Guest Post: Working for the Library

Today’s post is by guest blogger, David J. Gary, who received his MLS from Queen’s College (CUNY) in 2011 and his PhD in History from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2013. He is currently an adjunct assistant professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at Queens College (CUNY). He blogs at Function Follows Forme.

I am grateful to The Junto for this chance to reflect on my experiences earning both a Master’s in Library Science and a PhD in American history and to advocate for others to consider joining me. 

No doubt, the thought of getting another Master’s degree while working on the dissertation, like I did, or after earning the PhD, must be off-putting to many people. After my committee approved my dissertation proposal, which focused on the book collecting and reading habits of the Federalist Rufus King (1755-1827), I started library school and it took me two years to complete the program part-time. I performed most of my research and some writing during those two years, but I did the bulk of the writing in the eighteen months after I had my MLS. Despite the short-term sacrifice of time, I feel that having the option for library or archival work does have its virtues. And to give this discussion an early American twist, the concept of virtue is a good place to begin.

Virtue has connotations with morality and strength. No one can deny that what librarians or archivists do is moral—they preserve, organize, and provide access to information for those who need it, when they need it. In today’s digital age, they are also striving to offer information to people where they want it. They serve the public good in a democratic fashion. But as we move closer to a time when almost all information will be delivered electronically, strength is going to be required. As libraries and archives transform in this rapidly shifting environment, budgets will have to be defended, the public educated, open access initiatives expanded, copyright owners soothed, unique content promoted, and students taught in new ways.

The next ten years are going to be exciting and combative and librarian-historians and archivist-historians have an opportunity to make a big impact. The role of these hybrid individuals is even more important considering the trend of divergence between information professionals and historians. Francis Blouin’s and William Rosenberg’s recent book Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives, describes how archivists, who must deal with ever-increasing mountains of data, and historians, whose move toward cultural history and theory made them less reliant on the archive than previous generations, have drifted apart. This tendency to separate comes at a moment when strength is needed most. Those with the history PhD and MLS can speak to both camps, which is a role that will be increasingly needed.

In addition to being at the cutting edge of what are likely to be some of the most important battles in academia, dual holders of the PhD and MLS gain quite a few benefits. While the library and archive job market is tight, it does provide for some flexibility of location. It would be very difficult for me to stay in New York if I wanted to find a traditional tenure track faculty position, but finding a library or archives job is possible with enough patience. But more importantly, one my favorite benefits is the generalist nature of library or archival work. After years focusing on a specific topic, it is quite liberating to examine the variety of topics one comes across during the course of work or from interacting with patrons. During the first half of my PhD studies, I worked as a manuscript cataloger at the Gilder Lehrman Collection (GLC), an archive on deposit at the New-York Historical Society. The serendipity of the work appealed to me and I felt like I was doing important work. For about a year, I worked with a team who made an item-level catalog of the nearly 11,000 items in the Henry Knox Papers, an important resource available on GLC’s Web site. Additionally, I cataloged items like the draft of James Monroe’s first inaugural address, Admiral David Farragut’s hat, and John Adams’ inscribed copy of the first volume of David Hume’s The History of England.

In addition to the general nature of the work in a library or archive, there is an outlet for your specific research interests. Many librarians and archivists publish, and it should be noted that many academic librarians are faculty members who are on the tenure track. The twelve-month schedule of an academic librarian or archivist makes finding time to write more difficult, and might lead to the publication of more journal articles. With the knowledge that I wanted to be a librarian or archivist, my defense committee recommended that I spin my dissertation off into five or six articles. I am not sure what I will do at this point, but publishing will be an important part of my future.

Librarians and archivists will be teaching too, but in different ways than department faculty. Instead of offering a body of knowledge to a class over a semester, the librarian or archivist will work with students, often in their classrooms, to impart specific skills or instruct using objects from the collections. This style of teaching might appeal to someone who does not want plan a semester length course. Librarians and archivists can also collaborate with departments to offer workshops on topics not normally covered in classes, like bibliography. Over spring break of this year I co-taught a week long seminar at the University of Glasgow to PhD students in the humanities who had little or no background in the history of the book. It was an excellent way to get students caught up on a field that the university does not generally cover.

Teaching moments for librarians or archivists might include instruction on how to perform research in the digital age, a history subject librarian could offer a workshop on writing historiographic essays, or there could be a deeper, semester-long collaboration with the class to create a digital humanities project. In particular, a dual history PhD and MLS could offer both historical instruction and an understanding of coding, metadata standards, databases, Web site construction, and best-practices of scanning. Librarians and archivists are already working with professors to curate collaboratively made sites as components of classwork.

While the library and archive offers an alternate place to work for those with the history PhD, I agree with Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman’s October 2011 Perspectives article that students need more flexibility to make this a possibility. While there are dual history M.A. and MLS programs, can a program be devised that takes into account people who want to write dissertations and become librarians or archivists? Could the dissertation be chopped up into a series of journal length articles for someone on that track? There are only 51 library schools in the country, and while some offer online degrees, some areas of the country will find that creating such a program will be difficult. Nonetheless, it is an option graduate students should consider.

5 responses

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. I also think there needs to be a conversation about what message universities are sending to prospective graduate students who are interested in academic careers outside outside the tenured professor track. When I applied to History graduate programs with the plan of going on to work in museums or archives, several professors actually told me “you don’t need a PhD for that” and subsequently did not go to bat for me in the admissions process. I ended up pursuing an MA in Public Humanities instead (which has been fantastic), but I still sort of long for that higher degree. The only problem is finding a university that support my mission of working more with the public.

  2. I would also like to point out that there are doctorates in Library and Information Science where the rigour of scholarly research and the hard work of a full length dissertation apply.

  3. Although my MLS didn’t lead directly to a job, it unquestionably made me a better researcher and more intelligent user of libraries and archives. I doubt I would have written the same dissertation without it. Additionally, my library science background has made me very attuned to knowledge management issues, which has proved quite useful in my job. As I say, my MLS didn’t give me a job, but I’m very glad I did it.

  4. I can’t speak to its popularity, but it is certainly a necessary profession. Librarianship is, in large part, about organizing and providing access to information, not stamping due dates in the back of books.

  5. Pingback: History Carnival 122: Humans in the “Natural” World | Performing Humanity


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