Of Hybrarians, Scholar-Librarians, Academic Refugees, & Feral Professionals
Whenever a humanities scholar reads a document crucial to her research on a computer screen or a microfilm reader, she is very likely profiting from the work of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), a renowned organization that she has probably never heard of. CLIR, which has existed in one form or another since 1956, might be called a library technology think tank. For the last few years, one of the problems it has been thinking about, and acting to solve, is the problem of how to develop future leadership for academic libraries. One of the organization's strategies has been to encourage new humanities Ph.Ds to consider careers in academic libraries. In 2004, CLIR selected its first cohort of fellows for its newly created Postdoctoral Fellowship in Academic Libraries. The fellowship program's goals were not only to offer humanists a different career path, but also to bring much-needed scholarly expertise into academic libraries. To date, participating libraries have hired forty-five scholars for one-to-two year positions on special projects in areas such as special and digital collections, instructional technology, reference, instruction, and developing information literacy curricula. Over the six years of the program's existence, CLIR postdoctoral fellows have gone on to both faculty and library careers, often carving out distinctive hybrid positions for themselves or crossing back and forth between librarianship, traditional faculty roles, and work in the digital humanities. Recently, the program has expanded into the social sciences, and may soon incorporate scientists as well.
Here, four former fellows from the program's inaugural year look back on their experiences on and off the faculty track. All of us —Amanda Watson, Amanda French, Patricia Hswe, and Christa Williford —were part of the first CLIR fellows cohort in 2004-05. All of us entered the program with recent or brand-new humanities Ph.Ds (two in English literature, one in theater, one in Slavic studies); two of us are now librarians, and two have continued to alternate-academic positions that span librarianship, academia, and the digital humanities. Others in our cohort have also pursued library careers, or have returned to teaching as faculty, but with a new appreciation for the role of the information sciences in the academic world. All of our professional lives have taken sometimes surprising turns after (and, for some of us, before) the Ph.D. A sense of the unexpected —"Plan B," as Patricia Hswe calls it, or even Plans C, D, and E, replacing the Plan A of a traditional academic career —runs through our narratives.
Our contribution is not so much an introduction to the fellowship program itself (a more comprehensive treatment can be found in Marta Brunner's "Ph.D. Holders in the Academic Library," cited below) as a set of reflections on the ways in which the fellowship has affected our various career paths. We begin by summarizing these paths in a series of biographical statements; then we move on to a conversation about our interest in the information sciences, the impact of the fellowship, the place of scholar-librarians and digital humanists, and the future of libraries and other cultural memory institutions.
In 2003, I was finishing my dissertation on early modern English poetry and theories of memory at the University of Michigan when I realized that I just couldn't picture myself being happy in a faculty position. It took me a while to admit as much to myself. Everyone who knew me thought I was born to be an English professor. I thought so, too, when I started grad school, but somewhere along the line, the doubts started to creep in. It's hard to say what was most dispiriting: the prospect of having no control over where I lived, the constant pressure to prove how smart I was by working every waking minute of every day, the lack of "fit" I felt when I had to get up in front of a classroom. But the upshot was that I was more depressed than excited at the prospect of getting even one of the elusive "good" jobs, which were looking increasingly unfindable anyway.
For months, paranoid about what might happen if I admitted that I didn't want to be a professor, I kept my discontentment mostly to myself while reading every career-changing self-help book I could find and brainstorming things I might conceivably do with my life. Eventually, I realized that everything I most enjoyed doing boiled down in one way or another to "working with information." I found a part-time job proofing SGML markup with the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP), which helped to confirm a few hypotheses: that I liked working in a library setting; that I could actually get paid for tinkering with digital texts, as opposed to having my interest in the web regarded as an eccentric quirk or an unproductive hobby; that there were lots of interesting people doing intellectual work outside traditional academic departments; and that I didn't have to spend the rest of my adult life giving up my weekends to grading. (Of all the many things that drove me crazy about the academic life, grading probably drove me the craziest.)
After I finished my Ph.D, I might have taken a full-time job with EEBO-TCP and eventually gone for an MLIS at the University of Michigan's School of Information. But I had heard about the new CLIR postdoctoral fellowship program, and it sounded like too good an opportunity to pass up. In July 2004, almost a year after I defended my dissertation, I moved to Charlottesville for what turned out to be two years at the University of Virginia Library. My first year involved two digital projects (an online exhibit of manuscripts by Hart Crane and a website for a new course on the Enlightenment); in my second year, I worked with the Digital Research and Scholarship department, managing a temporary computer lab space and doing outreach to faculty.
By the end of my second year at UVA, I knew I wanted to be a librarian. Knowing that the MLIS would make me more marketable to library hiring committees, I enrolled in the School of Information at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where I was fortunate enough to find an internship at the Swarthmore College Library for the two years it took to complete my master's degree. I'm now a research and instruction librarian at the Connecticut College Library, which means I field questions at the reference desk, offer research instruction to students, act as liaison to the English department and the Film Studies program, select new materials in both of those subject areas, and juggle a wide range of "additional duties as required," from statistics collection to library newsletter editing. I'm still immensely pleased to have found a job where I can put my subject background to use while indulging my generalist tendencies. In my copious spare time, I'm developing an interest in the history of the book, a field I wish I'd known about the first time I went to grad school.
In 1984, I entered Yale's Ph.D program in Slavic Languages and Literatures, concentrating in Russian. I had just graduated from college, and I viewed my graduate program as the launching pad for the kind of career that my mentor, who was my undergraduate thesis adviser, was excelling in and enjoying. I had every intention of following in her footsteps. Russian language and literature were my life; there was no Plan B, nor did there need to be one, in my naive estimation.
