Where Historians Work: Q&A with Alea Henle of Western New Mexico University

“It doesn’t hurt to have some self-knowledge about what works for you [and] what kind of environment works for you.” ~ Dr. Alea Henle, Head of Public Services Librarian, Western New Mexico University.

henle imageWelcome back to “Where Historians Work: The View from Early America!” This week Katy chats with Dr. Alea Henle, Head of Public Services Librarian at the J. Cloyd Miller Library at Western New Mexico University. The pair discuss the importance of “knowing your audience” as a historian and “self-knowledge” when it comes to thinking about next steps for a career.

JUNTO: We really appreciate you sharing your story with us, Alea. Tell us about the work that you do. How does it relate—or not relateto the research you undertook in your doctoral studies?

ALEA HENLE: The Miller Library staff is small, so I work on a variety of tasks from reference to instruction to database management with a helping of committee meetings on the side. For instance, I spend a fair amount of time each week staffing the reference desk and helping students, faculty, staff, and the public conduct research, locate resources, and use the facilities (particularly the computer lab). I also design and present instruction sessions at faculty requestthese vary in topic (recent classes include education, geography, and kinesiology) and delivery style (face-to-face, online, and hybrid). I’ve created online modules for use in classes and 24/7/365 web guides to conducting basic research and research in specific subjects. I spend time troubleshooting our online resources and cleaning up our online database and discovery tool. Last but not least, as a faculty member I represent the library on two very active university committees: Faculty Senate and Curriculum & Instruction (which reviews proposals for all changes, additions, and deletions to existing courses and programs).

My dissertation explored the history of historical societies in the early United States (i.e. up to 1850). My ongoing historical research, building on my dissertation (now a book manuscript), centers upon how efforts to gather and preserve materials for the writing of history shaped what survived for contemporary use. My library work exposes me daily to the ways in which resource design and researcher choices affect research results. Thus while my day-to-day work does not directly relate to the research I undertook in my doctoral studies on the surface the two are quite complementary.

JUNTO: What was the journey after graduate school like for you? Can you reflect on some of the choices you confronted when you made the decision to work for Western New Mexico University?

HENLE: Mine is a rather unusual arc. I went to library school straight out of undergrad. After spending a few years bouncing around, I wound up working in the library of a large, international law firm in D.C. for over five years—quite interesting but also very demanding! As a quick example, while at the firm I provided research assistance for a 9/11 commissioner, investigations for the boards of Enron and Worldcom, and attorneys arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court. From the law firm, I moved to academia and spent two years as Electronic Resources Librarian at Colorado State University before I decided to go back and get a Ph.D. In retrospect, I was probably a bit burnt-out at the time. My years in doctoral studies revived me!

After defending my dissertation, I spent a year as in a visiting position teaching library science, archives, and records management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was a lovely time, and yet I came to realize teaching full time did not suit me. I tended to get sucked into the semester schedule only to emerge at the far end wondering where all the time had gone and why I hadn’t been more productive outside of teaching and grading. Of equal import: I missed the regular, daily involvement with students, staff, and faculty which I had as a librarian.

Therefore, instead of actively applying for tenure-track teaching jobs I applied for library positions. The position at WNMU was quite a change in many respects—in a part of the country I’d never lived before (which is saying something—I’ve had driver’s licenses from nine different states), at an HSI open-enrollment institution and in a smaller library than most of those in which I’d worked. On the other hand, it offered a welcome array of challenges, a diverse clientele, and a tenure-track line. After weighing the possibilities, I took the position and am glad I did. I’ve accomplished much more scholarship while working a schedule which by-and-large hews to a regular schedule. Granted, I tend to do a lot of my scholarly reading and writing after hours at home, but as the saying goes it all evens out in the wash.

JUNTO:  In our phone conversation, you mentioned something that has emerged as a theme for many of our participants in this series. You said that historians “need to learn to write to the audience that needs to hear it.” In what ways does thinking about audience and writing style factor into your research and writing?

HENLE: A classic grad school question is “so what?” This is often taken in the sense of how does a paper offer a new knowledge or insight or change things; however, it can also be interpreted as what might be done differently as a result—and who might do the different doing. These are important points to consider. After all, ideally you want to reach the people whom your research will affect! So consider who they are, what are the most efficient ways to reach them, and what techniques are central to those methods of delivery. This applies to all manner of decisions about writing style and presentation as well as publication or dissemination method—not just in the case of scholarly versus popular history, but also public history venues (museums, historic sites, exhibits, digital projects).

