can’t remember the exact application deadlines, but I believe it was sometime in November or December, so keep an eye out next year, y’all!

I know that you recently graduated with your MLIS and you are a current staff member at University of Michigan — do you think that anyone who works in a library might find value at ARLIS/NA? What was most worth it to you?

Honestly, the conference refocused me and that was probably what was most worthwhile about it. I’ve been feeling a little bit lost since graduating and unsure what to do with my future, career, etc. Going to ARLIS/NA just solidified the thoughts spinning around in my head, that a career in the arts and libraries is really what I want to keep pursuing in my future, no matter the obstacles or difficulties. Even if I don’t specifically end up as an “official” art librarian in a future job, I want to keep incorporating my passion for the arts into my work a much as I can and pursue my own research in the field.

View from the highway of the mountains.

Photo by Courtney Hunt. View from the highway of the mountains.

How did you get involved, interact, collaborate with your colleagues at this conference?

It was really great to meet so many ArLiSNAP volunteers in-person! I’ve been volunteering on and off since 2017, so it was really nice to talk in real life. I enjoyed the ArLiSNAP meeting, which gave us a chance to talk a little bit about what we do and connect with attendees who may be interested in joining the org. I said it at the meeting and I’ll say it again, ArLiSNAP is a good way to get involved. Everyone is really supportive and friendly! I also presented a poster at the conference and I got to chat with a lot of different people about my work. Through my poster presentation I even made connection with someone who I actually ended up having a lot in common with! It was cool. I also made this trip with a couple of my University of Michigan colleagues who I’ve always been friendly with, but it was really nice to get to connect and know them better.

Pitch attending the conference next year! What makes you want to go again?

I agree with you that it’s really the people and sharing that made the conference so great and what makes me want to go next year and every year after! As someone not working as an art librarian or in an art library, the conference allowed me to connect with others who share similar passions and interests to my own. This isn’t something that always happens so easily in your own job/institution/etc., ya know? Attending the conference sparked so many different ideas in my head and made me realize that I need to pursue the projects that I am passionate about when I can, even if this means initiating them/taking charge/going solo. I’m lucky in that I have quite a bit of flexibility in my institution to turn my passions into projects at work. Before going to ARLIS/NA, I was feeling pretty burnt out. It really revitalized me to be surrounded by such a great community!

Also, I want to add that visiting Spiral Jetty was an amazing start to my conference trip! It was a lot of fun and very relaxing and meditative.

We hope that was useful for you readers! For those of you who haven’t attended the annual conference before, is there anything you’d like to know other than what our feature writers mentioned? Hit us up!

Arts in the Public Library

Art librarianship generally seems to be thought of as a practice within the context of the academic library or museum. However, there is definitely a place for the arts in the public library! Public libraries provide community space for performances, exhibitions, and creative workshops. A 2017 article in the Huffington Post highlighted some ways in which public libraries across the country support the arts. I wanted to learn more about this intersection (as someone unexperienced in public librarianship) by looking closer at my own public library, the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL). I interviewed Mariah Cherem, a Librarian at AADL, a personal friend, and a longtime supporter of arts in the Ann Arbor community!

Photograph of family playing a Moog synth at the 2018 Ann Arbor Synth Expo

Photo from the 2018 Ann Arbor Synth Expo

Can you describe your position and the work you do at AADL, in general?

My title at AADL is Production Librarian. I work 8-16 hours on-desk/reference each week and the rest of my time is spent on projects and events. Some of those projects involve selection and collection maintenance (CD & LP collections), some of them involve programs (big events like A2 Synth Expo & Record Store Day), and working on smaller programs like staffing Letterpress Lab or coordinating the team who works on music-making related events year-round. During the summer, I work on the Summer Game and/or outreach initiatives (the pop-up “Library on the Lawn” we did with the University of Michigan at Summer Fest a few years ago is one example).

What do you see as the role of the arts in the public library?

I think that the arts (visual, musical, performing, literary) are naturally linked with our work as a public library. Obviously literary works are what first come to mind when folks think about us, but libraries have provided both a home for recorded versions of all of the above, inspiration for creating new work, and occasionally the opportunity to serve as a presenter and offer more space for both performance and facilitation of folks learning new creative skills. From displaying K-12 Ann Arbor Public Schools students’ artwork every year to hosting crochet groups to providing the equipment for folks to learn about letterpress, I see it as encouraging people to be active creators as well as consumers/readers/watchers of art/culture. I want to get people engaged in different ways!

