Taking the Plunge – Considering a Career in Art Librarianship

This post was written for the ARLISMatters blog. ‘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 chapter 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 Colleges’ 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 throw from the Tate Britain, Chelsea College of Arts forms part of a community of art schools held under the University of Arts London.

 

Introductions

Nicholas Brown, Learning Resources Manager at Christies 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 arts and humanities. There is a growing prevalence for 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, makerspaces and 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, those straight from industry, and many graduates taking their first steps into librarianship. Completing a Masters degree in Library/Information Science alongside work experience is a common route for progression. A Masters enriches practice and gives a solid foundation for theory, but there are also many routes for newcomers to gain 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 for 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 take 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 cohorts 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 CV’s 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 and classifying procedures may seem daunting but it is OK to learn 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 current 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, choreographing volunteers to digitise and assemble a collection, and 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.

Illustration

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

Electric Waterfalls – A.I & The Cascade of Consciousness

If all our yesterdays, todays and tomorrows are nothing but electric waterfalls and we continue to assimilate floods of information and experiences into the silvery metallic chatter of digital consciousness, then how do we retain our humanity, individuality and take control of the big data?

As Lyn Robinson and David Bawden steer us to the shore of our Data, Information and Technology classes, I find myself on the precipice of the deep seas and the deeper questions. As tempting as it is to paddle back upstream, perhaps this is a chance to reflect and find some resolution. There are many lessons learnt from our enlightening classes, but the ones that stick with me most are the principles for Librarians to employ empathy, understanding, and a marginal level of order over our messy data. Some of these virtues are clearly achievable, like showing the insight and patience in teaching information literacy to service users. Whilst others, like casting a net of accountability over Google, algorithms and the internet, are infinitely more complex.

Human nature is a whirlpool of disordered, emotive and spontaneously generated data. Despite our best intentions and the efforts to mechanise our day to day lives, we cannot swim away from the physical laws that bind us as creatures of stardust, clay, fire and thundering heartbeats. The mobile phones in our pockets and iPads in our palms are decoys that will try to fool you otherwise.
The maelstrom of the world and everyday life is full of rather perplexing lessons and for most individuals, interactions with nature, faith, the sublime and fellow human beings no longer present all the answers. The inclusion of a digital online space has complicated matters increasingly. We are lured to the internet and social media to seek answers. Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Microsoft are monolithic giants. Far from babbling brooks, they offer individuals open access and the opportunity to overflow, rant and rave their innermost thoughts and beliefs into the database driven algorithmic systems.(Sutton, D. et al 2007).

The cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky defined A.I by stating ‘Artificial intelligence is the science of making machines do things that would require intelligence if done by men.’ (Warwick, K. 2012). What A.I is able to achieve through digital technology, is a transformation and immersion of reality, and the potential to extract information could go beyond anything a human could achieve. It alters the individual’s experiences from traditional interaction and observation to an instantaneous and accessible digital consciousness. A.I is a river that has carved and hewn its existence onto the internet, virtual reality, galleries, museums and libraries.

One of the big ethics for Library and Information professionals is to question whether the invasion of A.I into our day to day lives is a blessing or whether there are sea monsters lurking in its hidden depths?
A.I technologies are increasingly relied upon by big data companies with massive capital. There is a risk that creating such A.I for marketing products, influencing behaviour, sparking beliefs, challenging crimes or gaining profit will certainly detriment how we are able to access open and free information. (Floridi, L. 2016). So far none of this technology is fully independent and in all cases the A.I requires a human creator and is a product of a human designed experience. So long as companies are challenged to actively represent the best of inherently human traits, combining logic, creativity and compassion, then so will our A.I.

The cynical among us will see the flood of A.I as the beginning of a Terminator style takeover, but I am ever the romanticist and optimist. This is a turning point for the Library and Information profession and a chance for us to be a guiding hand in the management and control of the big data. Librarians are striving for knowledge, but it is a fruitless path if we do not also have the wisdom to share it. We cannot just sit behind issue desks, loaning out resources like machines. After all, people are remarkably fascinating, beautiful and complex and it takes a certain talent for kindness and activism to reach out to them, work with them and help them grow. Technology as a tool may come and go, but a Librarian with a warm smile and a cargo full of information can never be lost. So let’s get out there, hoist the sails, shout from our ships and share a little of our wisdom with the world!


References:

Floridi, L. (2014). Should we be afraid of A.I?. Aeon. Available at:
https://aeon.co/essays/true-ai-is-both-logically-possible-and-utterly-implausible. (Accessed: 05 December 2017).

