Special Collections Librarianship

Books at the Lilly Library

Following in the footsteps of previous posts that focus on a specific field of librarianship (such as Annie’s post on art librarianship and Chris’s post on data curation) today I wanted to explore special collections librarianship. I’d like to work with digital projects for special collections or archives after graduating from Indiana University and along the way I’ve picked up a few tips that I thought might be helpful to share with other library students interested in pursuing careers in special collections libraries.

First of all, I should define what I mean by special collection libraries. While special libraries could denote any library beyond academic and public with a specialized focus (such as a corporate or map library), special collections usually refer to repositories containing rare, unique and/or historically significant materials. Many special collections contain archival materials, and in smaller libraries special collections and archives are often merged.

Examples of the types of position you can pursue in special collections libraries include: directors and curators (who purchase items and forge relationships with booksellers and donors, often the public faces of the library), public services staff (responsible for reference, instruction, outreach), technical services staff (catalogers, bibliographers, sometimes metadata librarians), conservation and preservation staff (who make repairs, create casings, and prolong the life of collections), digital projects staff (who go by many titles and are often responsible for a broad swath of duties including digitization, metadata, and overall project management). Depending on its size and collections, each special collections library will have different positions from the next.

While I don’t think special collections librarianship is necessarily misunderstood, it has been my experience that it is romanticized more often than other types of librarianship. Special collections libraries are full of rich culture; their allure is understandable. However, I do sense a divergence between library students’ passion for special collections librarianship and their preparedness for the field come graduation time. Jobs in special collections libraries are some of the most competitive positions in an already competitive profession; pursuing a career in this area is not for the faint of heart. Competition is stiff, especially due to the rising number of returning students who already hold Master’s degrees or PhDs.

It is vital for prospective special collections librarians to be proactive in planning their library school experience. Keep in mind that I am not a special collections librarian, just a student. Practicing librarians in the field may have very different opinions about their hiring needs. However, I think the following is solid advice, and at the very least should leave you with some things to think about.

My tips for those interested in special collections:

  • Get experience now. Work your way from the bottom up. Special collections environments are the same as any other field: if you can’t find a paying position, volunteer or do an internship. If there isn’t a special collections library in your area, try for a museum or historical society instead because that experience can help you transition to a special collections library later. Take any and all relevant projects you can; actively seek them out and use them to build your resume.
  • Do your research. Job shadow or have an informational interview with a special collections librarian to see what the day-to-day life in your dream career is like. Find a mentor, if possible. Look at job ads for special collections positions and see for yourself whether most prefer subject Master’s degrees and/or additional foreign language proficiencies (they probably will!) and tailor your education accordingly. If you can, go to conferences (see additional resources below). Mingle, network and make your face known.
  • Gain technology skills. Even if the special collections career you envision for yourself is more traditional, many of the entry-level jobs you’ll be applying for will be at smaller libraries where each librarian takes on a diversity of tasks. Neglecting to gain tech skills would be a huge mistake and possibly put you at a disadvantage in the future. Make sure your tech skills aren’t lacking, because you can bet some of your competitors will have them.
  • Find your angle. What are you bringing to the job search that other candidates won’t have? Is it cutting-edge tech skills, a thorough knowledge of eastern European languages, a background in antiquarian bookselling, or something else entirely? Gather as many foundational skills as you can, but always be on the lookout for ways to create a niche for yourself.
  • Be realistic about the field. I think it’s important to remember that you can love rare books and manuscripts and not be a special collections librarian. I say this mainly because I have known peers who have taken the rare books and manuscripts track at my institution, taking on incredible courses about the history of the book, rare books cataloging, and other super-specialized topics which comprise all of their electives. When they graduate, some will go on to have satisfying careers and put their world-class knowledge to great use. However, the majority will leave with a deep love and enriched knowledge of rare books and manuscripts–but no prospect of employment in a special collections environment. So, ask yourself: Are the risks worth the potential rewards? If you graduate with a highly specialized degree as preparation for a career in special collections and cannot find a job, would it still be worth it? I can’t answer for you, but if you look the realities of this field straight in the eye and think to yourself, I can’t wait to prove myself and BE AWESOME, then I’m thrilled! I have no desire to deter anyone from pursuing a career in special collections librarianship. Just be strategic, be bold, and think deeply about the foundation you lay for yourself in library school and the opportunities it will afford you later.