Fast forward nineteen years, when I finally received my doctorate. That's right: nineteen years. I was 40 when I finished my Ph.D, by which time there had been a Plan B — in fact, many iterations of a Plan B.
If there's a line of poetry that describes the trajectory of my career, from temporary faculty member, to program assistant for a refugee resettlement agency, to university administrator, to reference book editor, to CLIR postdoctoral fellow, to, finally, librarian, it is likely this, from W. H. Auden's "Our Bias": "When have we not preferred some going round / To going straight to where we are?" The accumulated experiences of this "going round" — the indirection, the circuitous path, the detours — have shaped me both personally and professionally. I see this now and believe it fiercely, but my twenty-one-year-old self would have viewed such amblings off the beaten path as profitless diversions, if not also bizarre and suggestive of failure. And how could she not? What other options existed for an aspiring academic 25 to 30 years ago?
The Plan B that made a lasting difference was the postdoctoral fellowship I held in 2004-2006 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the Slavic and East European Library. I became interested in the fellowship while working as an editor of reference books, a position that required me to consult OPACs and other online resources, such as digital collections, for the verification of the bibliographies that accompanied the entries I edited. These resources did not exist when I started graduate school, so to be paid (however meagerly) to indulge myself in a regular exploration of them was nothing short of extraordinary for someone like me with a life-long library habit. At the same time, my wanderings on the Web led me every so often to wonder where the reference projects I was editing were really headed. As a fellow, I was contributing to the creation of digital resources; learning more, and becoming fascinated by, the infrastructure of people and systems supporting the university library; and discovering the rewards of collaborating with librarians — something new to me, since collaboration was, and continues to be, a rare modus operandi for humanists. Eager to know more about libraries, I applied to the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois, and graduated with my master's degree in library and information science in 2008. I now work as Digital Collections Curator at the Penn State University Libraries, where I'm involved in a range of activities, all of which address the question of how we can make our data and content in digital form more discoverable, more accessible, and thus more usable. In other words, I am finally carrying out the real Plan B.
The moment in graduate school when I realized I had to either fish or cut bait, finish my dissertation or drop out, was a crucial one. And yet it wasn't exactly a moment — it was more like a month, or several months. In 2001, eight years in, I went through a painful breakup, and I thought, Well, okay, if that source of joy and fulfillment has been cut off, what other potential sources of joy and fulfillment are there? My dissertation at that time hardly qualified; I had been working on it intermittently and worrying about it continually for three or four years, with maybe two chapters at most to show for it. (I don't know and can't find out, since there's apparently no trace of that initial attempt in either my digital or my print archives, which are instead bursting with records from all the teaching I did in those years.) Once I gave myself permission to quit, I found that I didn't actually want to. Knowing that I could leave, and that leaving would be a perfectly rational choice, let me get past both the paralysis of blaming myself for insufficient progress and the bitterness of blaming academia for unfair labor practices. (All that poorly-paid teaching.) What I decided to do instead was to find a dissertation project I really believed in and would really enjoy working on, something that would be a real contribution to knowledge, something that would bring me a measure of joy and fulfillment. So I changed advisors, changed projects, even changed my field from fiction to poetry. It took me another three years to finish, but I was much happier with the work I was doing, even though my new advisor warned me from the get-go that it probably wouldn't get me a job. My new dissertation was a history of the nineteen-line poetic form called the villanelle, which was problematic because there were very few jobs for people doing post-Renaissance British poetry. Both my topic and my method were unfashionable, as well, and my work ranged over too many periods to prove that I was an expert in one. I was proud of the work I did, though, and I thought, If I can get a tenure-track job doing this, then I would love to do this. If they want me, they can have me. If not, I have other options.
And, indeed, it's those other options that have panned out, and panned out in surprising and interesting ways. In 2003, the year before I finished, I applied for only three tenure-track jobs. Most people these days, of course, apply for 20 or 30 or 75 or more tenure-track jobs at a time, but I didn't have much to choose from and was in any case picky. I wasn't really surprised that no one asked to interview me at the Modern Language Association convention: probably at least 200 people applied for each of those three jobs. When I heard about the CLIR fellowship in December, however, I knew not only that it was something I was perfectly qualified for, but that there weren't many others with those qualifications. UVA was a major pioneer in what we're now calling "digital humanities," and thanks to first a class and then a part-time job with Jerome McGann, plus free workshops offered at UVA and a lot of self-teaching, I had picked up a good many tech skills along with a fairly serious tech habit. I therefore applied for the CLIR postdoc, was accepted, finished and defended my dissertation, and began work at the NCSU Libraries in August 2004. Taking the CLIR seminar with Elliott Shore and working at NCSU Libraries was also a major source of joy and fulfillment, as it turned out, and it led to a number of very interesting positions, of which the most interesting is probably my current one, working for the marvelous Center for History and New Media on the modest project of "hacking the scholarly conference" worldwide by helping people from Chicago to Canberra put together "unconferences" called THATCamps. (THATCamp stands for The Humanities And Technology Camp.) I did go on the academic job market again after my postdoc ended, but beating on that closed door eventually gets very stale. Especially when there's so much that's urgent and quicksilver and important and fascinating (and joyful and fulfilling) about studying and preparing for and causing the difference technology makes to universities and libraries.