Flyer for the inaugural Ann Arbor Wayzgoose Printing Festival at the Ann Arbor District Library

Can you highlight some of the arts-related programming that happens at the AADL?

There’s so much! It’s hard to pick! Some of the biggest annual events that represent different types of art are:

Wayzgoose  (printing/book arts)

Ann Arbor Comic Arts Fest (A2CAF)

Ann Arbor Synth Expo (AASE) (music)

Tiny Expo (art/craft fair)

…and we have related year-round programming that ties in with each of these big events/interest areas.

For a different sampling, here’s everything coming up that falls under art

…and here are the “art tools” we offer:

How did you get into doing this sort of work at AADL?

When I went back to grad school I thought I was going to do health informatics or work with online communities, but towards the end of my first year, I started having SO many great conversations with LIS students, and realized that my arts administration background (working at a theater, an art museum, MA in AAdmin, doing DIY stuff) actually tied in really well to a lot of the programs and initiatives that were happening at forward-thinking libraries.

I started diving deep into Library as Incubator and how artists of all stripes were using their libraries, in ways we knew and ways we didn’t (making collages for zines, etc). With this wider understanding, I added an LIS specialization to my degree, and got super super lucky that a few months after graduating, a position opened up at AADL. I was interviewing at all sort of jobs at all sorts of places, but really won the lottery. I’m lucky in that since the beginning, creativity and connecting the library to folks in new ways has been a key part of my position! I’ve been here 6.5 years now and there’s still lots more to do! Currently starting work on licensing films from the Ann Arbor Film Festival and building this local music collection.

Do you have any suggestions or advice for public librarians/staff who may want to work on incorporating arts programming into their own libraries?

Each library is really different in terms of resources and support from colleagues. I’d say that before even floating any ideas, it’s super important to sit back for a few months (maybe even more) and take a big view, not just of your own organization, but what other organizations in your community are already doing. Sometimes it works best to partner with other organizations to try something new, and use something smaller with a partner as a proof of concept. You don’t need to start with anything splashy. Even just new ways for people to interact with the collection (new styles of displays that connect to programs, etc) can be the seed to get things growing. Programming Librarian is a good resource, as is/was The Artist’s Library, but it’s also important to look outside libraryland at things like Nina K. Simon’s work. Look for unmet needs/wants or gaps in the community. Find fellow staff who are also excited about possibilities!

Flyer for Telephon9 concert Friday February 8th at 7pm at the Ann Arbor Downtown Library

Poster for an upcoming music concert at the AADL.


A Success Story: Art Librarian Career Interview with Becca Pad

From artist to art librarian, Becca Pad shares her experiences and tips for embracing every opportunity in the field of art librarianship.

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

While getting my bachelors in studio art at the Maryland Institute College of Art, I spent a lot of time in the library browsing exhibition catalogs to learn about new artists. My original interest in pursuing art librarianship stemmed from a desire to surround myself with books and information on artists. After graduating from college, I completed internships at the National Museum of African Art and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Both of these experiences helped me decide to pursue a master’s in library science, with a focus on archival work in museums.

Working at the University of Texas Libraries as a graduate student in the iSchool showed me a different perspective on information science careers. I enjoyed the public services aspects of my job including working at the reference desk and staffing our chat service. I was fortunate enough to develop a mentoring relationship with the former art librarian at the Fine Arts Library and learning about her responsibilities and role solidified my decision to pursue academic art librarianship

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

This year I am the moderator for the Academic Division of ARLIS/NA. I am leading a project to create a report on the state of academic art libraries, which will be published in late January 2019. It is a great opportunity to help assess the current state of academic art librarianship and provide recommendations to help others at their institutions.

At UT Austin, one of my main projects this year includes refining my pilot program for integrating information and visual literacy into the freshman Art and Art history program. I am collaborating with the program coordinator and faculty members on this multiyear project. As a former studio art student, I am passionate about helping other studio artists use the library as a tool for creating new works of art.

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

It is important to have practical experience in the field. You can gain experience through internships or research assistant opportunities at your university or in your local arts community. There are many facets to art librarianship and field experience will help you determine what type of work is most rewarding to you.
My other advice is to be persistent in applying to jobs. The job market can be tough but continue to apply to opportunities as they present themselves; you never know where you could end up. During school, you can begin to review job applications and look at the requirements for different types of positions. This can help you select courses or internships that can prepare you for the position you really want.

What accomplishments in the field of art librarianship are you most proud of?

