Job Evaluation: Curators, Bibliographers and Special Collections Librarians (oh my!)

After discussing the types of archival/special collections positions that our group members wanted to take a look at, I decided to examine curatorships (of one sort or another) within archives and special collections at academic libraries across the country. Following are the five positions I found through various Web searches (LibGig, Archives Gig, Association for Research Libraries, etc.): Charles Warren Bibliographer for American History, Harvard College Library; Curator of American Literature Drama and Prose Writings, Yale University; Curator/Registrar, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum; Curator, Photographic Archives, University of Louisville; and Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, University of North Carolina.

Save for one of the job postings (Louisville, which was posted in late 2010), all of the postings are current, a couple very recent. The knowledge most commonly required among the listings is that a candidate must have earned a bachelor’s degree, as well as an MLIS/MLS. In some cases, a secondary master’s or PhD is desired depending on the subject for which a prospective candidate would be responsible. Also, most of the positions require knowledge that stems from at least two or three years of previous work within an archival setting. For example, the AUL for Special Collections at UNC lists knowledge of “best practices in regard to long-term conservation and and access” as one of its requirements for prospective candidates. This knowledge is typically acquired from hands-on work within archives.

In terms of skills most commonly listed, the top three are as follows: excellent verbal and written communication; experience with handling rare and fragile materials; and experience managing programs and seeing projects to completion. That said, there are many other types of skills, qualities, and values being requested/looked for in the job postings I found.  For instance, experience with creating digital scholarship is a part of the AUL UNC listing that falls under “requirements,” as is collection and curation of unique or rare materials. The same types of requirements can be found in the Curator of American Drama and Prose Writings listing from Yale—here the phrase “familiarity with technological change in library work” is used to approach a prospective candidate’s qualifications in/with the digital realm, though the CADPW job duties don’t seem to be as digitally demanding as one might anticipate.

 Beyond the requirements and qualifications common to most of the job openings I found, there are also highly specific qualifications where subject librarianship is concerned. Take, for example, The Charles Warren Bibliographer for American History opening, which lists primary selector, collection development, and reference responsibilities as a few of its main job duties. Not only will the CWBAH curate materials regarding American history, literature, government, and culture, but she’s also expected to provide reference services to students and faculty in “American fields”. Clearly, the opening calls for a prospective candidate who’s had a variety of experiences within academic libraries, and who has the ability to manage several high-level responsibilities at the same time. Here, flexibility is implied. Toward the end of the listing it’s called versatility.

 Where leadership is concerned, many of the job postings mention it up front, or it’s implied through phrases like “Serve as a liaison with the collections committee” (Curator/Registrar at Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum) and “The curator is expected to forge strong associations with relevant Yale faculty…” (Curator of American Drama and Prose Writing). Though I don’t like the wording of Yale’s phrase—shouldn’t a curator be expected to forge strong associations with all faculty, staff and students? The word ‘relevant’ makes it seem as though only certain people matter at the end of the day, and as future library/information professionals one of our goals is to include, rather than exclude, in terms of working relationships with library users.

A couple more to-the-point leadership mentions I spotted are as follows: in the AUL UNC job description, it’s expected that the Special Collections librarian “…will have a leadership role in the Library’s gift collection building, and support its fundraising efforts”; and in the Charles Warren Bibliographer description involvement in professional and scholarly organizations is expected.

All of the job descriptions I reviewed mention not only building and maintaining a collection, but also taking part in what could be considered public relations. As a curator, one meets regularly with donors and has to be prepared to explain projects (their accessioning and archiving), and give a thorough overview of the material encompassed in a specific collection. In other words, curatorships don’t allow one to stay at a desk or in a workroom all day. I’m thinking it might help a prospective candidate to have good public speaking skills, and to be comfortable with giving presentations about collections on a regular basis. To me, a couple the foremost values implied in these job descriptions are openness and constancy. That is, one must be adaptable where technological change is concerned, where communication with colleagues and donors are concerned, and where ability to see a project through to its end is concerned.

Overall, this assignment allowed me time to reconsider the role of a librarian-curator hybrid within the realms of special collections and archives. Prior to this assignment, I hadn’t thought for too long about the possibility of working as a head curator. Part of that not thinking too long on it may be a reflection of my reticence to sometimes take on major roles in my own work life. I know I’d enjoy leadership as a curator, but it seems as though it’s a distant possibility—one that could occur later in my life as a librarian, archivist, collection development specialist, whatever’s down the road.

In closing, it struck me while reading through these job descriptions that we don’t talk enough about being personable or welcoming when discussing special collections librarianship and archives. (I’m thinking here of discussions that’ve taken place in other LIS classes.) And being welcoming goes a long way with keeping library users interested in what libraries can do for them. Given that some of my fellow future librarians are introverts (as am I), it’d be interesting to see what jobs librarians with more extrovert qualities tend toward vs. jobs tended toward by those with more introvert qualities. It seems that being a curator calls for a good balance of both.

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