University of Iowa, Special Collection Job Shadow: A Reflection


 About two years ago, I made the conscious decision to declare myself as an English major for my undergraduate degree.  More recently, I made the decision to continue my education at some point by applying to a grad school with a Library and Information Science (LIS) program. I have been working as a used bookstore employee for a little over five years, and also as a page at local public library. It is pertinent to mention I enjoy reading, as well as the aesthetics of a book: how it is created, bound, printed, how the cover of a book is designed and chosen, etc. Based on my adoration for the physical book itself, I have been researching  my future LIS degree in special collections. Like many others, I want to be sure this is what I want to pursue because I’ll succeed at it, not because I have a hobby and this happens to be a career field related to books. I previously heard how difficult breaking into this specific field can be, especially now that the internet seems to have changed the course of archiving and retrieving information, leaving me to wonder whether or not there would be jobs left by the time I finished grad school. I had this specific idea that a special collections librarian’s job was to take care of old texts: mend, archive, shelve. Everything that I was researching essentially told me this was the job and those were the tasks, plain and simple.

With the help of a required project assigned in a professional development course, I reached out to the University of Iowa’s special collection department, in hopes that I might be granted some form of an interview, and maybe even a kind of job shadow, so that I could see for myself if this was what I really wanted to do with my future. Luckily for me, I was handed the opportunity happily by one of Iowa’s special collections librarian, Patrick Olson.

On December 10th, I was invited by Patrick to come and explore Iowa’s special collection department, starting with a sit in on a staff meeting bright and early. Mostly awake, I was warmly welcomed by the staff, and was able to listen to them chat about redecorations to come in the department, items recently purchased from an auction from Mildred Wirt Benson’s estate, and paintings and photographs they discovered in boxes belonging to Chef Louis Szathmáry II (the University of Iowa has an entire collection of cookbooks and recipe pamphlets which were previously in his ownership; the collection is named in his honor). It was in this meeting when I began to think, “What in the world is happening right now?” To them, these were their everyday surroundings and encounters, and to me, they were definitely topics I could write home about. After the meeting wrapped, it was time for my tour of the collection in its entirety.

Patrick showed me shelves upon shelves of miniature books (including two books made from walnut shells), manuscripts of Romantic Poets, European devotionals, the world’s largest Leigh Hunt collection (plus original pieces of a fireplace from his home in England), film reels, artist’s books (books that can be found in the strange limbo of being able to be kept in a library collection or displayed in a museum), and so on.

Later we left the collection so Patrick could film a YouTube video with another special collections librarian, Colleen Theisen, who is also in charge of the department’s outreach field. She manages Iowa’s special collection Tumblr page (22,000 followers and counting), as well as their Twitter account, among other things. I couldn’t help but think, these people are the coolest. After having a huge fangirl moment (the books being filmed that day were ones I had previously seen on a pretty popular Tumblr post; it was like encountering a celebrity), Patrick and I finished the tour and headed back to his office so I could observe a special collections librarian in action and do some interviewing.

A few phone calls were made regarding the previously mentioned auction purchases and a possible donation of a large artist’s book collection. This is where collection development comes in. A library’s special collection can be a fairly equal distribution of donations made outside the library community, purchases made internally, and trades between other libraries’ collections. Most of the time, donations come in based on not so happy circumstances, i.e., a death, lack of space, or disinterest in items that have fallen into the laps of those who have no need or want for them. While discussing this with Patrick and Peter Balestrieri, the department’s processing librarian, Peter made the comment that special collections librarians are able to obtain donations because they are simply collectors talking with other collectors who usually love their collections but have to get rid of it somehow, hence why they may be donating.  Those who choose to make donations do so because they wish to share the uniqueness and wonder of their items.

In terms of how decisions are made on what to purchase for a collection, the basis can be made on the strengths found within the library’s original collection. For example, if a library has a vast medieval manuscript collection when it is first created, then more medieval manuscripts will be added to the collection over time. This then allows that specific library to become well known for that specific collection. Developing can also be found in the areas of specialty of the librarians. Patrick has tons of knowledge on rare books, specifically early printed books, so he knows what to acquire and what not to acquire.

