This post offers highlights from my recent interview with Amelia Nelson from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri and Traci Timmons from the Seattle Art Museum. Together, they co-edited The New Art Museum Library, published by Rowman and Littlefield.
1. Please share about each of your roles in art museum libraries.
Traci: I am Senior Librarian at the Seattle Art Museum which means I oversee the staff, services, and functions of two research libraries: the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library at SAM downtown and the McCaw Foundation Library at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. I am the day-to-day librarian for the Bullitt Library and am responsible for all aspects of running it—reference, cataloguing, archives, volunteer and intern management, acquisitions, collection development, etc.
Amelia: I am the Head of Library and Archives at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. In my role I supervise a staff of 7 in the library and archives and work to strategically plan large projects, facilitate workflows and liaison with other departments across the museum. In addition to my managerial responsibilities, as a member of a small team I am also responsible for working on the reference desk, programming, collection development and special projects.
2. You both edited the recently published book The New Art Museum Library. What prompted your interest in embarking on this project?
Traci: In 2007, Joan Benedetti organized and edited the first book devoted solely to art museum librarianship, Art Museum Libraries and Librarianship. That book was incredibly helpful to me in my early years as an art museum librarian. In 2014, the Museum Division of the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA) began to talk about a second publication devoted to the subject, as technology and trends in librarianship are changing constantly and several years had passed since Joan’s book was published. Doing a group publication like this can be a challenge and, after a couple of years of the idea of a new publication languishing, a group of us who felt super passionate about launching a new book, got together and started planning.
Amelia: I would agree with Traci and reiterate that the publication of Art Museum Libraries and Librarianship coincided with the great recession which negatively impacted art museum libraries. I really saw this new publication as a way to share all the innovative, creative and forward thinking that is going on in libraries. I wanted this publication to support those who are new to the field and those already in the field who may need to communicate the value of their library’s impact.
3. Is there anything that surprised you as you read the submitted chapters?
Traci: One thing I love about librarianship is that it’s a field where you are always learning. I was constantly impressed by the deep knowledge people brought to the particular area in which they were writing. I learned a great deal from my colleagues while reading and editing every chapter. Every art museum library is different—different size holdings and staff, some more established than others, different sized budgets, different focuses. I love how staff at big, established, well-funded libraries can teach those of us in smaller libraries, but also how staff from smaller libraries often have gems of wisdom to share with larger libraries, too.
Amelia: Also, I was impressed by the variety of ways that art museum libraries are supporting researchers and how many of these areas are relatively new to the practice of librarianship. Contributed essays in this volume explore the intersection between physical collections and digital resources, partnerships and new ways to share collections through programming and display.
4. What trends are you most excited about in art libraries?
Traci: Hands down, decolonization. I loved Courtney Becks’s chapter on the subject. We have a long way to go in addressing the white-supremist, Euro-centric standards and systems that have long guided the way art museum libraries (in fact, most libraries) classify materials, make acquisition decisions, choose keywords and select subject headings. I am truly excited to see the work happen to rethink these systems and create collections that don’t marginalize groups, and are more inclusive and more reflective of our communities.
Amelia: Art libraries are going where the information is – working to capture websites while also investing in artists’ books and developing training on the use of standard printed reference resources. The essays in this volume show that librarians are increasingly serving as a bridge between the physical and digital resources that users need. I love thinking about how this connection keeps information not only accessible but relevant.
5. Who will benefit the most from reading the book?
Traci: I think this book would be useful in an MLIS curriculum (humanities reference, special libraries, etc. coursework). I strongly believe the book will benefit those just entering the field– as Joan’s book benefitted me. I also believe all art museum librarians could read at least one of the chapters in this book and learn something.
Amelia: I love that this book is being read by others within art museums. People can have really antiquated ideas about libraries and librarians and the essays in this publication really show that today’s art museum librarians are doing exciting forward looking work. They aren’t static or siloed, but instead are moving forward with information, museums, users and the broader community.
6. Based on the changes in art museum libraries, what professional development do you recommend for art librarians?
Traci: Joining and participating in the events of professional organizations devoted specifically to art librarianship, like ARLIS/NA, is a must. Additionally, joining organizations and participating in events geared specifically toward the type of work you do or focus of your library is also helpful, e.g., the Visual Resources Association (VRA), the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA), to name a few. But, mostly, I would strongly encourage us all to participate in webinars, symposia, mixers, etc. focused on diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion topics. Gaining knowledge and new perspectives around DEAI work will help us implement the real, necessary change that must happen.
Amelia: I couldn’t agree more with everything that Traci said! The only thing that I would add is to push yourself to share your ideas in conversations or through publication and presentations. This keeps our profession moving forward by building on the work of our colleagues in art libraries and also in other types of libraries and other disciplines.
Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent speaker on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her professional interests include information literacy, educational technology, library and information science education, teacher identity, and academic development. Please read Lauren’s other posts about skills for special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets
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