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.
- RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage has its back issues archived online in PDF form, so peruse away.
- The Education and Hiring of Special Collections Librarians: Observations from a Recent Recruit by Susan Stekkel Ripley provides a brief overview of issues facing prospective special collections librarians.
- The Rare Book School offers continuing education courses for those who attend schools that do not offer a special collections focus.
- The Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) holds a preconference at each ACRL conference and often offers scholarships for new professionals/students/first time attendees.
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?