Special Collections Librarian


Special Collections Librarian



Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?


A: So my job title is special collections librarian. I work at Marymount University main campus in Arlington, and I graduated from my master’s degree in 2010.

Q: Okay, and from undergrad what year?


A: From undergraduate in 2007.


Q: Okay, great. And how long have you been in your current field?


A: Um, so since, what would it be? About 2008, yeah.


Q: Okay, perfect. Could you just give me a brief description of your primary job functions?


A: So my job is part time, as I said, as a special collections librarian. So Marymount is a very small university, so a small library, and quite small staffing, which means I pretty much in my role do a little bit of everything. So I sort of liase a lot with teaching faculty to get suggestions for like, new acquisitions of special collections materials that they might be interested in us buying, that then they’ll use in teaching. And then all different aspects of collections stewardship that would go through that, so it’s kind of selecting, working with book sellers, purchasing, cataloguing, doing any basic preservation, materials like marketing and promotions, so, like small exhibitions, and occasionally events. And, oh, and then I’m also responsible for the sort of disaster planning for all the physical collections in the library itself. So that’s just sort of like an add-on task, really. So yeah, I think I’m rambling, but that’s about it.


Q: Excellent. No, no, that’s great.


A: Oh, and donor relations. Yeah we have one main family that are donors, and then seeing any other potential donors, to where their donation would fit into special collections comes through me.


Q: I see, okay. That is a little bit of everything.


A: Yeah. ‘Cause I’m a one man band, so yeah.


Q: Right, right. So in a given week, could you estimate maybe the percentage of your work that requires writing?


A: Um, good question. So, [interviewee talking to interviewee’s child] Um, I would say that almost–  I would say that yeah, actually probably a really high proportion involves writing in some form of another, because the amount of work I do that’s actually practical, like doing some preservation or something is very, yeah, five, ten percent of my time. So I would say yeah, probably some form of another, it’s like 90 percent of the time is some form of writing. So yeah, I don’t know.

Q: Great. That’s okay, a ballpark is fine. So, could you tell me a little bit about the forms or types of documents that you most often write?


A: I think that’s more of an overestimate actually, but let’s say it’s over 50 percent, yeah, because there’s a lot of reading as well. But let’s just say yeah.

Q: Sure, sure.


A: So the types of things I write – so let’s see, a lot of emails, I suppose there’s things like meeting agendas and minutes, what else? Oh, I was saying about the, what do you call it? The disaster plan, so some, oh and something that, so that’s– yeah kind of like policy documents, like internal policy documents that I write, and then, yeah like contributions to like the collection fund or [inaudible 4:27], cataloguing policy, or, you know, annual reviews, so those sorts of documents. And then other writing, I guess it’s not prose, but let’s see, if I’m cataloguing, or I’m doing the metadata that’s associated with that, and then so a little bit of writing in terms of, for promotional outreach so, submission that involves writing captions, you know, a bit of advertising material like Facebook, and Twitter posts to promote what we’re doing, so yeah, sort of various aspects–


Q: Yeah, really various. Yeah, and it seems like it’s a pretty good mix of internal and external audiences, is that a fair–?


A: Yeah, I mean I think– so it’s pretty much all sort of what we call– mostly all around the Marymount community, however, I suppose it’s internally intensive, library employees, like working documents or policies, and then an external audience would be, for sort of start with faculty but still part of Marymount, and then yeah, and then a sort of little bit externally if I’m going to– communicating with book sellers, or other libraries, or staff at other libraries that are part of the WRRC, the Washington Research Libraries Consortium.


Q: Right, okay, perfect. Could you walk me through the process, sort of start to finish, of a typical project or a recent project? Maybe the disaster plan, since that’s an annual writing project usually?


A: Um, yeah. What aspects of it?


Q: So everything from planning, to any research that goes into it, to drafting feedback revisions, anything that sort of happens along the way, from the beginning of that document, and it sounds like you probably starting with something, a draft, each time, but, to how it’s considered sort of final at the end there?