I've never been one to do much career-oriented soul-searching, so it can take me by surprise when others call my work history unusual. But I suppose it is pretty unusual. As a student, my passions were for theatre history and the potential of technologies to enhance research, and I was fortunate enough to bring these together in my dissertation work on Parisian playhouses, and in a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Warwick that extended that project. In my CLIR postdoctoral fellowship at Bryn Mawr College, I had the opportunity to work with theatre-related special collections and provide instructional technology support. Working there and at Haverford College gave me new insights into the complexity of relationships between our surviving cultural heritage and its interpretation. In the library, I felt much closer to the "engine" driving contemporary scholarship , and I saw that the important decisions being made about its operation would determine the quality of that scholarship in years to come.
Like Patricia and Amanda Watson, I succumbed to the temptation to make my transition "official" by earning a master's degree in library science; by the time I finished at the University of Washington in 2008, I had a strong grasp of the traditions of the library profession and how they were shaping current practice, both for better and for worse. Library staff, just like many academics, need to grow more comfortable with change in order to thrive, and the desire to cultivate such change is what led me to double back to CLIR, where I now work as a Program Officer. I am continually learning in this role and interact regularly with librarians, archivists, and academics, and no single day on the job is like any other. My colleagues are equally supportive of my professional and personal growth, including my abiding passions for theatre and research. So while it may seem that I've taken an atypical path, to me it feels like exactly the right journey. I couldn't have planned it better had I tried.
The CLIR fellowship and life after the Ph.D: A conversation
In preparing our contribution to this collection, the four of us considered a set of questions about our CLIR fellowship experiences, our work in academic libraries and in other paths, and the place of an alternate-academic humanist in the many and various fields of the information sciences. What follows are our reflections and responses to each other.
What led you to consider this fellowship? Why librarianship rather than another career path?
Amanda French: Well, what led me to consider the fellowship was that I knew I could get it: the description of the qualities they were looking for in candidates fit so perfectly the work I had been doing at the Rossetti Archive and the Electronic Text Center. The call for applicants was passed around quite a bit among the graduate students at the University of Virginia, and indeed, another graduate student from UVA also landed a CLIR fellowship that first year. To be honest, I didn't quite realize that the fellowship wanted to make a librarian out of me until I went to discuss it with Karin Wittenborg, the University Librarian, who was kind enough to meet with me — someone (I don't recall who) had suggested that I do that, and it was definitely informative. She talked at length about what it would mean to switch from an academic track to a library track, and what it had meant to her and to other academic librarians to make that switch.
I realized during that meeting that while I had been on the fence about a traditional teaching career for quite awhile, I wasn't yet ready to jump off into the meadow of librarianship, either. So I asked Karin and others whether taking the fellowship would destroy my chances on the academic teaching job market; they said No, absolutely not, that in fact a postdoctoral fellowship of any kind was quite a plum in the humanities. I therefore applied with the comforting certainty of uncertainty: I didn't have to decide quite yet. For me, applying for and taking the fellowship wasn't at all a sign that I had decided on librarianship — it was just a sign that I was willing to explore it.
Amanda Watson: I didn't want to jump off the fence either — not at first, anyway. Not after spending six years in graduate school and another year lecturing. The thought of immediately going back for another degree just made me cringe, and anyway, how would I pay for it? I had a hunch I'd like being a librarian, but I didn't know enough about being a librarian at that point to take the plunge all at once. I knew my way around a lot of specialized library resources in my field, but I had no idea what went on behind the scenes.
It's a perennial problem if you're changing careers: how do you figure out what you want to do if you've never done it before? I had a bit of library-related job experience, and I went for an extremely helpful informational interview with John Price Wilkin, the Associate University Librarian for Library Information Technology at the University of Michigan. That helped me realize that maybe my hunch about librarianship was more than just a hunch. But what really changed my mind was dropping feet-first into the library world, and discovering what I really liked to do in a library setting: not just the things I thought I'd enjoy (faculty outreach, web design) but the things I'd never done before (reference service, collection development). I wasn't expecting to like working with the public; I had an image of myself as a solitary scholar in my little monastic cell thinking great thoughts and avoiding all human contact. But very early on I realized I'd been wrong about that.
Christa Williford: My motives for considering the fellowship were primarily personal: at the time I was in need of a change, and wanted to be closer to family for a while. The fellowship at Bryn Mawr gave me both of these things, as well as being in the service of a worthy cause. Coming into my fellowship with zero experience working in libraries, I found the novelty appealing. To be honest, the vagueness of the role was also a strong draw. Libraries' cultures are much more nine-to-five and interactive than academic departments' tend to be, but even when I made that shift, the privilege of being a fellow gave me a chance to hold myself apart from that culture, since my outsider's perspective was what my new colleagues most valued. I was able to maintain the independence and to indulge in reflection on big, important issues, which were the aspects of professional scholarship I most enjoyed. Professional librarians generally have less time for such indulgences; certainly they have much less time than they should.
At the time it was a healthy choice for me, but I definitely thought of it as temporary. In fact, I'm not exactly sure when I started thinking of it as a long-term commitment, or even if I have. But since the work has kept me interested and has opened new doors exactly when I needed them, it seems the library world has made a commitment to me, and I'm clearly the luckier for it. I don't know that libraries are the right home for all sorts of academics, but I never hesitate to encourage young scholars who express an interest in learning more about librarianship to take the time to explore it if they can. The professional boundaries between librarianship and academic teaching and research are pretty blurry, anyway. Both professions are undergoing tremendous change. Any effort built upon the strengths of both sets of communities is worth supporting.