I am proud of my work on the UT Fine Arts Library Task Force committee. The Task Force consisted of UT librarians, College of Fine Arts faculty, and student representatives. Using feedback from the UT Austin community, interviewing peer institutions, and looking at metrics (such as circulation data) we created a report about possible outcomes for the Fine Arts Library collections and space. I am happy to report that the Fine Arts Library collections remain in the branch library and our spaces are now updated.

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?

I wish I completed language courses in college. It was not a requirement for me and I was interested in pursuing other areas of study. However, having language skills are useful for many aspects of art librarianship including collection development and assisting scholars with research questions. I am planning to enroll in language classes at UT Austin through the staff educational benefit. I may apprendre le français, lerne Deutsch, impara l’italiano!

A Success Story: An Interview with Nimisha Bhat

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.

Meet an Art Librarian: Career Interview with Emilee Mathews

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

I went to Indiana University for an MA in Art History, starting in Fall 2008. Initially, I had only planned on getting the MA and to figure out what I wanted to do after that. But, in the meantime, I was in a class called Research Methods in Art History, and I met a bunch of people who were in the Art Librarianship specialization and others in the Dual Degree program, which offers masters in both Art History and in Library Science. I started considering this as a career path, never having realized before that this was an option. The clincher was that the ARLIS/NA conference was in Indianapolis the coming year (2009), and I got to meet local art librarians, and volunteered at the conference and met many, many more art information professionals from around the country. Everyone was so kind, helpful, and down to earth, I felt like I had found my “people.”


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

Just a few months ago I wrapped up teaching an online course in art librarianship for Indiana University, which I taught in Spring Semester 2018. It was a super intensive development process, as when you build an online course, you have to fully establish what you’ll cover, what the students will be exposed to, and how they’ll demonstrate proficiency in the topic way before the class actually starts, which means very deliberate content creation and development. A big part of it was recording around 30 interviews with art librarians in the profession, as well as art historians, curators, and artists. So now, I’m considering how to expose that content to reach a broader audience, since the interviews were so insightful and rich.

Spinning off of the knowledge I developed on designing online classes, I’m working [on] writing a monograph for Primary Research Group on this topic. I’ll be interviewing fellow practitioners to better understand best practices for developing online content. That is planned for publication in February 2019.

And one more project I’m hard at work on is participating in the State of Academic Art LIbraries Report Task Force, spearheaded by members of the Academic Libraries Division with help from the Museum Libraries Division and the Public Policy Committee. So far, we’ve scanned the literature for trends, created a survey to gather key information from fellow ARLIS members, and identified institutions that we want to feature as case studies. It’s been eye opening to see the trends I’ve experienced locally at the positions I’ve held, and see how widespread a lot of these developments are. I will say, the thing I’m most excited about in the report is gathering strategies for advocacy from colleagues. There are so many great stories that people have been telling, I think it’ll help everyone be more strategic in communicating their value once we publish the document and give people so many great examples to inspire them.


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

Remember that what you bring to the table is unique and valuable, no matter where in your career you are. For those just starting out, you need to know that many libraries are more than willing to help foster an early career person, and see what you bring as useful. If you are getting phone interviews, it is likely that they are willing to help mentor you in the profession. However, as you progress through the interview process, watch for what types of training, orientation, and mentorship they have built into the onboarding process. Ask questions about how other early career people have been supported. Don’t be afraid to ask follow up questions even after the onsite interview. Make sure to establish relationships among your library school professors and any practicing librarians you can – whether working part time in the library, or in an internship, a formal mentorship program, or what have you – so that you can benefit from their perspective and their network of relationships. They likely will have information about the institution you’re interviewing with that you would not necessarily be able to determine from just a day’s worth of interacting with people – or, they’ll be able to pick up on cues that you might miss.


What accomplishments in the field of art librarianship are you most proud of?   

In addition to the things I talked about above, I’m proud of being on the Strategic Directions Committee for ARLIS the last three years. That committee works super hard and comes up with amazing ideas. Basically, our charge is to look for ideas for what the society should become, try, or do, and present these options to the Executive Board. Already several things we’ve recommended have started to be put into action. It’s really satisfying to give back and to make a positive difference.


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?

So many things! In library school, I wish I had taken the seminar in Intellectual Freedom that Ron Day offered, or the Digital Humanities classes, or the hands-on conservation practica. But the cool thing about being a librarian is that there’s a real acknowledgment of the importance of continuing education, and there’s lots of support for that. I also think one of the most important aspects of this profession is learn how to be an autodidact. The only guaranteed thing about librarianship is that you’ll constantly need to adapt and grow along with the profession.