A: Okay, umm, I suppose it’s just a very small thing, but something I was doing very recently is we just changed the name of the room where our special collections are kept, and we’re changing the, so there’s lots of bits and pieces to do to sort of update that on everything, but one of the things to do is rewriting the policy for the room itself. It’s very short, like very short document, and I suppose what was involved with that– well I was looking at what it was existing, how it was originally, and then updating it how the room could be used now, so I [inaudible 7:32] a draft, [inaudible 7:33] my supervisor, who’s the collection manager, and then it also went to the university librarian to check. So what tends to happen is my manager tends to spot occasional grammatical errors, as well as content, and then it’s sort of sent for final approval and feedback from those two librarian, and then it sort of be sent back to me for edits, and [cross talk 8:10]–


  1. Perfect, okay. How did you know how to perform these types of writing? Everything from writing that metadata, to writing a disaster plan, to writing a caption for an exhibit – it’s a lot of different forms.


A: Ah, okay, yeah, I suppose– um, yeah I mean, I suppose I look a lot of how other people have done it. And so sometimes I look– so particularly with caption writing, I’ve looked at sort of style guides– there’s one I remember that I still occasionally refer to now, books produced by the V&A, Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK. And that was incredibly slow, because it just kind of, um, yeah, took me through each stage of the information that I was trying to like– oh yeah, because the caption was short, so it’s really important that what you’re putting into an audience and everything, so, yeah, so looking, yeah, examples elsewhere, and then, yeah, looking for yeah, writing guides if they are available.


Q: Is that V&A guide a public document?


A: Yeah, it is publicly available.


Q: Oh interesting, that’s cool.


A: And then, one thing I’ve found is the style– you know, obviously American English is different to British English, so it’s almost like, when I was first here, I made a really, really conscious effort to look at how things are written here, and try and write in that style, even though I didn’t kind of look at a style guide for American english. But then, I’ve sort of now being here long enough, by that it starts to come naturally because I’ve spent, because you’ve been here more than two and a half years, I’ve spent a lot of time reading American English, and then I started to pick it up and use it in my writing.


Q: And did you– sorry to interrupt, did you go to library school in the UK, or?


A: In the UK, yeah.


Q: In the UK, okay, right, right.


A: So yeah, can you repeat the original question? I’m losing track.


Q: Absolutely. How did you know how to do these types of writing?


A: Um, yes, I suppose looking, yeah, as I said, at examples as were, and then, guides if possible for writing a type of document. ‘Cause one thing I did find when I started working is that even basic things like, “How do I take minutes in a meeting?” I was like, “I don’t know how to do this!” So if there’s ever been any kind of like internal training offered, which sometimes there has been by previous employers, then I’ve done that. But normally it’s just looking at what’s been done before, and how it’s done, yeah.


Q: Perfect, yeah. You sort of just did, but if you don’t mind, describing a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer at work?


A: Yeah, this happens quite [inaudible 11:30] [laughter], like because it’s new, I don’t know, like a new style of um– yeah, I’m thinking of an example– I suppose I should say I’m also dyslexic, and this was just picked up when I was at university, so it’s also made me, perhaps like not particularly confident in my writing ability. But I suppose, as I already talked about, in terms of like writing captions, as it were, that’s something I need to do a bit of research about. So let’s see, cataloguing, there’s particular protocols for you know, how you should write things. In a way that’s easier, ‘cause that’s kind of set out in a kind of guide, yeah, cataloguing guidelines.


Q: There’s a specific form, okay.


A: Sort of like format and [inaudible 12:25].


Q: I see, okay.


A: And then, but yeah like also, just recently doing a policy document at work again, so just looking how they’ve written them elsewhere, and then ask for feedback, as well.


Q: Yeah. Have you found that you’ve gotten useful feedback in your current position?


A: Yeah, I have.

Q: That’s great, good. You mentioned the sort of head of the university library – is that the person who would typically oversee any writing that you do?


A: Um, no, it would normally be– [interviewee talking to interviewee’s child] Thank you! Um, it would normally be my supervisor, who’s the collections manager, yeah.


Q: I see, okay, perfect. And do they see everything you write? Or just certain documents?


A: No, it’s more, yeah, key things like for instance, recently I was making updates to the special collections pages on the university library’s website, so that would definitely have to go by my manager, just to okay that. So it’s those, yeah, kind of policy documents, and anything going on the website–


Q: So more formal?


A: Yeah, more formal.


Q: Yeah, okay, that makes sense. Um, I’m sure this varies a lot from project to project, but how long would you say you typically have to complete a writing project?


