Write-up: Taking the Plunge: Considering a career in art librarianship

‘Taking the Plunge: Considering a career in art librarianship’, ARLIS/UK & Ireland Professional Development Committee, Chelsea College of Arts, University of London, Tuesday 28th June 2019.

On Tuesday 28th June 2019 the Professional Development committee of ARLIS held the yearly event for aspiring library and information professionals considering a career in art librarianship. I attended the workshop to find out more about art librarianship and to explore the skills needed to progress in my career. I have always thought of the library as a Wonderland, a place to find a collection of ideas and a vault for the imagination. Walking through the corridors of Chelsea College of Arts catching fleeting glimpses of the studios and works of art made that summer afternoon feel like a tumble down the rabbit hole. I was led to the College’s Red Room where the event took place; a gorgeous room of caramel lacquered walls, lofty ceilings, and the June light pouring through the windows. Just a stone’s throw from the Tate Britain, Chelsea College of Arts forms part of a community of art schools held under the University of Arts London.

Nicholas Brown, Learning Resources Manager at Christie’s Education, led the event and gave the group a rousing talk on the current position of art librarianship within the UK. The book is very much alive, with print still the wider form of scholarly communication in the arts and humanities. There is a growing prevalence of functional specialisms and skills in digital literacies and digital humanities due to our information-soaked society and shifts towards practice-based research methods. There are challenges, though; the multifaceted and interdisciplinary practice fits into a landscape still bearing the weight of financial cuts from the current system of government. Despite this, the creative industries in the UK still have a strong global influence and the profession is finding ways to innovate and challenge the status quo of the current social/political environment. Many of the talented speakers who spoke on the day come from arts backgrounds, and it was inspiring to see how all of them implement progressive ideas into their practice. From zines and special collections, decolonising the library, material literacies, haptic learning and makerspaces to collaborative practice, there was plenty to be excited about here!

Entering the profession
In a discussion about accessibility into the profession, Nicholas handed the room over to us, the attendees. We each had an opportunity to say ‘hello’ and share the aspects of librarianship we were interested in pursuing. There was a great mix of people in the room, from arts and humanities backgrounds and those straight from industry to many graduates taking their first steps into librarianship. While completing an MA in Library/Information Science alongside work experience is a common route, it is important to note it is not the only option. It was reassuring to hear Nicholas and Tavian give advice for steps into librarianship without having to go back into education. The Masters option enriches practice and can give a solid foundation for theory, but there are plenty of routes for gaining experience, from volunteering and gaining transferable skills for job applications, to graduate trainee schemes and reaching out to a mentor. We all enter the field of work from different starting points, and as long as you have a keen interest in the subject and the willingness to reach out to people, librarians are kind and generous people, happy to support new professionals into the industry.

Working in academic libraries alongside public libraries – Lydia Julien, Library Services Assistant, Ravensbourne University London / Hackney Libraries
Lydia began the series of talks by sharing her experiences working in academic libraries alongside public libraries. It was fascinating to hear about the contrasts between different libraries and how they operate to meet the individual needs of the users. Work in public libraries is very much about the local community, with coordinating volunteer support and enrichment activities such as oral histories and craft workshops. In contrast to this, Lydia’s work in academic libraries pushes the boundaries of arts/science research methods, with the nature of the job being multidisciplinary. Lydia talked about her love for networking with fellow professionals and visiting events such as the ‘Zine Fair’ at Glasgow Zine Library and London #libmeetteach. Taking the time to engage with the wider library community can give plenty of opportunities for continued learning and professional development.

Working in a museum or gallery library – Lluis Tembleque Teres, Librarian, Museum of London.
Lluis gave us insight into the mix of research and archival practices that takes place in museum libraries. It was interesting to hear about the role of the librarian as a curator, having key responsibilities for collection management. The museum is an educational environment, balancing the responsibilities of informing users,
providing cultural context and enrichment. The library in this setting therefore plays an active role in the institutions research by having a direct impact on output. Museum libraries contain special collections, with a small, localised audience and sometimes a ‘team of one’ structure. Lluis kindly shared his impressive journey into library management and demonstrated that switching roles every few years can provide a route to building managerial experience and engaging with the different needs and demands of the profession.

Working with archives and special collections – Siobhan Britton, Assistant Academic Support Librarian, Chelsea College of Arts, University of Arts London
Siobhan talked to us about working with special collections at Chelsea College of Arts library. Special collections are often unique treasure troves of materials. From rare books to artists’ books and zines, these unique resources require more detailed cataloguing. Collections like these may feel closed-off or under lock and key, but Siobhan works hard in her role to outreach the collection into the wider institution. Librarians can encourage users to engage with the resources through reaching out to academics and tailoring projects that integrate directly into the curriculum. This role provides a wealth of opportunities to collaborate directly with artists and support research. For anyone coming from an arts background too, working in libraries can provide the flexibility to blend librarianship with your own artistic practice.