The “Art” of Job Hunting or How We Got From There to Here

ArLiSNAP Feature Post Writers Sarah and Courtney, both fresh from the job hunt process, describe their experience job searching as an art librarian and interview each other about the process in the hopes of starting a dialogue for all new job-seeking art librarians.

A white coffee mug with “begin” written on it on a wooden table

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Sarah’s Experience:

I decided to get my Master’s degree in Library Science while working in a paraprofessional position in an academic performing arts library, and I took on an archival studies concentration in order to broaden my post-graduation job possibilities. Leading up to graduation I began applying for local music librarian positions, but after graduation in May 2017 I broadened my job search to include research, instruction, and collections jobs outside of the arts and in other parts of the country (and abroad). I had a few job interviews but, in my first few months with my Master’s degree, did not succeed in finding a position that was a match for me.

In October 2017 I had the opportunity to interview for a librarian position in an art museum, and it showed me a new path that I could take in my job search, beyond academic work. This motivated me to learn more. I joined ArLiSNAP, began a volunteer position at an art museum, and began taking webinars to teach myself more about art museum library collections and cataloging. After seven months, my volunteer position turned into a part-time paid fellowship, and shortly after that I was offered a full-time position as a cataloger for a museum library.

My experience showed me that art librarianship is an extremely competitive field in which one must be willing to learn and engage with other art librarians and researchers. The job hunting process is very involved and can be very discouraging (even causing anxiety and depression for which we should not be afraid to seek help). It was very helpful for me, personally, to relieve stress by speaking with other job-hunting librarians about their experience. I also made the most of the paraprofessional job I was in by asking my supervisor to teach me new things and taking on new and different responsibilities. Ultimately, my personal experience was one which taught me to “go with the flow” because your job search may take you in directions that you never would have considered as long as you are open to learning new things.

Courtney’s Experience:

I worked as a paraprofessional in a public library first, and then a community college library, as well as taught (adjunct) art history for 3-4 years prior to going back for my master’s in library science (technically mine is an M.S.I.S.). Currently, I’m not working as an art librarian, but as a collection development librarian, which I think has tons of potential for working in visual arts subject collections. There is a lot of overlap in collection work with art librarianship that I hope to use to my advantage later in my career.

I began applying for jobs in all academic libraries, some in art libraries, before I had conferred my degree. Honestly, I was living in a really expensive part of the country at the time, and I was really anxious to move up in the library world, as well as find a more fulfilling position in line with my interests.

The day after I earned by degree, I had the chance to interview in person at a large research university for an Art and Design Librarian position, which I did not get. It was a fantastic experience though. It really gave me a taste of what interviewing at academic libraries in general is like, and it also gave me insight into aspects of art librarianship that I hadn’t learned in school or at my job at the time.

Though I didn’t get that job, I realized that I could look for other jobs in academic libraries like the one I have now, and that I could interview with confidence because I had done it once. I realized that even though art library jobs are really competitive and hard to come by, I could develop skills I had less of (collection work in this case–I have a background in teaching, so reference and instruction are covered for me) and then look for art library jobs again in a few years.

I definitely agree with Sarah about going “with the flow,” because librarianship is so interdisciplinary. Even if you don’t get an art librarian job right away, the experience you gain doing other things will help you get there. AND, every position is tailorable! You can make relationships on campus that keep you in the loop in the arts world (some tips for which I wrote about here), which can be reflected in cover letters and CVs.

Photo by Evie Shaffer on Unsplash

Sarah Interviews Courtney:

What do you think is the hardest part of breaking into the art librarianship field?

So far for me, the hardest part is just not having worked in specifically an art library. I have a lot of experience in libraries at this point, but it is mostly paraprofessional. When I interviewed for an art and design position, I feel like I answered interview questions well and that my presentation was good (with great responses/questions!), but that to leadership, I probably didn’t have the level of experience on the job or serving on committees for national associations that they were looking for.

Do you think art librarians should be willing to apply for jobs in other parts of the country?

I think that it is a privilege to be able to do so. I moved for my current position (which is not an art librarian position) and would have moved for the position at the larger university. However, there are layers here: willingness/confidence/privilege to negotiate terms of a contract that would account for moving costs, a big enough bank account to cover the costs of moving whether or not your moving expenses are covered (reimbursement often takes forever), having a support system that can help you both mentally and physically with the act of moving, etc.

