“I am resolved to make a mark in the world… I know without egotism that there is some slumbering thunder in my soul and it will come out,” wrote the future US president James A. Garfield in 1850. From a young age, Garfield anticipated that he would play a significant role in the history of the nation. And while his presidency was cut short by an assassin in 1881, Garfield did make his mark as a Civil War veteran, lawmaker, and short-lived US president. I came across this quotation a few weeks ago as I was helping to prepare the images and metadata that comprise Garfield’s digitized diaries and wondered at the young man’s surety at his place in the world. While there are some, like Garfield, who follow a sure path, for most trained historians, our careers bend and turn in sometimes strange and unusual ways.
From Graduate School to Library School
I unknowingly started my career as a librarian while assuming that I would become a tenured historian. Like many ambitious recent graduates who majored in history, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in US history, specifically in early American and women’s history at Binghamton University (SUNY). Under the tutelage of wonderful advisors and professors and alongside supportive classmates, I thrived. But as I began to see the mental and emotional toll that graduate school and the job market had on colleagues, I began to question the sustainability of the path ahead given the scarcity of academic jobs. In my last year, while doing archival research in the State Library of New York, I remember thinking how truly lucky the archivists were to be working with a wide variety of scholars on a diverse array of topics. Instead of going further into the study of history, these archivists served and learned from scholars who worked on everything from the history of science to genealogy to urban planning.
To further explore this growing interest, I volunteered at the Binghamton Library in my last semester. The three hours per week I spent creating the subject guides for African and Asian history opened the library world to me. The Binghamton Library staff graciously welcomed me into their profession, allowing me to sit in on meetings with database vendors and introducing me to the many facets of their work. I made lasting connections with librarians and I gained experience that I could draw upon for library jobs in the future.
When I graduated with my Master’s and transitioned out of traditional academia, I couldn’t yet see how my background in history would benefit my career, but in hindsight I can see how my graduate school experiences strengthen my librarianship. I know how to do historical research, how to make an argument, how to write and critique, and how to understand concepts like contingency, intersectionality, and social constructs. It has helped me to better understand and speak the language of the researchers and scholars that I serve as a librarian and fuels my interest in teaching – whether it be on collections of interest or digital literacy.
Academic Programs and Guided Tours
A year after my graduation from Binghamton, I was working at the American Philosophical Society (APS) Library in Philadelphia, PA, steps away from Independence Hall. Before moving to Philadelphia I had never heard of the APS, even though it holds some of the country’s most significant Early American collections. But after applying for a position, I discovered that one of my former graduate school classmates had done research at the APS Library and knew the Director! My classmate reached out to the APS on my behalf, which likely helped my application rise to the top. You never know who your graduate school colleagues might know outside the world of traditional academic and it never hurts to ask someone to make a connections for you!
At the APS, I worked as the Assistant to the Librarian, an administrative role where my boss, an Early American historian himself, empowered me to take on specific tasks because of my history background that might not have otherwise come my way. I helped organize several academic conferences, fellowships, lectures, and other academic programs. I also gave tours on occasion, showing the library’s treasures to guests, including class visits for students attending local high schools and universities. And I did a lot of writing – from blog posts to grant reports, official correspondence, and drafts of articles and manuscripts.
While at the APS, I decided to start a Master’s in Library Science (MSLIS) at Drexel University, also located in Philadelphia. The useful thing about pursuing a MSLIS while working full time is that most programs have an online component and can be completed in a flexible way. I took one or two online courses per quarter and was able to get a few scholarships to help fund the program. For those reading this who might be thinking about librarianship, know that unlike your humanities graduate program, the MSLIS is a professional degree. This means that there is not usually a lot of funding available but also that you can tailor the degree to your interests and usually complete it fairly quickly. Unlike deciding on a graduate school for an MA in history, I would not recommend choosing an MSLIS program based on national rankings or even notable professors. I found a more helpful approach was to evaluate programs based on focus area or courses offered, cost, and whether or not you can take the degree quickly and flexibly.
Landing in a Digital Library World
After my MSLIS, I made a move for my spouse’s career and found myself at the University of Notre Dame. I mention this because it’s a reality that many of us face – sometimes our careers bend and flex based on the needs of our partners or family members – and that’s ok! (See Jessie Frazier’s excellent post about navigating the job market with an academic partner.) At Notre Dame, I found a position on a grant-funded project to build a collaborative digital collections platform for the campus art museum and library. I knew that moving to a smaller city like South Bend, IN would limit my choices in terms of library jobs and about six months before we moved, I began to scour the job boards for local universities and public library systems. After a few months of searching, this position came up and I applied. For those looking to apply for library and archival jobs, you will probably encounter many positions like this that are temporary and grant-funded. While the library world has begun to start critically addressing the reliance on grant-funded labor in the field, it remains a common way for institutions to staff new initiatives. Sometimes institutions can make these positions permanent if there is an organizational champion who can make the budget work but that’s never a guarantee.
In this role, I was able to really build my understanding and skills in project management, cultural heritage technology, and user experience research. While working at the APS and in my library school courses, I quickly came to see the growing importance of digital skills for librarians and scholars. I chose to take classes focused on technology in library school and got to work on some digital projects at the APS to build my skills. At Notre Dame, I was able to gain a much deeper understanding of digital library technologies working alongside software developers and digital collections librarians. In addition, I got to learn about art museums, museum data, and museum technology. Once again, my graduate training in history came in handy since I was able to bring my understanding of the research process to our user interface design process. I was able to represent the way that scholars find, read, and use digital materials to our software developers so that we could build something usable and useful for our community.
And that bring us to James A. Garfield. As my position at Notre Dame came to a close, I was fortunate enough to land at the Library of Congress in the Digital Content Management section working in the By the People team. My team runs the crowd-sourcing program at the Library, which invites anyone with an internet connection to transcribe the Library’s rich collections – like the Garfield diaries. We then take those transcriptions and return them to the Library’s main website to help increase the discoverability and accessibility of the collections. Our program is unique in that we invite communities across the world to not only consume and enjoy American history but also participate in creating new knowledge about our collections.
In light of our program’s ethos and the Library’s place as the national steward for US history, I deeply appreciate that our work is done in the public trust and for the public good. And in many ways, this brings me back to my graduate school experience at Binghamton University. As graduate students and classmates and teachers, we believed our work benefitted not only our students and our profession, but the public. We hoped that our scholarship and teaching would open new ways to think about our collective past and illuminate the hidden voices that contributed to it. And though I have moved from graduate school to a government library, I get to see the results of that hope by expanding access to collections that help communities feel they too are connected to our history.
Featured photo: Trikosko, Marion S. [Man using computer as others watch at a exhibit(?) with banner “Information on Demand”, at the White House Conference on Library and Information Services, Washington, D.C.]. November 16, 1979. U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress. Washington, D.C. https://www.loc.gov/item/2021638534/.