Notes and experience of a recent graduate – Billie Coxhead, Materials & Products Co-ordinator, Central Saint Martins & London College of Fashion, University of Arts London
Billie spoke about her recent role as Materials & Products Co-ordinator, which is hybrid mix of subject and academic liaison librarianship. Her role has a focus on sensory research, material literacy and one-to-one client based work. Inspiration, serendipity, and discovery are key components to a materials library and there is an interesting tension between physical and online resources. Haptic learning provides hands on experience for library users during inductions, and user engagement is a great way of getting to know your cohort’s research needs. Billie also talked through her journey starting out as a library assistant, completing an MA part-time alongside employment, to her new role. A love for collecting, organising, and supporting researchers was evident, and is a tangible thread linking all the speakers together. A subject specialism can be a good way to carve yourself a niche in the profession but be prepared to engage with the subject area at all levels, from visiting exhibitions and fashion shows to scouring trade shows for the latest innovations and research.

Working in an activist arts organisation – Tavian Hunter, Librarian, Stuart Hall Library, Iniva (Institude of International Visual Arts)
Tavian gave an inspiring talk on her work as a Librarian at Iniva. The Stuart Hall Library is Iniva’s critical and creative hub, supporting diversity and cultural identity by documenting and facilitating research into visual arts within an international and transnational context. Librarianship is not a neutral activity, and the talk raised many interesting points about the systems we do not often think about when building a collection. As caretakers of stories, research, and ideas, it is important to extend the viewpoint from traditional Western perspectives and work to build collections that are more representative. Tavian also gave us advice on reaching out to mentors for professional advice and work experience. Many libraries offer graduate schemes for those seeking to enter into the profession straight from university. Taking professional advice from a mentor can also provide you with one-to-one support. “Learning is a multifaceted process”, something that stuck with me from her talk – the nature of librarianship allows you to keep on building on your experiences and your knowledge.

Working in library senior management – Jane Bramwell, Head of Library, Archive & Collection Access at Tate
Jane has recently been appointed Chair of ARLIS and gave a warm welcome to the speakers and attendees. She kindly shared with us her wealth of experiences that led to her role at Tate and the changes that take place in the role as you move into library management. As Head of Library at Tate, Jane and her team oversee 250,00 books, monographs and exhibition catalogues, over 6,500 artist books and zines, as well as printed journals and serials. Jane also talked about the growing need for preservation and conservation of digital and documentary materials including audio and video formats. Management may mean less direct contact with the collection and cataloguing resources, instead the focus is on operational, systems, budgets, people management, and user engagement. Jane also took the opportunity to talk about the common themes of the day, with many of the topics covered further in the upcoming 50th Anniversary Conference #arlisuki2019 at Glasgow School of Art in July.

CV Tips
The event ended with a CV tips workshop where Billie gave advice on annotating CVs and Tavian guided us through the “dos & don’ts” of the interview process. The attendees then worked in groups analysing job descriptions to pinpoint common skills and responsibilities. A few handy tips and tricks included:
 Check CILIP’s website of advice and guidance.
 Keep your CV relevant, tailor it every time to match the job description.
 Demonstrate your transferable skills and experience by providing practical examples. The speakers championed transferable skills, for example cataloguing may seem daunting but a lot can be learned on the job, even experience in data entry may be enough to show a methodical, careful approach to managing data.
 Demonstrate commitment and passion to CPD as well as education and experience.
 Demonstrate key achievements, but make sure they are measurable.
 Reflection is important for showing critical thinking and showing what you have gained from your roles.
 Desirable skills give you an edge, but essential skills are essential for a reason!
 Opportunities/pay may be better in cities, but progression into management may mean being willing to move around and be more flexible.
 Doing a dissertation or research project may spark a specialism or enrich an aspect of your role.

Concluding thoughts
Collaboration was one of the key ideas from the day that left a mark with me. Forget silent spaces and gatekeeping tomes, the art library is a space for communication, connection, and creation. The speakers all shared a love for supporting and connecting with people, from chasing academics down corridors to entice them with new resources, setting up pop-up libraries and integrating into curriculum and choreographing volunteers to digitise and assemble a collection to bringing together people in community makerspaces. An art library seems to be a place of enormous creativity, forming networks, and sharing ideas no matter how big or small. It feels like an exciting time to take the plunge and dive into art librarianship.
Thank you to ARLIS for the opportunity to attend the event (did I mention the event was free? Do not hesitate; go along for a tea and a chat and you will not regret it!). My gratitude also to Nicholas Brown and Alexandra Duncan for the encouragement to reflect on the day and the opportunity to write about it.

Alexander Bell
Learning Resource Centre Advisor, West Kent College
Twitter @librarianxander

Image: Bell, A. (2019) Wonderland: taking the plunge. [photomontage].