Interview: Life as The Banff Centre's Library Work-Study

For those of you thinking about spending six months in gorgeous Banff, Alberta (yes, international applicants are encouraged!):
Here are some words of wisdom from last year’s Library Work-Study, Jaye Fishel, who spent her tenure working to promote and display the Banff Centre’s insane collection of artists’ books. Jaye kindly answered my questions about being an American book-nerd in Alberta, the projects she worked on, and the application procedures to get into one of Canada’s prettiest cultural institutions.

The Banff Centre Library
The Banff Centre Library

ArLiSNAP: Can you start with a bit of your background?

Jaye Fishel: I was an artist before I got my MLIS degree, which I in-part pursued to professionalize my interest in artists’ books in particular. I worked in the rare books library during my undergraduate studies (at Emory University) and was introduced to artists’ books in processing collections. That led me to move to San Francisco in 2005 to study at the Center for the Book there, where I learned letterpress printing and other techniques. Since then, I’ve expanded my artistic repertoire but books and works on paper still figure largely into what I’m interested in engaging with, both professionally and as an artist.

ArLiSNAP: What were you doing previous to taking the work-study position?

JF: I was living in Oakland, unable to find a professional position suitable for me. I only realized after graduating with my MLIS that any job, let alone a job dealing with artists’ books, was very difficult to come by.

ArLiSNAP: What was the application process like?

JF: The application process was straightforward — I submitted a project proposal in addition to a standard cover letter that outlined a project I would produce while at the Centre. Since the work-study position is an educational program, like an internship, I stated some learning objectives. Applying to work in Canada from the US seemed to have little bearing on the application process, although once I accepted the position, I had to secure a student visa, which did not show up until the day before my flight to Banff, causing more than a little anxiety.

ArLiSNAP: A student visa?

JF: I needed a student visa because the work-study program is considered an educational program, so technically I was a student in the eyes of the Canadian government. Work-study participants receive a stipend, not a salary, and are generally treated differently than staff at the Centre.

ArLiSNAP: What attracted you to the position?

JF: The job description was like a dream! Working fairly exclusively with the artists’-books collection in an international art residency centre? I was attracted to everything about that. Plus, I needed a change in my life, so I felt ready to move to remote Banff from the Bay Area, which was changing rapidly before my eyes into a place that felt less and less accommodating to artists and craftspeople. I was also attracted to the adventure.

ArLiSNAP: What period of time were you there? What was it like moving to Banff and settling in?

JF: I arrived in Mid-May and I left at the end of February, so I was there for nine months. It was an adventure the entire time — living in the middle of the Canadian Rockies in an art residency center was unlike my life in the Bay. I hadn’t lived through a snowy winter since I was a child, so that was definitely an adjustment, as was living in a very small tourist town. I had a sometimes quiet, simple existence — sometimes filled with lots of art and parties and people from all over the world.

ArLiSNAP: What was a typical work day like?

JF: I worked four days a week, nine to five, with one day away from the library to work on outside research or projects. Typical days usually included working on artists’-book catalog records, planning upcoming events, and working with patrons. Then I’d walk home and see at least one deer or elk, on average.

ArLiSNAP: You started a few neat initiatives while you were there. Can you tell us about getting those programs going?

JF: I had a lot of freedom to create new initiatives and work on a variety of projects. The bulk of what I did at times was cataloging, or improving the very basic cataloging of the artists’ books collection, which is extensive at over 4,300 items. I would pull items from a particular press or artist at once to make comprehensive improvements to parts of the collection that relate to one another. I also initiated a public program series of artists’ books showcases, where I would pull random items from the collection and invite the resident artists and the public to engage with the items. I also started a several-year-long project to display every item in the artists’ books collection in a case in the library, as well as online via documentary images. (

I had wonderful support from my mentor, Suzanne Rackover, to do whatever I wanted with my time to enhance use of the collections. So I just came to her with my ideas and she supported my process. For the artists’ books showcases, I would loosely try to pull items that would be of interest to visual artists on residencies. I would make sort of weird promotional fliers and hand them out and post around campus. Setting up the Tumblr project required simply creating a randomized spreadsheet of the collection, creating the new display every Monday of fifteen items, photographing the works, and posting to the Tumblr. It’s a fairly simple process, so now almost anyone who works in the library can continue the weekly changes.

Artists'-Book Showcases
Artists’-Book Showcases

ArLiSNAP: Do you have any advice for someone looking to apply to the Banff Centre Library, or things to do while working there?

JF: I’d advise anyone interested in working with an outstanding artists’ books collection to apply. It is truly an amazing collection that I feel so lucky to have worked with every day. I know I’m a great deal more knowledgeable about artists’ books than I was before working at the Centre. Working at The Banff Centre is very special because artists across media from around the world come to make and show work. I encourage any future library work study to go to every show, performance, artist talk, party, dinner, bingo night, hike, and outing possible. There is a lot to experience in a very short time.

Applications for the Library Work-Study are due on June 15th!

A Success Story: Interview with Tatum Preston, Art Librarian

This is the first in a series of success stories and interviews with current art library professionals. If you would like to share your story, please contact the discussion team.

Tatum Preston has been a solo librarian at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama for 10 years.  Prior to working as a librarian, she worked in both corporate and non-profit arenas as an Americorps volunteer, an accounts-payable auditor, and a development associate.  Tatum holds a BA in English from Davidson College and an MLIS from the University of Alabama, where she has taught a course on Art Librarianship. She is the author of “Recruiting and Retaining Volunteers of All Ages” in the book How to Thrive as a Solo Librarian (Scarecrow Press, 2011). You can learn more about her by visiting her LinkedIn profile.


What attracted you to the field of librarianship?

I sort of fell into this field, honestly. With an undergraduate degree in English, I knew I’d eventually go back to school for my master’s degree. I was looking at degrees in English when a friend sent me an article about library school. My initial response was, “No way! That sounds so nerdy and boring.” I had many of the stereotypical misconceptions about librarians. As I started to research the degree more, I realized that it really melded my love of reading and learning, my desire to be in a service-oriented profession, and my interest in technology.

How did you get your current job? Do you have any job-hunting advice?

When I finished graduate school, I took a job at the Museum working in the Development department. This job was not in my new field, and had a pretty low salary – but I took it because I knew there was a library here, and the hiring manager assured me that if I did a good job, she would be my biggest advocate in getting promoted to a position in the library if one became available. About a year and a half later, my current position opened and she proved true to her word.

In light of this story, my advice is to take a chance – apply to a job that may not be exactly what you want, or that may not be a “library” job. I know that the job market is really tough right now. Creativity in your search helps I think.

What is a typical day like for you?

One thing I really like is that there is no “typical” day. Just this week, I have already been at a donor’s home to help pack up a donation, cataloged books, located something via ILL, supervised an intern, helped a staff member learn to navigate our image database, gone to some meetings…and it’s only Tuesday! I like the pace and the variety.

What do you think are the most important issues facing art librarians today?

 Digital publishing – the art world is finally catching up in this arena and I think there are a lot of cool possibilities for presenting our information. Of course this also presents challenges in terms of cataloging and access. Digitization in general – having your collection digitized used to be a frill, now it is an expectation from your user. People expect that they can find your entire collection online. A lot of people don’t understand the amount of work and money that go into digitization projects. Also, shrinking budgets coupled with increasing demand for services. Librarians must continue to be creative in how they provide both access and service.

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

Remember that librarians are a collegial and helpful bunch by nature. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others working in the field for help or information. Read voraciously (good advice for anyone, I think !) and keep up with the issues facing the field. Contribute to the field through professional organizations – sign up for a committee, volunteer to help with a conference or event, offer to be a peer reviewer. Don’t let your lack of experience hinder or discourage you. The field needs new voices, and you will learn things you didn’t learn in library school!

I know you have a lot of experience working with graduate students and you teach an art libraries class. Do you have any recommended reading, other than the basic textbooks used for art library courses?

I keep up with the field through a lot of online sources. I read ArtsJournal’s daily email. I love Nina Simon’s blog, Museum 2.0. On Twitter, I follow the Google Art Project, visual culture entities, and museums whose exhibitions, programs, and libraries I admire. I also follow stuff about food, music, fashion, beer, literature, current events and issues – other things I like that are not related directly to art librarianship. I highly suggest reading outside of the strict parameters of the field. Follow your interests and see how and where they tie into the field of art librarianship.

Just for fun – what is your favorite library? Work of art or artist?

That’s like asking someone to choose her favorite child! My interests are kind of all over the place – I like everything from Asian to contemporary to folk art. Which is one of the things that makes me a good librarian.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If any of your readers have further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me!