Advice for the newly hired Special Collections professional

This blog post is drawn from an email request from a newly-hired librarian who landed an entry-level special collections gig in the Midwest (hurrah! I hope she negotiated her salary, too.)

She asked me for advice as she thinks about professional development, specifically conference-going, for her new job. (Her colleagues brought up RBMS.) As in all things, advice is worth what you pay for it. However, I thought my response might be of interest to a slightly larger audience.

Here’s what I said:

Congratulations on your new position!

Conference-going depends on a bunch of things.

1) What is required in terms of your career advancement? Look at your promotion and/or tenure guidelines, as they will really dictate where you put your time, energy, and money. After all, rule 1 is “keep your job.”

Does your new position require “service to the profession” i.e. doing committee work to keep your job and/or advance? Then ALA/ACRL/RBMS is probably where to begin, given your colleagues’ advice. (At least the membership fees are tax deductible).

You’ll want to look at the RBMS Committee Roster to see what the different committees are, and which would be of interest. Then you’d attend ALA Annual or Midwinter (depending on timing), particularly the meetings of committees that interest you, and volunteer to serve upon them. (I will note that the Diversity Committee often is a good place to consider starting–one committee appointment often leads to another).

Less expensively, and less far away, I have several colleagues at NIU who swear by MAC–the Midwest Archives Conference. It’s more archives than rare books, but you may find something of use there.

2) What is required in terms of your own knowledge advancement?
This is where the RBMS Preconference comes in. To me, this is the most bang-for-your buck for finding out what’s going on in special collections nationally right now. And getting excited about it. It’s also the highest concentration of special collections librarians you will find. So for networking, it is *invaluable*. This is where you can meet future co-authors on papers and collaborators on grant applications, for example.

Since you’re early-career, you’re eligible for a preconference scholarship, and I encourage you STRONGLY to apply. Once the 2012 preconference website goes live, there will be a call for scholarship applications, too.

3) What do you need to learn specifically?

If you need specific “rare books and special collections” skills, Rare Book School has week-long courses taught by experts in the field, on everything from Descriptive Bibliography and the History of the Book to creating EAD finding aids and managing digital materials.

Also, never forget the power of a decent webinar. ACRL, OCLC, SAA, and lots of other places offer them. It’s often a good way to learn about the techier stuff.

Sometimes, though, you will just have to learn/figure out stuff on your own. It’s cheap, but time consuming.

4) How much money do you have to spend on this? Are you going to have to fund it yourself, or will the university pay for some or all of it?

The bulk of my professional development has come through ALA/ACRL/RBMS (RBMS, really, but you have to join the other two to be part of RBMS). This is not a cheap option, necessarily. (An average conference trip, between plane, hotel, food, registration, etc., comes to about $1000.)

You may have to pick and choose. For instance, I don’t attend the RBMS preconference every year. And due to budget cuts at my institution, I haven’t been to ALA Annual or Midwinter since 2010 (not going this year, either). HOWEVER, I’m at a different place professionally–close to tenure in a publications-centric place, and I’ve done what I needed to do in terms of committee service for my tenure portfolio. Your Mileage Will Most Certainly Vary. So look at your guidelines.

Rare Book School is *very* worthwhile, but also not cheap. (Tuition is about $900, plus travel and lodging, etc.) If your library wants you to go, do your best to get them to fund the trip. It need not be annual, but every few years is a good thing, not only for keeping up your skills, but for networking purposes.

….So, what did I miss? Have I led this early-career professional astray? Comments are love.


About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a nine time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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3 Responses to Advice for the newly hired Special Collections professional

  1. Pingback: Conference-going: advice from a US librarian « The Special Collections Handbook

  2. Eileen S. says:

    Rare Book School offers scholarships now, too — 26 recipients were announced last month. See for the announcement and for scholarship information.


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