Researcher’s Corner: Art Librarians’ Professional Paths

I’m excited to be able to give you another guest post by Eamon Tewell, who shared the results of his research on entry level positions for Academic librarians with us back in late November.  This post presents research which is reported more formally in:

Tewell, E. (2012). Art librarians’ professional paths: A careers survey with implications for prospective librarians. Art Libraries Journal, 37(1), 41-45.

Although this work deals specifically with art librarianship, his methods should be of interest to anyone beginning a library career – it strikes me as a good way of exploring potential trajectories, and the advice given by the subjects has broader applications.  I also find it an interesting look into librarians’ additional qualifications: what do we need in addition to the MLIS in order to find work?


Introduction

I have always been intrigued by stories of how people chose librarianship as their career. A couple of years ago as a recent MLIS graduate with an interest in art libraries, I decided to ask professionals in this field about their career paths and any recommendations they had for those new to the profession. Additionally, I was curious to see what characteristics distinguished art librarianship from other specializations. I conducted a survey to attempt to answer these questions about how and why people selected art libraries as their workplace, as well as to solicit job search advice for prospective librarians.

Methods

I developed and sent an online survey to six email discussion lists related to art librarianship that represented several different areas of the world. For readers interested in art librarianship, I highly recommend subscribing to the listservs of the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS-L) and the Association of College & Research Libraries’ Arts Section (ARTS-LIB). The survey had 33 questions that addressed professional art librarians’ education, current and previous positions, career goals, and advice for future art librarians. In particular, I sought insight into the following questions:

● Was art librarianship a career goal for most professionals currently in the field?
● Why do individuals choose a career in art librarianship?
● What factors contributed to current professionals successfully obtaining a position as an art librarian?

Findings

Summary: I received a total of 280 completed responses to the survey. The results show that art librarians most commonly work in academic settings (followed by museums), chose art librarianship while already employed in a library, have an educational background in the arts at the undergraduate or graduate level, and selected librarianship primarily because they were attracted to the duties of the job. Unexpectedly, in a field that’s highly concerned about the graying of the profession, there was a relatively even distribution among age groups between 27 and 62.

Job Duties: One-third of the survey respondents felt their job duties most closely resembled a combination of Public Services, Technical Services, and/or Digital Services, while one-quarter selected Public Services as their primary responsibility. This indicates that employment opportunities in art librarianship are more likely to require a rounded background combining multiple skillsets, and that Public Services is a particularly common job responsibility.

Education: 35 percent of the respondents received a degree in Art History and 12 percent in Art/Studio Art. A wide variety of subjects were represented, which suggests that an undergraduate-level education in the arts would enhance one’s success in becoming an art librarian, but is not necessarily required. Slightly more than half had obtained a second Master’s degree or its equivalent, with the most frequent areas of study being Art History (52 percent), Fine Arts (16 percent), or Architecture (11 percent).

Advice for Prospective Librarians

The survey respondents said that “Background in the arts” and “Experience” were the most significant factors towards obtaining their first position in an art library. Interestingly, 20 professionals mentioned “Luck” as a factor in finding a job. On the topic of how graduate students should best prepare themselves for today’s job market, the following key themes surfaced:

● Gain as much experience as possible. Many respondents mentioned internships as a good way to get practical experience while in school.
● Be willing to relocate if possible. This theme was summed up in one librarian’s advice to “be prepared to move for your first professional post – once you’ve got that experience you stand a much better chance of getting jobs you really want.”
● Networking is essential. One respondent recommended networking both in person and online, while another pointed out that “Networking might not secure you a job directly, but [it] will increase your confidence in the field.”

Most significantly, respondents urged those new to the profession to manage their career expectations, which may include settling for a less than perfect position initially and working towards opportunities better suited to long-term goals. While a small number of art librarians advised current graduate students not to pursue a specialty in art librarianship or a career in librarianship in general, a more widely-held view acknowledges that competition is fierce, and one must put in major effort to make their achievements stand out to potential employers.

Conclusion

Hearing about other professionals’ career paths, whether in art libraries or another specialization, can be very informative in terms of learning how others successfully found a position that suits their interests and needs. Much of the advice for prospective art librarians is applicable to prospective librarians as a whole. Gaining experience while in school, being open to relocation, and networking are all familiar but significant recommendations for recent graduates. Remaining flexible regarding initial job expectations may be the most important piece of advice to keep in mind. As one respondent encouraged, “Keep an open mind. Show willingness and enthusiasm. Don’t give up!”


Eamon Tewell is Reference Librarian at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, where he provides research, instruction, and outreach services. He earned his MLIS from Drexel University in 2008 and his BA from the University of Colorado at Denver. Eamon has published and presented on the topics of emerging technologies and popular media. He tweets at @eamontewell and can also be reached via eamontewell.comAcademia.edu, orLinkedIn.

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