A: Um, oh gosh, yeah it varies a lot. It depends what it is, because it could be something that’s, you know, quite concise and it’s done in a Word draft, it’s done in a few hours, or it’s something that I’m chipping away at over a few weeks. So, but generally it’s quite short, like in the workplace, it’s usually quite short timescale that I’m working on something.


Q: Yeah. So now sort of looking back toward your undergraduate days, what types of writing do you remember being asked to do as a college student?


A: So I did a joint honors degree, which it may not be called that here. So I studied psychology and sociology, so I did notice that the, yeah the type of writing we did was slightly different. So the essays were, kind of came up in both. In psychology, there was lots of short, sort of small experiments we do, so they’d be written up as a sort of, yeah, report, like a very miniature research paper I guess. And then, I’m trying to think. Other writing– and then presentations, so writing for that, and obviously writing in exams, and then it would tend to be either essays in exams, or long questions, yeah.


Q: And in what ways do you think that writing prepared you, or it didn’t, for the kind of work that you do now?


A: Um, yeah, I don’t think it really prepared me at all [laughter] for the writing I did after university. I think I got a good basis of like, how the written style that those– ‘cause I was sort of aware of the differences between those two academic subjects, the writing style, and I think I had a good basis for how to write in those fields, and got familiar through reading journal articles, and you know, and the rest, but I don’t think it prepared me for workplace writing. ‘Cause again, you know, it’s usually quite, it’s not exactly technical, but it was academic writing, it wasn’t applied as in the workplace.


Q: Yeah, exactly, okay. What are the types of things that you wish you had learned or done as a student that you think would have prepared you better?


A: I think, so, I suppose like the different styles of work, covering some of the different, maybe different formats of writing that you could be asked to do in the workplace. So, you know, from the basics of, you know, how to, you know, format meeting minutes, and how to record that, to how to, yeah, different styles of ways of writing reports and writing like concisely, or, you know, writing in a way that, what am I trying to say, it’s I suppose like in plain, not like simple language, but like in plain language, because it sort of is– academic writing is not how, you know, you kind of, um, not that you’re writing for a lay audience at work, but you don’t need to overcomplicate it, you want to make it easy for people, not oversimplify, but make it understandable, so yeah.


Q: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.


A: So I think there was a lot of support at university in terms of writing for, you know there was like, like very good career center, in terms of like writing CVs or resumes, and like application letters. So that I had lots of support with writing on, so writing to get a job, but not so much the writing once you were in the job, yeah.


Q: Excellent, yeah. What would you say is at stake in your writing at work these days?


A: What do you mean by at stake?


Q: Why does it matter and what would be the consequence if you weren’t effective?


A: I suppose, one thing I suppose is being understood clearly, and I think I’m more aware of that because I’m British working in American culture, so I’ve become quite like, “Am I using the American way of writing something so there’s not confusion?” What’s at stake, I suppose– it’s not so much where it’s kind of like a dry policy document, but I think I am quite aware when I’m writing something, like for social media or a you know, a promotion for a little exhibition, I kind of think, I see other people’s examples, and I think, “Oh they’re really good at writing that in like catchy or like fun way,” and I’m like, that does not come naturally. And I was like, I don’t know if they just do it more easily, or whether they spend more time on it, but I’m kind of like, “Okay, I can write this dry policy document no problem,” but like actually experience in writing something entertaining or drawing people in, I don’t, yeah, that’s hard.


Q: That’s interesting, yeah. That actually leads into my next question, which is, what is the most challenging thing about writing in your position?

A: Yeah, I suppose that’s what I’ve just described. So when it’s not just kind of laying out the information but trying to present that information in a particularly appealing way in a written format.


Q: Yeah, that makes sense. You mentioned, in previous jobs, like training and workshops and things like that – has there been any other writing help that you’ve gotten, either formally or informally?


A: I suppose formally, I did have a bit of help at university, not really so much my masters but my undergraduate, ‘cause they sort of picked up on the dyslexia when I was at university, and there I had some one-to-one support, so I could go and talk to someone about, like, you know, essay plans, and they check some of my written work, then, you know, was it clear, was it, you know, kind of, yeah, not so much content, but looked at my main argument [inaudible 21:10] and that sort of thing. Other– and then informally, I suppose just, yeah, I ask people occasionally just to sort of check over what I’ve written.


