Art Librarianship as a Career Option

On April 19th, I attended my first ARLIS/UK & Ireland event 'Taking the Plunge: Art Librarianship as a Career Option' held at Goldsmiths, University of London. I recently volunteered to give a presentation about working in art libraries and I thought attending this workshop would give me a great introduction to the profession and the different skills needed to progress within my career.

Walking through the vibrant media hub on the ground floor of the Library, I was led to a large but quiet room. There were a variety of speakers from libraries, museums and special collections at different points in their careers. There were also avid listeners from art and creative backgrounds and a few graduate trainees due to start postgraduate courses in Librarianship in Autumn.

Nicholas Brown started off the workshop with a brilliant welcome speech signalling that "the book" is not dead. Despite the growing digital trend in the sector, print is still a dominate format and means of information in the arts. Brown describes one benefit of entering an art librarianship career as the flexibility of part-time work that supports artists, dancers and other business ventures. I was quite surprised to hear that he believed that there was a move away from subject specialism to functional based specialism such as the role of copyright librarians. Though, it is evident that there is a widening in scope for research in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences such as bibliometrics and digital humanities. There are currently not many jobs in this areas but it provides food for thought for prospective librarians.

This is not to say that role of a subject librarian is no longer needed, as highlighted by our first speaker, Antonia Lewis. A Subject Librarian for Art, Design and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths Lewis emphases that subject knowledge from her BA in Sculpture greatly assisted in her career. It not only helped her develop subject specific library collections but also create engaging workshops with art students and informative online Libguides. Lewis started out her art librarianship career working as a Library Assistant at the Royal College of Art during her (then CILIP accredited) MA in Information Management in Cultural Organisations at City University. Taking up a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) while in her current role has supported her responsibilities in information literacy of students and teaching about library resources. Lewis does mention that while a PGCE qualification is helpful for working in an academic library, it is not a requirement. An MA in Librarianship is also not a necessity it may be a factor is future career progression.

Our second speaker, Jonathan Franklin discussed his experience working internationally in museums or gallery libraries. Outlining his career history, he highlighted the differences in providing access to collections by the general public compared to curatorial staff while working at the National Portrait Gallery for 3 years. It was interesting to hear that even while going on to work at the National Gallery of Canada, libraries had a small number of staff members and government funding was an issue. This a no different from some UK galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAMs) as Franklin is now the sole professional librarian at the National Gallery in London with one non-professional assistant. 

It is important to note that working independently developing your own projects can create job satisfaction. However, there could be a lack of career progression due to small departments which could determine which type of library you work in.This may sound like a bleak outlook, however, Franklin recommends acquiring on the job cataloguing experience or through a cataloguing and classification course. Many art museum libraries do not have a dedicated online catalogue and knowledge of card catalogues and RDA standards in cataloguing will be essential as more projects focus on retrospective conversion. For further reading, he recommending "Art Museum Libraries and Librarianship" edited by Joan M. Benedetti (2007).

Our next speaker’s experience working in a special collection was profoundly interesting to me. Althea Greenan is the curator of the Women's Art Library at Goldsmiths. In museums, photographic slides would usually be acquired as objects into the collections. However, at Goldsmiths is a separate special collection completely project led by artists to raise the visibility of their own practice. Green demonstrated that the library continuously grows due to its simple remit to collect works of women artists. She has developed an artist in residence program which contributed to over 100 paper files on female artists. Greenan demonstrates that art librarians can also be thought of as curators continuously researching and development a collection.

Another speaker, Diana Palmer (@dianapalmerart) a recent graduate with an art background highlighted the benefits of part-time cataloguing work at Trinity College, Ladan and the National Portrait Gallery. She also highlighted the new experiences gained from researching and cataloguing photography at the National Portrait Gallery. I was quite intrigued that her graduate traineeship in the Courtauld Institute of Art focused on skills in Information literacy, independent cataloguing, interlibrary loans, special collections and displays. Palmer’s MLIS degree further built on her knowledge as she took historical bibliography and advanced preservation courses. I believe such depth of experience helps to decide what skills you would like to develop in an art librarianship career.

Sue Hill Recruitment’s Jeremy Clarke closing remarks to review work appraisal documents to identify current skills, networking with people and invest in your CV really resonated with me. Many cataloguers or sole librarians can feel quite secluded but networking with different people from this small circle of art librarians can be helpful socially and professionally. I had a lot to take away from it workshop from new contacts, information to encourage others to join the profession and a renewed sense of my own career journey. 

Overall, this workshop met my expectations and I would like to thank ARLIS UK/Ireland for the opportunity to attend and Goldsmiths for being a wonderful host. May there be many more workshops like this in the future. 

This post was written for the ARLISmatters blog. 

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