For almost a year and half, I’ve been working at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, scanning glass plate slides of scientific expeditions and entering in metadata regarding each slide. This week marks the end of my long project, and I’m very sad to leave. I’ve enjoyed this project partially because the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History is what I would call “a museum of museums.” It is the oldest museum west of the Mississippi and some of the exhibits are over a century old! Not only am I learning about the content of the collection, but I’m also learning about the structure of museum operations and collection management. During this project, I primarily worked with lantern slides and glass plate negatives, which were used as kind of a 19th/20th century Powerpoint presentation during college lectures. Some of the slides are so small and so dark that you can only see them well enough by looking at the scanned finished product on the computer. Above my desk, there was a giant model of a shark. All in all, it was a very happy work environment.
So why, as a library student, should you give museums a shot? Museums resemble archives or special collections, but I would argue that working at museums is valuable for any specialization. Here’s why you might find educational value in museum work:
You’ll learn how to be a generalist. When I started my work at the natural history museum, I hadn’t taken a biology class since high school. You don’t have to be an expert in biology or American history; you just have to know where to look or who to ask. This is really closely related to research and reference work. If you’re working on a reference desk, you’ll need to be able to look things up from outside of your expertise. One of my favorite librarians at the public library likes to say, “I’m a generalist, not a specialist,” and I think that this rings true for a lot of information professionals. Also, the Harvard Business Review thinks that generalists get better job offers than specialists, which is good news for librarians!
You’ll examine how and why we taxonomize. When I was working with the metadata of the slides, I used a modified version of Dublin Core, which I taught myself. As I quickly learned how to identify the audience and code certain fields, I found myself thinking about the retrieval of data and the relationships between data, objects, and world. Of course, there are some issues with the notion of organizing information, as discussed here in both a natural history museum and library context by the writer Colin Dickey. Taxonomies have morality. By interrogating the question “why do we taxonomize?,” we are ethically situating ourselves in information science history.
You’ll learn how to advocate for yourself. This project was funded by a grant, so I’ve learned a bit about grant writing and how grant funding works. In your career, it is very possible that you will have to work with a grant, and possibly even write one. Sometimes, I think that advocacy is lacking in LIS education. Talking to people about your projects is a great way to experiment with self advocacy, and grant writing can be a great way to do this.
You’ll experience the heart of interdisciplinary studies. I’ve wrestled with ethics on acquisitions, cultural heritage, and animal rights. I’ve learned about famous taxidermists and explorers, and the early days of natural history museums. I’ve explored the Bahamas, Durango, Avery Island, San Francisco, and Hawaii with naturalists like Homer Dill and Charles Nutting. I’ve discovered the art of Charles Corwin (museum muralist) and Frank Bond (field illustrator), and become fascinated with the intersection between science and art. Previous on HLS, I’ve written about the benefits of interdisciplinary work here, and to reiterate, I firmly believe that creating and finding connections is what library and information science is all about.
Your favorite museum needs volunteers. Like many libraries and archives, most museums heavily rely on volunteers. The volunteer positions at my particular museum included being a docent, planning children’s programming, scanning slides, making supports for artifacts, and rehousing the bird collection. There’s really something for everybody, so don’t be afraid to email someone and ask if you can help out. Of course, I’m speaking from a natural history museum perspective. There are so many different institutions out there: art, science, military, historical sites… just to name a few!
I firmly believe that working in a museum has enriched my experience in library school. What do you love the most about museums?