Having discussed the processes of developing a collection, we began to talk about the digitalization of special collections. The University of Iowa itself has been partaking in this inevitable trend, having created a website called “DIY History,” which allows for keyword searches on manuscripts that have been processed and scanned for availability. I asked both Patrick and Peter the question I myself have been receiving more recently: “What do you think will be the outcome of digitization – will it hurt or harm special collections and libraries in general?” Each agreed they understood why a majority of it was happening and that it can be beneficial. It is nice that some rare and valuable texts can easily be found online in a quick search, and more often than not, it brings awareness to the existence of the special collections where the items are originally kept. More donations may be given to collections of similar content based on what is seen online, and those truly interested in what they come across, may want to come in and see the item in person. Neither Patrick nor Peter believe the World Wide Web is going to be the end all be all of libraries, mostly because of how sensitive computer files and software are to being erased and lost, and because of advance developments in technology.

Following the internet discussion, Patrick had a box for us to open as part of the job shadow. It was purchased a few weeks prior, wrapped in many layers of protective coverings: tape, plastic, bubble wrap, and paper, all for good reason. Underneath the necessary wrappings was a beautiful pea green satin covered book. Lining the front and back covers were hand stitched embroidered outlines sewn along the edges in dark colors, along with scalloped shells on the front cover, and a flaming heart sewn with red and gold thread on the back cover. The edges of the pages were gold leafed and still very vibrant, as was the rest of the book. Given permission to hold it, I flipped through the pages, seeing that the printed text was still dark, and in French. The book was very well taken care of. In fact, the text looked as if it had been published recently. Based on the information slip from the vendor found inside the book, it was a 17th century French devotional. I was holding a book that was hundreds of years old, like it was a delicate porcelain teacup from my grandmother’s china cabinet. I more than likely had this terrified look on my face, which included wide eyes and a grimace, but it was the most precious thing I had ever held in my entire 22 years.

As soon as I handed the book back to Patrick, and collected myself, he, Peter and I began talking about the necessary steps to take in order to obtain a career in the special collections field. Working or volunteering in a library is a necessity, more so than a perfect GPA, although that helps too. Having the knowledge of the library field is crucial in program acceptance, as well as down the career path. Internships are also a must because of the hands-on experience gained when working in a specialty field. In doing all of these steps, contacts are developed, and connections can be made in one’s favor when important decisions come along in job placement. Patrick and Peter spoke back and forth about the importance of these resume builders for approximately five minutes before they looked at me and asked, “Are we overwhelming you?” I was overwhelmed, but I told them they were not overwhelming me in a negative way. Instead, I was overwhelmed with reassurance and validation, something I needed in order to rise out of the “what am I going to do with my life” phase that most people my age are currently experiencing, and into the “I am so ready to get started on my life” phase.

Once the job shadowing was complete, and all immediate questions were answered, Patrick invited me to lunch with Colleen, and David McCartney, Iowa’s University Archivist. Over lunch, each of the librarians shared with me the schools they attended to receive their LIS degrees. We talked about costs and financial aid, major deciding factors in future decision making for me, and whether or not taking a year off could be beneficial. In taking a year off, I could potentially devote time to an internship or volunteer with a special collection either locally or abroad. Colleen and Patrick mentioned some colleges offer stipends to their LIS students who are interning at the time, because most internships are unpaid, a popular topic for debate for many academic programs. Colleen was very adamant suggesting I research which school’s advising facilities offer their abilities in helping to locate internships, and that have career placement programs, because these factors are crucial in approval into the special collections field. David mentioned fellowships offered at the University of Iowa’s LIS program, a couple of which are special collections focused. This discussion, extending from earlier, was also delightfully overwhelming.

After lunch, it was time for the librarians to go back to the library where meetings, phone calls, and ancient texts and items were waiting for them. The advice and suggestions they gave me has become invaluable, though to them it may not seem that way, and I may be a tad dramatic, but it’s true. I would have never thought that a special collections department had so many people involved within it. Each librarian I met had a specific role whether it was community outreach, collection development, managing archives, etc. I learned that an LIS degree does not limit to one specific area of a library, that there are many positions that need to be filled in order for an entire department to work. This can definitely be said for a special collections specific LIS degree, as I have witnessed it. It goes far beyond the mending, archiving, and shelving of books.

This experience was the push I needed to start working tirelessly towards a goal I believed was unachievable, and I can’t thank them enough for it. I plan on doing more research on the schools I am interested in attending, finding out what internships may be available to me over this coming summer locally, and starting the application processes for my top choices a little earlier than I normally would, in order to ensure I’m developing my adult career the way I want it to be.