So, my answer here is: your job prospects will widen if you are open to moving, but many people would really be hard up to make a move prior to a “professional” librarian salary (which often isn’t even that high).

What has been your experience as an academic librarian preparing for a career in art libraries?

I am constantly trying to find new ways to stay connected with the visual arts. I go to galleries and museums and talk to the curators there. I’m lucky, because the Halsey Institute is right down the street, and one of their curators is a friend of mine from my first round of grad school! But I do a lot of reading articles and just generally trying to stay up to date with what is going on in art libraries.

Professionally, I think about research that relates to my job now and how it could be adapted specifically for art libraries. For instance, I’m currently working on assessments of our architecture and art history collections, and this has led to taking a deep look at the programs they support and the faculty who run them. I’m hoping that this work and the relationships I build will help develop any skills and knowledge I lack.

I think that volunteering for ArLiSNAP also counts as something I’m doing to prepare. Being a feature post writer is forcing me to think of issues in field and keep up with what other art librarians are doing.

Thinking back to your Master’s Degree program, is there anything you would have done differently to broaden your job possibilities?

I maybe would have tried harder to do a practicum in an art library. I did a practicum in collection development and instruction, the former of which helped me get my current position, but because I was a) pregnant and b) working full time, the convenience my practicum was key. One thing I did do was try to align what I was taking with library degrees at different schools that had a cultural heritage or art library “track” (mine didn’t specifically).

What has surprised you about the job searching process in this field?

I feel like I’ve been pretty prepared by colleagues and professors on the intricacies of applying for jobs in academic libraries, which includes subject specialist and art librarian positions, so I haven’t been surprised by much. However, for those reading this who haven’t been through it, in person interviews in academic libraries are like running a marathon. All day, grueling, but invigorating (sometimes) processes that require you to be “on” all day. I actually loved interviewing at that big university library even though I didn’t get that position, because I was able to engage with members of the campus community who came out to meet me at the various meetings. We talked a lot about issues in the field, and I genuinely felt like there was no “right” answer. I already knew I wanted to be an art librarian before interviewing, but I left realizing that it really is my career goal. Not every job interview is like that (maybe most aren’t?), but I guess it surprised me how at ease I felt with it. Probably because I am a subject specialist (M.A. in Art History), so I had a lot of feelings about fine arts collections, as well as their applications in teaching and research.

Do you have any words of wisdom for those interested in working in academic libraries?

Get experience, somehow. Any way you can. Volunteer if you can afford it, try to get a part-time job as a paraprofessional if you haven’t finished your degree…but just try to get that experience. It sucks, because I feel like academic libraries should give new professionals more of a shot. At my last job, I was on a hiring committee where we really tried to keep that in mind and look at those who had related experience + their MLS (which was required by HR), but unfortunately at most places, they are really looking for that library experience. Also, I think experience counts for more than the degree in a lot of cases. We interviewed super new “professional” librarians who had lots of library experience in staff positions over people who just had their MLS.

Also, when you interview, remember that you are also interviewing THEM. Try not to be scared to advocate for yourself and ask hard questions. When I interviewed, both for the art and design position as well as my current place work, I was a pumping mother of a baby under a year old. I had to request facilities in which to do that. They were accommodating, but if they hadn’t been, I would have known that I didn’t want to work there immediately. You want to be comfortable and happy where you work, so ask the hard questions.

What advice can you give to those trying to cope with the disappointment that inevitably comes with job hunting (and which for new professionals may be especially unexpected)?

Ugh, it’s hard. Try not to be discouraged! When I didn’t get the job in that fine arts library, I was crushed. I didn’t think I’d get a second interview, so when I was invited on campus, I was elated–how could I, as a new professional, get a job like THAT? I tried to just be proud of myself for getting there, but after my interview I was convinced I had a good shot. Later on, when I found out who did the job, I was seriously even prouder of myself, because that person had years of experience and also was involved in national associations (which I didn’t have the chance to do). I felt so happy I got as far as I did — you need to celebrate those victories, because they’re all learning experiences. So chin up and move on! It’s 100% their loss!

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

Courtney Interviews Sarah:

I’m repeating your question, because I’m curious: What do you think is the hardest part of breaking into the art librarianship field?

I think the hardest part(s) is(are) a combination of having the right skillset, finding the institution willing to take a chance on you, and not getting too discouraged by rejection. When combined, I think these things indicate (correctly) that the job search can be a long and challenging process for any new professional. But, it is worth it for anyone who truly loves art scholarship and collections.