Patricia Hswe: Two things drew me to this fellowship. First, it wasn't typical then (circa 2003), nor is it necessarily typical now, to see an advertisement for a post-doc in the humanities. That really caught my eye. There are any number of these positions in the sciences and even in mathematics, but the humanities are not known for offering them. (This norm is changing somewhat, given the spate of post-doctoral appointments in the digital humanities in the last couple of years.) So, it was the "newness" of this opportunity, its implicit paving of a different path, that led me to give it serious consideration. I also realized that the fellowship would stand out in a CV and spark lots of curiosity. The second reason why I considered this fellowship is that I saw it as my chance to re-enter a university environment. Unlike Amanda French, Amanda Watson, and Christa Williford, I was not based at a university when I applied for the fellowship. I had been working at a small publishing company in Columbia, South Carolina, for two years. As collegial as that situation was, I missed being firmly in a place of learning. I saw the postdoctoral fellowship as re-opening the door to that possibility. I talked with no one beforehand about working in a library, but there are librarians in my family with whom I'd had conversations over the years, so I had some sense of what I might be getting myself into. What I knew from my librarian relatives, however, eventually compared little to what I learned on the job as a fellow.
Because of where I was placed — at the University of Illinois, which has a first-rate graduate program in library and information science — the question was ultimately, Why not librarianship? I first took a class at GSLIS, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, during the second semester of my first year of the post-doc; as a full-time employee of the university, I could take courses for free. (Later, after the fellowship ended, I had graduate assistantships and other fellowship funds that paid for tuition.) Moreover, the class I took, Document Modeling, was taught by Allen Renear, who holds a Ph.D in philosophy and thus not in library and information science; partly because of this, he offers an untraditional take on the field. The course also introduced me to markup languages and the challenges of electronic publishing, of encoding text. For someone who'd spent the last twenty years involved in textual analysis, the methods I learned about were eye-opening. A world I never knew existed — but which some of my fellow Fellows had known about and gained experience in before their post-doc appointments — emerged before me. I was hooked, and I never looked back.
I should add that I did not attend library school to help ensure employment beyond the fellowship, although undoubtedly the degree has not hurt. Besides trying to take advantage of some of the perks of being a full-time university employee, I was also seeking a programmatic approach to what I was learning on the job as a post-doc. Very early on in the fellowship I could see gaps in my knowledge, and I wanted to fill those in as soon as possible — but in a classroom context, rather than through readings I might do on my own (which I was doing anyway), or through the many conversations I was having with librarian colleagues about the profession. I also felt the need for another kind of cohort in this new endeavor, not unlike what I had enjoyed during the early years of grad school (which by this time was a distant experience for me).
What kind of impact has your CLIR fellowship experience had on your subsequent career?
Amanda French: To be honest, I'm not sure that I've had a "career" in the four years since the postdoc: I've had instead a series of term-limited jobs. For better or for worse, I'm more or less ignoring the question of what my professional identity actually is — I self-identify as a "digital humanist" at the moment (a usefully vague cognomen) rather than as a librarian or a teacher or a web developer or a scholar or an administrator. In this respect I know that I'm different from the CLIR fellows who have happily and decisively gone on to reinvent themselves as librarians and from those who have gone back to teaching — a few fellows even hopped on the tenure track after the fellowship. What I am certain of is that I wouldn't have been able to get any one of the three jobs I've had since the fellowship without the fellowship. The first position I held afterward was as a "Teaching Assistant Professor" at NCSU, the site of my fellowship. This was a one-year "visiting" position in the English department there, and I got the position not only because I was on the spot after the fellowship, but because the course on advanced academic research skills for the digital age that I had helped teach during the fellowship more than qualified me to teach the graduate-level research methods course in the English department, which no one else wanted to teach. However, that position was a year-to-year job, and I figured it wouldn't turn into a permanent job, and so I applied for various positions in libraries. The position I landed was with Emory Libraries in Atlanta, and I certainly would never have gotten that position if not for the CLIR fellowship. However, the position, though permanent, turned out to be entirely wrong for me, and so I moved on yet again to yet another temporary position at New York University. At NYU I worked on a grant-funded project called "Digital History Across the Curriculum" whose goal was to create a model digital curriculum for the Archives and Public History M.A. program. That was a marvelous position, one that I could never have earned without the knowledge of archival issues that I'd gained during the CLIR fellowship.
What that narrative of bouncing from job to job might not convey is that the CLIR fellowship taught me to value myself and my skills more highly than I learned to in graduate school. Let's be crude and talk about money, shall we? The CLIR fellowship paid a decent salary, though probably not as much as I'd have earned at the same university as a newly hired tenure-tack Assistant Professor in the English Department. But in order to teach in the NCSU English department in what was essentially an adjunct position, I had to take a $9,000 per year pay cut. That was certainly a factor in my decision not to keep teaching there. When I was interviewing for the position at Emory, I negotiated a higher salary than they offered, which was about $20,000 more per year than I earned in my one year of adjunct teaching at NCSU. Having never even made it as far as to an interview at MLA, that was balm to my wounded soul, and I don't mind admitting it. The fellowship introduced me to areas of inquiry that I hadn't previously known of (web usability and information literacy, just to name two), and I found them both fascinating and professionally useful. In general, I feel that I'm far more employable than my graduate school colleagues who've taught and published and published and taught, but have done nothing else—even though I haven't quite found my niche yet.
Less crudely, I'd also say that the CLIR fellowship has given me a permanent sense of astonished gratitude for academic libraries and librarians, a sense that wasn't developed nearly enough in graduate school. No matter where I go in my career, that gratitude will remain.
Amanda Watson: Since Amanda French brings up money, I'll share an anecdote: after I defended my dissertation, a nonacademic friend (whose background is in the IT world) said "So you have your Ph.D. now? Congratulations! That means you'll earn more money, right?" He was very puzzled when I burst into semi-hysterical laughter at the thought of my English degree earning me any kind of substantial salary bump. At that point, I'd pretty much resigned myself to a life of what the Victorians used to call "genteel poverty." Nowadays I joke that I finally found a job where my Ph.D did actually increase my salary — and it's not a professorial job. I don't want to exaggerate — librarians don't get paid on the scale that doctors or lawyers or various other types of professionals do — but I'm a whole lot more financially comfortable now as a librarian than I was as a lecturer in English. And for all my high-minded rejection of worldly concerns in my 20s, the ascetic lifestyle of the underpaid and tenuously employed scholar looks much less appealing once you start getting older. Virginia Woolf (in A Room of One's Own) was right: there's nothing like a steady income to banish the "rust and corrosion" of bitterness from the soul.
I've also found that I've become something of an ambassador both for the fellowship itself (because everyone I've met in a professional context has been curious about it) and for post-academic and alt-ac careers more generally. Christa, Patricia, and I were all part of a roundtable on Ph.Ds in libraries at the 2009 Association of College and Research Libraries conference, which spawned an online chat hosted by ACRL later. More recently, my dissertation adviser, who was terrifically supportive when I admitted that I didn't want a faculty job, asked me to be on a panel on alternate careers for Ph.Ds at a future Modern Language Association conference. It's a bit startling to go from thinking of myself as a failure to thinking of myself as a role model.
Patricia Hswe: Apart from the fact that the CLIR fellowship experience led me to pursue librarianship as a career, it continues to a part of my professional life. My association with CLIR enhanced my competitiveness on the job market after I graduated from library school; prospective employers would convey in interviews that they viewed both my post-doc experience and the connection with CLIR as a plus. In addition, I am currently involved, along with Christa Williford and other former fellows, in a multi-year study, funded by CLIR, on scholarly engagement with special collections and archives. (The institutions we are working with have been awarded funding through the grant program, Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives: Building a New Research Environment.) Largely because of the CLIR post-doctoral experience, other opportunities, such as an invitation to participate in a grant proposal review panel, have arisen. My contribution to this very volume is evidence of continuing impact from the fellowship.
And as Amanda Watson says, we former fellows can serve an ambassadorial role for the program and its goals and purpose. As we move forward in our careers, we are poised to offer encouragement and advice to new fellows, as well as contribute to the planning and programming of CLIR post-doc-related events, such as the mid-year meeting at which current fellows report on their progress and receive feedback on their accomplishments to date. This continuing involvement bespeaks not only a giving-back to the program and its leaders (such as Elliott Shore, CIO of Bryn Mawr College, and Chuck Henry, President of CLIR) but also a way of keeping track: that is, past fellows can learn from present fellows new ways of thinking and doing, of applying technology, of facilitating collaboration — of rocking the proverbial boat, all toward effecting change in libraries and in the academy.
Christa Williford: Obviously, since I'm now employed by CLIR, the impact has been enormous. I have felt it in some of the ways already mentioned. Like Amanda French, I have come to appreciate a broader range of my talents and have been turned on to new interests, like the problems of cataloging and description for special materials, project management, and facilitating collaboration and change in the workplace. I share her "permanent sense of astonished gratitude."
As Amanda Watson and Patricia have said, the cultivation of new fellows and fellowships and maintaining the connections among the growing number of fellowship alumni has been a major focus of my working life. I'm not sure how many people have noticed this yet, but leveraging the expertise of this group toward new projects has been the one key ingredient to my post-fellowship career's success. I literally could not do my current job without being a part of the fellowship community, both in the context of the Hidden Collections grant program that Patricia has already mentioned, but also in other, less prominent but equally important ways, such as helping me to keep current on developments in technology and the digital humanities, and having contacts who can help me deepen my understanding of complex issues when working to tight deadlines. CLIR's fellows tend to be creative, broad-minded, trustworthy, and actively engaged people who give generously of their talents. I owe the people of CLIR and the entire the group of visionary library leaders who created this program a great debt.
Amanda Watson: Amen to that. When we all first met, we had a sense of starting the next phase of our professional lives with a ready-made Rolodex of smart, dedicated, creative people working in various types of academic and library jobs all over the country. And that's still true!
How do you see your current role in the larger landscape of libraries/academia/the knowledge professions/cultural memory institutions?
Amanda Watson: The idea of the "scholar-librarian" is a somewhat old-fashioned one — it dates back to the era when faculty held librarian positions — but I think of the career path I'm carving out for myself as an updated variation on the concept. I don't do research as an official part of my job, but I've been pursuing new and old scholarly interests in my spare time, with my supervisors' encouragement. There's no place like an academic library to discover new scholarly interests: you have access to tons of information, and you're surrounded by smart, curious people who like to read and like to talk about what they're reading.
I do worry about avoiding the stereotype of the clueless humanities Ph.D who grudgingly takes a library job after failing to land a faculty job, and then looks down on his or her library colleagues. (I've never met anyone like that in person, though I did encounter one particularly egregious example on a mailing list. But I'm acutely aware that the stereotype is out there.) So I want to make it clear that I don't see the "scholar-librarian" as a wannabe faculty member who's had to settle for a backup career. I wouldn't give up my current setup for anything: instead of frantically cranking out articles and books to meet tenure requirements, I get to spend a lot of my professional time helping people do research on a multitude of topics I'd never have gotten to explore otherwise, and building up collections in familiar and less familiar subject areas. I get a much wider view of the field of literary scholarship, without the obligation to stay on top of everything in my narrow little subfield. I can read what I like, and write what I like, on my own terms and on my own schedule. So even though most of my current scholarly activity takes place on my own time, I still wouldn't trade it for a faculty job with the tenure gun pointed at my head.