I sometimes joke I’m a one-person interdisciplinary committee: as a librarian, historian, and archivist (sort-of in that order, although they switch around on occasion) who’s spent a fair amount of time around literary scholars in no small part due to the Mellon Early American Material Texts Initiative at the McNeil Center and Library Company of Philadelphia (thanks Jim & Dan!). Added to this, my  research sits at the intersection of these fields—and I’m regularly exposed to several bodies of scholarly research. Over time, I’ve increasingly noticed gaps or resources (ex. journals) seemingly underutilized and under-cited in fields I’d expect to see more use. This bothers me. A current project is partly conceptualized as taking material from one or two bodies of scholarship and reconfiguring it for use in another body or two. I’m adding my own insights and observations, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact that part of a paper is a kind of scholarly translation.

JUNTO: What skills as a historian did you bring to your position, and what skills did you learn while on the job? How do these skills complement each other in your daily work?

HENLE: As noted above, I already had a library degree and a fair amount of experience so I didn’t learn too much on the job on those fronts. What I did learn fell into the arenas of librarianship in which I hadn’t spent as much time in. Most of my library career I spent in public services, but while at WNMU I managed our migration from one library catalog system to another—and had a learning curve figuring out “tech-speak” and how to translate it into more everyday English!

On the other hand, training as a historian has impacted my life and work in a variety of ways. For one, my history training has deepened my skills at evaluating, building, and maintaining collections. I’m plugged into certain official and unofficial circles of scholarly communication with help ensure I catch and consider award-winning books for purchase. Similarly, I can review existing library materials and recommend which to keep and which to discard or redirect to a more appropriate holder.

And it certainly doesn’t hurt to be able to swap research and writing tales with other faculty!

JUNTO: What advice would you offer for graduate students looking for careers outside the professoriate? Any words of wisdom for preparing for an array of job applications and interviews?

HENLE: Self-knowledge helps. Figure out what you want most in a career and working environment, what you’re willing to put up with, what’s a deal-breaker, and so on. In short: what do you value and what is your work style? (These do change over time—and it can take a long time to figure this out. I’m still working on it!) See what careers offer as much as possible of what you like and are willing to deal with.

Start exploring non-research/teaching careers as soon as you can, certainly as soon as you decide they might be viable options for you. (I’m not using “outside the professoriate” because many academic institutions extend tenure and the professoriate to include libraries.)

Talk to people doing whatever you’d like to learn about. There’s a reason folks plug informational interviews – they offer opportunities to network and hear what it’s “really like” before you head so far down the rabbit hole you can’t easily back-up.

Learn how to “speak the lingo.” Academic libraries and special libraries are willing to hire people without library degrees (particularly for subject-specialist positions), but knowing what we’re talking about helps a lot. Ditto for other professions.

Explore options, but . . .

Once you settle on some preferred options, study them. Figure out how they do things. This includes the application and interview process. For one, most professions post job ads year-round; there is no season as there often is with teaching lines. I’m an academic librarian and there are a lot of similarities with academic library job searches and other academic searches (lengthy, wide-ranging searches, screening interview of a small pool of candidates, on-campus interviews for 2-4 candidates . . .) but also notable differences. For instance, most (not all) academic library searches ask for resumes not full CVs—trim down that CV to the most important and relevant items which can fit on 2-4 pages. Similarly, academic library searches tend to ask for contact information for 3-5 references rather than letters. References may receive calls or requests for letters between screening interviews and on-campus or even after on-campus and right before job offers. So learn about the processes involved in the application process.

And it doesn’t hurt to get sufficient exposure to your chosen career through any reasonable method (internship, part-time work, project development, etc.) both to test your interest and to develop potential references.

JUNTO: Any final thoughts on career diversity for Early Americanists?

HENLE: John Fea’s blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home periodically features interviews with history majors working in a variety of fields. These are all open to individuals with advanced history degrees.

Also, as noted above, figure out what works for you. Early America may infuse your every working moment – or perhaps you’ll find contentment (as I do) in a job where the skills and knowledge come into play, but you don’t live Early America every day. I keep my hand in (research, publications) and every now and then make it to a conference (SEA this past March, for example). I find it’s a pretty good life!

I think many of our “Where Historians Work” participants would agree with Alea: when thinking broadly about our history skill-sets and knowledge there are many options for a pretty good life!

Next week, we’re back for our final installment of the series. See you Thursday!


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