How was your interview process different at an art museum library versus an academic art library?

It was completely different! Just as you mentioned, all of my academic library interviews were day-long affairs which typically involved a presentation that I had spent weeks preparing in advance. However, the art museum library interviews were typically only a couple of hours long and did not involve presentations. I interviewed for one position in an art museum library that was affiliated with a college, and that interview was structured more like an academic library interview. Another significant difference is that academic jobs typically involved multiple interviews with several members of the institution’s library staff, faculty, and administration, whereas museum library interviews were typically one-on-one or smaller groups.

Did you interview anywhere for a position you would not have accepted after you interviewed? What would the factors leading you to that conclusion?

Within weeks of finishing my MLIS, I interviewed for a position that I knew was not right for me. It was a step in the right direction (a professional title, a higher salary), but it involved responsibilities that were outside of my interests. I had initially applied for this job because it had a performing arts element, but when I learned more about the position, I realized that it did not have enough of an arts element to compensate for the other responsibilities that I was much less interested in. I was able to say “no” to this position because at the time I had a full-time paraprofessional job and a financial support network. However, if I had been in a financial or career position where I felt I was struggling, I would have definitely pursued that job. I think there is something to learn from any job you take, and even if it’s not your dream job, you can use it as an opportunity to learn and apply skills to your next position.

What are some of the things you feel are most important to do for someone trying to break into the field?

Relating back to your first question, I think that there are a few things art library students and new professionals can do to prepare themselves. This field is so competitive that students in art librarianship-focused MLS programs should be willing to cater the program to the skills they will need (i.e. taking the opportunity to do research in art librarianship or classes on visual resources or choose a concentration in digital media). I would encourage students to check out the ArLiSNAP “Hack Your Art Librarianship Program” blog posts for more advice on this.

For MLS graduates, one must be willing to continue learning through webinars, volunteer work, professional organizations, and networking. Once you have a good-looking resume (full of relevant volunteer work and continuing education), it’s all about applying to positions where you think the institution would be willing to hire a newbie. If you think you’re a good fit, apply. Use your cover letter to tell them why you’re a good fit even though you’re new-ish to the field! Lastly, you may find yourself applying to dozens (and dozens) of jobs without any offers. Keep pushing on. If you can, use your joblessness as an opportunity to take on more activities to boost your professional development, and take advantage of services like mentorship and resume reviews at ARLIS/NA and ArLiSNAP conferences! As long as you are able to push on, try not to give up because the next opportunity could be right around the corner at any time, and you don’t want to miss it!

Do you feel your master’s degree aptly prepared you for your position? For the job hunting process?

My program took around 2.5 years mostly part-time, and I think even if it had taken 3.5 years it would not have been long enough to prepare me for all the different facets of librarianship and art librarianship that I am interested in. Fortunately, it was a very career-minded program (in the online SOIS at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee – highly recommend!) which taught me practical things like how to analyze job descriptions and plan for a future in rapidly digitizing library environments. I also did not know when I was in this program that I would eventually become a cataloger. I have always preferred working with the public to sitting behind a computer screen. If I had known then that cataloging is much more than staring at a computer, I probably would have taken more cataloging courses, which might have prepared me to apply to cataloging positions right out of grad school. But, in the end, I feel that my program was well-rounded and did the best possible job of preparing me for job hunting.

Do you have any words of wisdom for those working in other types of libraries (school, public) hoping to get into academic or art libraries?

Yes! Any job in the library field (or art or museums) is a step towards working in art librarianship. The best possible thing you can do is make opportunities for yourself. Whenever you see a job posting for a position you are interested in but don’t think you are qualified for, save it and use it to help brainstorm ways to learn the skills you would need to be qualified for it. If you are working in a school library, try to include art books and topics in your library lessons. If you are working in a public library, ask your supervisor if you can curate a display of books about local art/artists. Start (and hopefully finish) projects that will look good on your resume, and don’t be afraid to get involved with professional communities of art librarians (ArLiSNAP is the perfect place to start!) and to ask questions about breaking into the field. You might start by posting your questions here, in this thread :)


Job hunting is so stressful! There’s no getting around that. And added to the stress is the passion that many art librarians feel for their subject specialty and profession. It can feel alienating to be in a position that is separate from what you’d rather be doing. But, as with most things in the library world, every experience leads to another.

If you have any questions for Sarah or Courtney, or would just like to share your own experience, please feel free to post in the comments section here!

Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash