Posted by Cait Coker
Recently I’ve had a number of conversations with colleagues and (hopefully) colleagues-to-be about career paths and rare book curatorships. Given how persistent this question has become, I thought I should start writing some thoughts down and share them here. Because a vague disclaimer is no one’s friend: These are my personal opinions as informed by the better part of two decades spent in special collections or library-adjacent. If there’s one thing I have learned it is that there are dozens of paths to the rare book library world and, with apologies to and for Rudyard Kipling, every single one of them is right. What I say below may not work for you or apply to your experience, but in general these are some patterns that have held true for me and for people I know. So! Let’s get started!
I really love rare books, and I think a job where I get to look at books all day would be living the dream!
Yes, that would be living the dream. Unfortunately, looking at books all day is just, in fact, a dream. The real world of librarianship involves a lot of time spent with people instead—in classes while teaching, at the reference desk, in meetings, meeting with tour groups, in more meetings… You get the idea.
In real life, librarianship consists of an awful lot of duties, and an awful lot of people time. (In fact, the average librarian position description generally consists of five pages of bullet-pointed requirements and preferreds, including the all-encompassingly miscellaneous “other duties as assigned.” In contrast, teaching faculty jobs tend to max out at around 250 words in an extended series of independent clauses. To my amusement, both sides think the other’s arrangement is terrifying.) For us, a typical day is spent “putting out fires” for whatever value that day’s “fire” could be—assisting in a thorny fact-finding mission for a distance researcher; meeting with a series of third-grade classes because it’s a field day for their school; providing hors d'oeuvres and entertaining small talk with donors (and then cleaning up after), and so on. The most unexpected things I’ve ever had to do for my rare book jobs have included an eighteen-hour day with a moving truck and packing boxes for a donation of historical materials that would have been immediately trashed otherwise and introducing George R.R. Martin to a packed theater of 2,800 people. Librarians do a wide range of things that encompasses the fun, the awful, the wondrous, and occasionally the downright disgusting (can you say “sewage emergency”?). Trust me, spending time with actual books is as much a treat for us as it is for you.
Melanie Griffin has a great essay entitled “The Rare Book Librarian's Day, Revisited” in New Directions for Special Collections: An Anthology of Practice (2017) edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Beth M. Whittaker. Griffin responds to a famous article from the 1980s by Daniel Traister and directly confronts how much the field and our work has changed in the intervening decades, as well as the vast gulf that remains between well-funded institutional libraries and smaller special collections that are routinely overworked and underfunded. Parts of her day that will seem familiar to many librarians are catching up on email from home before and after the work day starts and rearranging the day’s schedule to cover for absent student workers. That essay is as real life as it gets.
I want to work in a library, but I don’t have an MLS. Do I really need one?
The answer to this one is easy: It is almost always yes. An alternative for some jobs is the C.A. of the Academy of Certified Archivists. However, it is quite hard to get; the application to take the test for certification alone requires that you have a Masters or PhD in Library Science, History, or a related field as well as professional job experience already in hand, and on top of that it must be re-certified every five years. In general, most libraries do have as their top requirement the MLS from an ALA-accredited institution. There are some exceptions for certain positions—non-professional entry-level positions may only want a bachelors; some curatorships will accept a PhD with some library experience instead of an MLS, and so on. But in general, the MLS is the standard of the field, and it is pretty consistently the main requirement in job ads.
What is the most important part of deciding if a doctorate is right for me?
Not gonna lie, it’s gonna be debt management. We can talk about the accumulated problems of academia at length—emotional health, work/life balance, and actually getting a job—but I think our culture only talks about the bottom line after the fact, typically because some of us simply don’t know what we don’t know. I’m a first-generation doctoral student; I have family members with masters degrees who were able to give me some advice, but I learned a lot of things the hard way, including the financial part. Finding a funded program is hugely important; given the choice between your top school with no assistantship and your second school that’s a free ride? For the love, pick the free ride. The gritty truth is that the current and upcoming generations of scholars simply are hobbled financially in ways our precursors were not, from the 2008 recession to the ongoing cuts in state funding to most institutions. Consequently, the money problem is going to be the most important problem to manage, and the one that will continue to haunt you long after you have graduated.
One thing to keep in mind, and therefore look for, is that a number of institutions have programs for discounted tuition. A viable path is to get a non-professional position and use that program to get an MLS, or, when you are working as a librarian with an MLS, use the program to help fund your doctorate. A PhD can absolutely be completed part-time while one is working, though this does mean you will be ineligible for graduate assistantships (whether teaching or non-teaching) that provide stipends or tuition reduction. Another viable path is to ask the programs you are considering applying to whether they allow for deferred acceptances; if they do, you can hold off for a year, find a job in the state of that institution, and therefore be eligible for in-state tuition when you do start your program.
What are some other things to keep in mind for either program of study?
Here are some miscellaneous bits of advice, in no particular order:
The perfect job might exist, but you might have to wait for it. In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with taking a job that is “good enough” for the year or two it takes to get you where you need to go. Rent and food are important, darn it.
Mental health management. Graduate school is hard, no matter what level of study. It just is. You will probably have moments of incredible self-doubt, and imposter syndrome is always going to be a thing. Worse, grad school also involves lots of rejection—rejected conference proposals, rejected article drafts, rejected grants...you get the idea. Do your best to not take any of those to heart; most of the time they really, truly aren’t personal. Instead, keep that paper abstract for the next conference, reformat that article and send to another journal, and so on. Eventually you will get through to the other side. We promise.
Self-care is legit. As mentioned, it’s all tough, which is why it is even more important to take care of yourself as much as possible. Try to get your eight hours of sleep. Try to eat three meals a day; if you can’t, if at all possible pack healthy snacks to get you through. Try to exercise, or at least, take stretch breaks. And remember, we’re all in this together, so reach out if you need to—sometimes if you need to talk, the best thing you can do is ask someone out for a companionable coffee (or tea) break.
I hope this helps answer some common questions. Do you have any advice for potential grad students? Let us know in the comments!
About the Author
Cait Coker is Associate Professor and Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and is defending her doctoral degree in literature from Texas A&M University. Her current projects include journal articles on women's labor in the book trades in seventeenth-century England. She also frequently publishes on SFF and popular culture including editing the forthcoming collection The Global Vampire in Popular Culture. Contact her at: cait.coker (at) gmail (dot) com.
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