Additional resources

Do you know of any other resources for library school students exploring special collections librarianship? What are your tips for staying competitive as you head into the field?

15 replies

  1. Thanks for this post! I would also add that publications and research potential are very important in this area of the profession, so students should be pro-active about pursuing those opportunities and presenting at conferences while still in grad school. One very useful website that you’ve missed is the website of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing at http://www.sharpweb.org. They maintain an extensive list of resources on book history programs, jobs, new publications, conferences, etc. I would also suggest that students interested in the field take a digital humanities or data curation course if it is available, as I think special collections librarians will increasingly be involved in such activities. Finally, although I was one of those students who took book history, digital humanities, rare books, and analytical bibliography, I think it’s important not to characterize a general course in book or library history as an esoteric choice! I firmly believe that a knowledge of book history will help any librarian be critical and thoughtful about directions in their profession today, and be a generally enriching experience for anyone curious about how we communicate and record information. (I’m a librarian/book historian who blogs sometimes about book history/print culture/digital humanities topics). Thanks for getting this conversation started!


    • You’re right, publications and research are great suggestions! Thanks for including the SHARP link; I’d never been there before but it seems like a great resource! And I completely agree with your comment that book/library history courses are valuable–I am in awe of the special collections librarians I work with at IU’s Lilly Library and I know many of my peers are as well. They teach book history courses and their breadth of knowledge is incredible. For me, it’s all about finding the right balance between knowledge and practical skills to ensure the hefty cost of grad school is a worthwhile investment.


      • Yes, I totally agree on the balance question. That’s why I think that courses like web design, databases, digital humanities, data curation are important, and that students need to highlight their employability through early professional publication/conferences, etc. I realized I also forgot to mention that archives courses can also be key: many special collections in small libraries do not have the funds to hire a specialist archivist or specialist librarian, but they do have the funds to hire someone who can both manage the print collection and process and acquire manuscript collections. One other aspect to consider is whether it makes more sense to develop core skills in library school, get that all-important first job, and then develop more specialized special collections skills while in the workplace (and earning an income) through things like Rare Books School at the University of Virginia. One problem I had was definitely how to fit all my coursework into my program, and since I was in Canada, I was working with 5 courses/semester, which I understand is more than in most semestered library schools in the States. On the other hand, library school is often the best place to learn from experts in this field, so it’s important to take advantage of those opportunities. It’s obviously a big balancing act! But a fun one!


      • Great post Bri! As a library school student who is currently on the job market and has specialized in rare books and manuscripts, I’d say the most helpful thing I’ve done is put in enough hours in all the various departments (as an unpaid volunteer/intern) so I can at least speak intelligently about the basics. Being able to do a little bit of everything, from cataloging, to manuscripts processing/EAD, to actual paper repairing, installing exhibitions, and providing reference assistance to real scholars are all things you can talk about in resume and in an interview. Most special collections libraries are small and you have to be able to offer more than one skill to a potential employer.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Bri brings up some really great points. I know when I tell people about the exciting items I get to examine, they probably don’t realize the work that goes into the scholarship of special collection work. It requires a lot more work.

    As Bri mentioned, these special collections libraries are small. So not only being able to offer skills that make you diverse, but being willing to work outside of your courses and gaining that experience and knowledge needed to succeed. Continuous learning, continuos learning, continuos learning.


  3. @Courtney says: “As Bri mentioned, these special collections libraries are small. ” maybe unique is a better word here instead of ‘small’

    Some are also very large too ! many often get the impression that special collections are usually small collections/libraries, but remember too to think for example about museums & their vast collections as well. — cheers Karen Weaver


  4. I would add that special collections work seems to involve a lot of networking, too, and meeting with potential donors. I used to date a special collections curator, and he was often putting on a suit to go have lunch or dinner with influential people connected to the topic of the special collections.


  5. @Karen, I think I meant to say that the size of a special collection staff is usually small.

    I always find it funny when people see the Lilly Library at IU and think it’s very small because they can’t see the closed stacks. And yet, the Lilly IS on the smaller side of library sizes.


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