Speaking of scholar-librarians, NYU and Long Island University just started offering a dual masters' program, half in library science and half in a subject field, aimed at producing subject specialist librarians. I think that's a terrific idea, and I'd love to see more collaboration between LIS programs and academic programs in the future. Future faculty members can only benefit from knowing something about how scholarly information is organized and accessed (and about what librarians do besides buying and shelving books); future academic librarians can benefit just as much from experiencing the research process firsthand.
Amanda French: I'm not at all sure what my current role is, but in that, I think I'm a harbinger of the future. It's clear to me that roles that were once very separate — librarians, scholars, technologists — are becoming less so. And by "less separate" I mean both that librarians and scholars and technologists are now working together on projects, and that librarians and scholars and technologists are now having to acquire knowledge and skills from one another. I'm someone who can tell scholars what they need to know about libraries and vice versa, and I'm also someone who can translate academia to technology businesses and vice versa.
Patricia Hswe: I want to build on Amanda Watson's comments by saying that while I've attributed the label "Plan B" to this stage of my career, it is actually more than that. It may have started out as a back-up plan, but it is very much the plan now. I don't regret pursuing this path, nor would I wish to be doing anything else. My situation is also a little different from my co-authors, in that I have a tenure-track library faculty position. Thus, I am expected to publish as part of my university library's requirements for promotion and tenure. But this is my preference, too. I want my scholarship to feed into my librarianship, and vice versa. Blending research with practice suits the explorer-cum-pragmatist in me.
There are many facets to my current role as Digital Collections Curator: assessment (monitoring usability and usage of our digital collections); data/content management (which includes the development of policies, standards, and best practices); and planning for repository-based services (for document-deposit purposes, or even deposit of research data). Through attention to these areas, I am really striving to keep digital data and content around and useful for years to come —as long as is necessary, in some cases, and beyond that, in others, because the question of "how long" isn't immediately evident, nor can it always be answered in absolute terms. Perhaps more important and pressing, however, is fostering awareness among faculty about their data and content management needs and gaps —making the case to them that the scholarly record risks incomplete representation in the future if those needs are not met and those gaps are not filled. Without a commitment to curation, we also risk missing out on new audiences and thus new uses for research data, both of which can add value to data. Some faculty understand this urgency, while others, for whatever reason, have yet to "get it." Thus, I see my current role — and the role of digital curators in general—in the larger landscape of libraries and academia as pivotal to shaping how science and humanities faculty think in the long term about their research practices and the data and scholarship that result from them. In a sense, I have come full circle, since my fellowship experience focused almost exclusively on the creation and description of digital resources. Now, I tend to hone in, as well, on what happens, or should happen, once digital content and data have been created.
I'll add, finally, that Amanda French is spot on in her observation that the roles of librarians, scholars, and technologists are much less separate than they once were. In the curation work that I do, certainly, I need to have an understanding of the architecture or framework underlying systems that are already familiar to technologists and be comfortable with the parlance of programmers. In order to understand the data management needs of scholars, I have to familiarize myself with their research domains and gain a sense of context —a holistic view of their teaching, research, and writing activities. At the same time, these two parties must also understand what I am trying to achieve and how they contribute to that effort. One of the key outcomes I hope for, in my current position, by working with scholars and technologists is a sense of community, a realization that our coming together reflects complementary abilities, commitments, goals, interests, and talents, all of which empower us to accomplish far more together than we would as individuals. The digital humanities have modeled this kind of community and collaboration well, and there are extant examples at various institutions, such as Brown University, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Virginia. The digital curation field is only beginning to realize something similar.
Christa Williford: As a Program Officer, I'm challenged to take this entire landscape into account in everything I do. As one might imagine, this gets pretty overwhelming, but the way I look at it, CLIR's wide-ranging viewpoint gives its staff opportunities to focus on nurturing the connections between communities of stakeholders that can benefit from each others work. We are not the decision-makers, nor the folks solving day-to-day problems in the field, but we are the people trying to help these groups avoid duplication of effort, inform one another's practice, and imagine a collective future that is more richly and efficiently interconnected than before. Rapid developments in technology have created tremendous opportunities in each of these areas of the landscape, but these changes are leaving sinkholes right and left. Patricia's example of the curation and long-term maintenance of digital materials is particularly treacherous area at the moment, as are the areas of scholarly publishing, collection development, and teaching and learning in a liberal arts context.
In my work with librarians and archivists who receive grants through our Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives program, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it's my role to encourage creative approaches to the description of special materials. We at CLIR are especially eager to prompt the most innovative thinkers attacking this problem to share what they are learning as broadly as possible, especially beyond their discrete professional circles. With the postdoctoral fellowship and its other leadership programs, CLIR staff tries to create opportunities for people to explore their skills in new contexts and to reflect on ways they can contribute to finding solutions to the challenges facing today's libraries.
Sometimes, our role is to provoke these different groups of academic professionals to think about their roles in new ways. At their very core, both librarianship and teaching are about service to others; if you think about it, the curation of collections and the production of research are also about service to others — it's just that they are directed at others in the future. But these groups don't always focus on the ways that they serve one another; in particular, faculty-librarian relationships tend to be unidirectional in this regard. I'm hoping that through my work at CLIR I can help people find other ways to define these relationships, for mutual benefit. By building programs that bring smart people with different kinds of expertise together — technologists, teachers, students, librarians, archivists, managers — we at CLIR are hopeful that they will stop taking one another's work for granted and start collaborating; we're convinced that this kind of cross-fertilization is critical to the future of our academic institutions and to our cultural heritage.
Where do you see the most potential for humanities Ph.Ds in the information fields?