Q: And is that usually for clarity too, not for content, or the other way around?


A: It’s normally actually for– yeah, it’s normally more for, that it’s clear, not that it’s, not so much content, because I just sometimes, even with you know, using like Microsoft or whatever else to write things, I’m sometimes, like I don’t see, I have sometimes difficulty seeing my own mistakes, so I often, yeah if it’s something important, I’ll ask someone to just quickly flip through it.


Q: Yeah. How do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?


A: I suppose I’ve– good question. I think it’s like, I still feel like it’s very much like a work, like I’m still working on my writing at work, it’s something, ‘cause I feel like there’s often this new thing, new audiences or something that I’m writing for, or in a new format, so I’m sort of, I feel like I sort of teach myself along the way of how to write for it. I don’t know particular report or for a particular audience, um. I think I’m a lot less shy now of just sort of saying, “Hey, I’m dyslexic, please, I don’t see my own mistakes, will you just like have a look?” And people being very receptive to that, and being helpful. I suppose not being shy, [inaudible 23:15], you know. Where it’s like, “Oh God, if I make a mistake, I’m going to get caught out!” And then, you know, you like not really care– I suppose as you get older, not caring so much being judged for how you write, so yeah.


Q: That makes a lot of sense, yeah. I think a lot of people have that, the older you get, like, no matter whatever you see is your writing failure, it seems like almost everyone has some way that they’re worried about everyone seeing this thing that they don’t feel like they do well, yeah. To what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization?


A: I think, um, yeah, I think writing is, I’d say it’s quite highly valued, because it’s so much about the work that the university– and it has both in the teaching, and then all the sort of support side that goes alongside that. It’s amazing, I mean, I almost find it surprising they don’t offer more guidance, even if, for writing styles, because it is so fundamental to people’s jobs, that there isn’t, I mean my last employer in the UK was very good, and they had lots of other resources that you could use for guidance in all sorts of aspects, you know those kind of like soft skills of having the work of whatever it be.


Q: Was that a university too, your last employer?


A: No, it was a not for profit, it was called the Royal College of Nursing, so it’s like a professional membership organization.


Q: Okay, okay. Interesting. And our last little set of questions: so how would you have defined successful writing as a student versus now, and would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?


A: Um, the first part of that question, I suppose yeah, it was slightly different successful writing as a student, because that was focusing on the– [interviewee referring to interviewee’s child]… It was almost like, yeah like the content was very important, not that it isn’t now, but you know, had you found the most recent, most relevant research, that you put into essay, so you really, you know so they’d almost like, not that, you know, spelling, punctuation, and grammar wasn’t important, but that was just like one aspect in lots of other criteria that then could form your writing. I suppose you get that feedback, you’d get a detailed grade of the different, you know, how you’ve met each requirement, um. And then repeat the rest of the question?


Q: Sure, and how would you define successful writing in your current position? And would you consider yourself a successful workplace writer?


A: Um, successful writing in the workplace I suppose does what it intends to in that it’s understandable for the audience that is intended to read that, whether that’s internal or external. Something I was trying to use to be, without leaving information out, but to be as concise as possible, and not put any unnecessary information in if it is needed. ‘Cause I’ve come across that a lot,  at my current job, some incredibly lengthy documents that no one’s ever going to read because they’re so long, and there’s not even a decent summary at the beginning, so, and the last bit was am I a successful writer?


Q: Yeah.


A: Um, I’d say yes and no. I think, I think I can write well, I just think it takes me, it just takes me quite a bit of time, and this is the same as when I was a student at undergraduate or masters level. It was like I, you know, I could get very good grades on assignments, but I really had to put the time in. I can’t kind of just rush to complete it. So if I’m under a lot of time pressure, there’s [inaudible speaking to child], I mean like with anyone, it’s not going to, yeah, it might not be as good. But I think given the time, and like I was saying, like if I can go away and research a particular style of you know, how to write a particular thing, and look at examples as well, and look at how they’ve done it before, and then drafting, and get someone to check it, and you know, make final edits, I can do a good job. But if it’s something we don’t have time to do that, then it’s harder to write as well.


Click here to read full transcript

Tags: , , , , ,