Amanda French: People with M.A.s and Ph.Ds in the humanities have for many years gone into librarianship, usually (if I'm not mistaken) as reference librarians, collection development librarians, or special collections librarians where their deep subject knowledge stands them in good stead. I don't think that that has changed much, and if there are traditionally-trained humanities Ph.Ds who are reading this now who think they might not want to teach, I'd highly recommend that they look into those careers. But humanities Ph.Ds who've been fortunate enough to acquire some significant technological skills along the way will be much better prospects for those positions, as well as for all kinds of new positions that keep cropping up in libraries.
Amanda Watson: What Patricia said earlier about markup languages is right on — I think there's a lot in common between the kind of textual analysis that graduate students in some humanities fields do and the kind of textual analysis required to turn a block of plain digital text into something that's useful for a scholar or a student or a general reader. When I started working with markup of early modern texts, I was amazed by how well it fit with my scholarly background, and how satisfying it was to be able to say, in effect, "Here's a poem; here's each line and each stanza of the poem; here's a marginal note connected to this sentence over here," and so on. Not every humanities Ph.D will have a technology background, but I didn't find some of the basic skills all that hard to pick up on my own. And if "the digital humanities" continues to grow the way they've been growing in the past few years, I think we might see a whole lot more young scholars with crossover skills.
In another area of librarianship, I see a lot of room for Ph.Ds who do want to teach. Academic librarians are very aware of what's called "information literacy" (a.k.a. "research skills" or, more descriptively, "knowing how to find what you're looking for and understand the difference between reliable and dubious information"). Those of us who work at reference desks see students struggling with the research process in ways that faculty don't always see. Information literacy programs are sometimes a tough sell for faculty; it's not always obvious that students need help, and it can be hard to modify a carefully-planned syllabus to allow time for library exploration. It can also be hard to allow another person with a different set of expertise (or a "mere" master's degree) into one's classroom. Plus, when you've been doing academic research for upwards of a decade, a lot of the processes and tools you use become so familiar as to be almost invisible, so it might not occur to you that students don't know all of it already. I think people with a dual background in academia and information science are in a good position to perform the often delicate diplomatic work of reaching out to faculty and encouraging them to think about incorporating research skills into their pedagogy and their assignments.
Ironically enough, I think I'm a better teacher now than I was when I was teaching composition. Probably because I'm so much more relaxed about it now that most of my teaching takes place one-on-one at a reference desk, or in highly focused class sessions organized around a few definite goals.
Patricia Hswe: As much as I deal in the digital, I actually see great promise for humanities Ph.Ds in the area of special collections and archives. In this age of mass digitization of books and serials, it is the unique materials from special collections and archives that increasingly give distinction to libraries. Humanities Ph.Ds, working together with archivists and special collections librarians, have the expertise to build on the meaning — and thus deepen the research potential and use — of such materials.
In recent years there has been a kind of re-consideration of special collections and archives. The Association of Research Libraries' Committee on Research, Teaching, and Learning appointed a working group to advise it on issues in special collections and archives; a major point made by the group in its 2009 discussion reportis the need for more user contributions, such as from faculty and graduate students, particularly toward describing collections that have remained obscure because of backlogs or staff shortages. Some institutions have started to meet this need in creative ways, such as at UCLA's Center for Primary Research and Training Opportunities, which works to incorporate materials from the libraries' special collections "more fully into the teaching and research mission of the university." By training graduate students in archival practice and giving them a chance to construct guides, or finding aids, to little-known collections, the Center is helping to nurture a generation of emerging scholars who will be more informed about the world of special collections and archives and impart that knowledge to their future students. Finally, university presses —a veritable endangered species these days —might take to heart the example of Oxford University's Bodleian Library Publishing, which puts out books that highlight rarities from their special collections, not unlike what museums have been doing for years with their publications. Through this approach, the Bodleian Library is able to attract new audiences and thus gain new perspectives on its unique items, key criteria for sustainability.
Humanities Ph.Ds thus have a rich role to play in this arena. In a sense, the study on scholarly engagement with hidden special collections and archives, mentioned above, is making a case for this role. As part of the study, we're meeting with scholars to find out what their experiences of discovery, access, sense-making, and usage have been like as they carry out research with special collections and archival materials. But, as importantly, we're asking questions of the hidden collections project staff about assessment, institutional contexts, planning for the future, processing and record creation, uses for teaching and research, outreach, services, and —perhaps most important —outcomes and measures of success. Arguably, perhaps it isn't typical of humanities Ph.Ds to consider the relevance of special collections beyond teaching and research, but that may have to change as the humanities themselves fight to stay relevant —and libraries, too.
Amanda Watson: Can I jump in and add that I wish there'd been something like the UCLA Center for Primary Research and Training program when I was in grad school? I've done so much more archival research in my alt-ac life than I ever did as a Ph.D student, and I really wish I'd had that kind of training. Of course, in retrospect, I'd have done a whole lot of things differently, but "learning how to work with archives and special collections" would be high on the list.
Christa Williford: Naturally from my connection with the Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives Program, I'm deeply interested in having humanities scholars explore ways to contribute to the description of the collections they use. Just as in Amanda Watson's comparison of textual analysis and markup practices for digital and digitized text, collection guides and finding aids in the archives are intellectual products that can have similar, or even greater, impacts than the production of scholarly articles. Learning more about how these are constructed can reap tremendous benefits for researchers, particularly graduate students. For these reasons, I must second everything Patricia has said.
But I'd like to put aside for a moment the question of specific professional tracks that Ph.Ds in the humanities could follow. I think my colleagues have demonstrated here that, at least in our experience, these tracks are much less clearly defined than our advisors in graduate school would have us believe. This lack of clarity may be frustrating, confusing, and downright depressing at times, but if we choose to look at the ongoing evolution of higher education more broadly, it's the murky, liminal, not-yet-institutionalized aspects that have the most potential for growth.
I think the biggest opportunity for all humanists, regardless of their current status or professional inclinations, is to build connections with library colleagues that will foster their immediate professional development needs. As practiced teachers and learners, by the time we reach graduate student status the general assumption is that we can take care of this by ourselves, or at least within our strict disciplinary contexts, but this isolationist mentality can hurt us down the road.
Scholarly publishing is a much more volatile universe than in the past, so I would challenge humanists to look to the library for opportunities to broaden the impact of their work. Contributing from the best of one's teaching and research to workshops, public lectures, live and online exhibits, research guides, inter-professional conference publications, peer-reviewed open access publications, or catalog descriptions may not carry the same weight with a tenure committee that your monograph will, but each of these activities has the potential to increase one's readership many times over. Learning how to share one's expertise in these varied contexts is also well worth the time it takes, and these skills can help you become a better scholar, regardless of how traditional or "mixed" your professional identity may be.
For most of us, in a library somewhere in the world, there are collections and ongoing projects that could benefit from our hard-won specialist knowledge. If we find that place, we will come into contact with professionals who can help us envision a way to do what we do better. The path to mutual betterment will require us to loosen up the tradition-bound institutional structures and working practices on both sides of what Fran Blouin, the director of the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan, has called the "Archival Divide."
As the four of us were finishing this piece, the CLIR postdoctoral fellowship program entered its seventh year. The 2010-11 cohort includes seven new fellows (one of whom, Brian Croxall, is also a contributor to this collection) and six continuing fellows, in fields ranging from classics, English, and comparative literature to anthropology, geography and geology, and history of medicine. A total of eleven institutions are hosting new or continuing CLIR fellows for the 2010-11 year.
As Christa Williford says above, professional "tracks" for humanities Ph.Ds are often unclear: an overgrown and rocky path rather than a well-marked, signposted trail complete with a map. And yet one of the themes that emerges from the conversation in this chapter is that expanding possibilities. The hybridity that the fellowship program encourages can reshape both individual careers and entire fields. While the CLIR fellowship program initially provoked concern in the library world about how to integrate what James Neal called "the new generation of feral professionals" into librarianship, the fellows' experience suggests a more varied set of professional opportunities including, but not limited to, careers in academic libraries. In an article on the fellowship program, former CLIR fellow Marta Brunner (now Librarian for Digital Humanities, U.S./U.K. Literature and History, Comparative Literature, and the History of Science at the Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA) writes that for many fellows, "academic librarianship was definitely not a substitute for a tenure-track faculty job, but a strategically pursued career track, and this opportunity helped to identify and shape that less standard career track" (Brunner, 11). Brunner found, while conducting a survey of current and past CLIR fellows, that the "outsider's perspective" that often follows from the dual nature of the fellowship is frequently "a valuable resource" for the fellows and "a unique contribution of the program" (Brunner, 15).
We asked Elliott Shore, CIO of Bryn Mawr College and Dean of the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, to comment on the program and its impact on the future needs of academics in the library. His reply emphasizes the benefits of the blended positions that CLIR fellows tend to fill, not only for the fellows themselves but for libraries and academic institutions more generally:
This program has actually grown through the most recent times of economic turmoil and library upheaval: as some of the most progressive library leaders have realized, the changes that linked information technologies have brought mean the library needs to be radically redefined. CLIR fellows are perfectly positioned to navigate these times, scholar-librarians who combine in their background and their experience the habits of mind and the curiosity about the world needed to imagine how teaching and scholarship can thrive. In the most recent year, we could have filled more positions if we could have found more complete matches between what the libraries were looking for and the skills in our fine pool. Perhaps libraries could cast their nets more widely and not look for exact matches between job descriptions and potential fellows and perhaps CLIR could be more aggressive in advertising the opportunities.
The future potential of this program and the way our colleges and universities evolve could be usefully entwined if creative partnerships could could continue to develop between the library and academic administrations. As is attested to in this article, these four scholar librarians would not trade their work for the traditional gold standard of academia— the tenured professor. As libraries grow and change, the notion not only of the nature of the library but also of the faculty needs to be examined and rethought— the hybrid skills of CLIR fellows, scholars who are at the nexus of change in research skills and electronic publications, who combine the talents of the teacher, the scholar and the librarian, will be central to higher education. So I would recommend that the original idea behind the fellowship be brought back centrally: that fellows have joint appointments in the appropriate academic departments and the library. This has happened in several places and is starting to gain traction— thoughtful provosts, departmental chairs and librarians should be working to find a way between the notion of tenure and the increasing adjunctification crisis towards a vigorous hybrid model of the new teacher/scholar/librarian. I think our students deserve this kind of thoughtful scholar as their guides to the future. (Elliott Shore, personal communication, 8/7/2010)
The fellowship program is still in its early years, and it remains to be seen whether this model of the teacher/scholar/librarian (or "hybrarian," in the words of another member of the first cohort of CLIR fellows) will become more widespread within academia. What is clear, however, is that those who have participated in the program so far have already begun to embody this model. Their experiences suggest the great variety within one of many approaches to the alt-ac career trajectory.
Brunner, Marta. "Ph.D. Holders in the Academic Library: The CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship Program." Los Angeles: Librarian Publications, UCLA Library, UC Los Angeles, 2009. [accessed: August 9, 2010].
Neal, James G. "Raised by Wolves: Integrating the new generation of feral professionals into the academic library." Library Journal, 02/15/2006. LibraryJournal.com. [accessed: August 9, 2010].