Sutton, D. Brind, S. & McKenzie, R. (2007). The State of the Real: Aesthetics in the Digital Age. I.B. Tauris. London. UK.

Warwick, K. (2012). Artificial Intelligence: The Basics. Routledge. Abingdon. UK.


Bibliography:

Floridi, L. (2014). The 4th Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality. Oxford University Press. Oxford. UK.

Floridi, L. (2010). Information: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. Oxford. UK.


Images:

Bell, A. (2017). Tomorrow’s Mind. [collage]. UK.

To See a World in a Grain of Sand – Filtering Fine Art with Metadata

Metadata sounds alien, complicated and like something Doctor Who would theorise about to his companion. Despite the vagueness, the nature of Metadata is to be incredibly helpful to us fellow Librarians and our service users. For those of you who like me are visually minded and enjoy a good metaphor, allow me to introduce you to the artist and oracle William Blake. Mr Blake is going to kindly reinterpret Metadata for us:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”.

What could sound more eloquent or more beautiful? To see the world in a grain of sand, this is what Metadata does for us. Imagine the expanse of a golden, sun touched desert. Within the windswept sands, there holds a numerous amount of data, molecules, and atoms. An entire microscopic world is contained within one single gleaming speck. Well, Metadata helps us see that world, with clarity, by magnifying and filtering through the sand.
Have I lost you in a world of metaphors? Ok, less prophetic poetry and more fact. Metadata is best translated as ‘data about data’ and it can be seen as structured categories that help to find, retrieve and control information. (Pomerantz, J. 2015).
For libraries, the most common example of Metadata is found in the search terms of the library catalogue, and these are an essential way of filtering through documents so that service users can find resources easily. The library catalogue is Blake’s heaven in a wild flower, it is a portal to knowledge and a place to see the entire world.

So why is Metadata important for the Fine Art practice and how can Library and Information professionals help?
In our digital world, art exists online in an abundant oasis and this provides Art and Design students with endless inspiration and pools for creativity. Websites such as Google, Pinterest, and Instagram, with their ease of access, have made it easy to build giant dunes of images. In piling up so much data, finding professional and high quality images of art can feel like you are sinking in quicksand (and not to mention the grainy pixels!).
Art is also highly interpretive, and anyone familiar with it will know that the subject matter, medium, and content are not always translated in the title of the work. In order to gain a reliable search result, an information professional with specific subject knowledge must interpret the art and go through the process of adding descriptive metadata. The very fact that we must use words to describe a work of art means that the old saying “a painting can speak a thousand words” has never been more apt. (Baca, M. 2002).

Held within the lofty aether of academic libraries, Art Librarians hold the kingdom keys to visual information with their detailed knowledge of the rapid advancements in technology, social media, and contemporary art. They are able to deliver tailored visual literacy workshops and study skill sessions that help hone the craft of locating and understanding images from across the arts. (Glassman, P. & Dyki, J. 2017).
While we are all guiltily and gluttonously using Google Images for their fast food style search service, Librarians can provide unique support that encourages users to go beyond Google, escaping the algorithm and questioning what it is they are not being shown. By assisting service users to access validated image collections and databases, like ARTstor for example, what they can guarantee is that a professional with subject knowledge has added descriptive metadata to the images and that this information is also embedded in the image file itself. Details of the copyright, date, creator and the title of the artwork are precisely defined and provide an accurate basis for service users who are referencing this visual information.

Our digital society is richly saturated with information and images. If Librarians can break stereotypes and truly inspire students and academic staff to act on natural inquisitiveness when researching, and demonstrate the boons of better study skills, then we are on the right tracks to becoming trustworthy, reliable and accurate advisors in the sandstorm that is big data.


References:

Baca, M. (2002). A picture is worth a thousand words: Metadata for art objects and their visual surrogates. ALCTS Papers on Library Technical Services and Collections. pp.131-138.

Blake, W. & Lincoln, A. (2006). Songs of innocence & of experience. Tate Publishing. London.

Glassman, P. & Dyki, J. (2017). The handbook of art and design librarianship. 2nd Edition. Facet Publishing. London.

Pomerantz, J. (2015). Metadata. The MIT Press. Cambridge. Massachesetts.


Image:

Bell, A. (2017). To hold the world. [collage]. UK.

Swept Away with the Tide – The Big Picture in an Ocean of Images

Two inspiring and highly topical classes by Lyn Robinson have left my mind feeling expanded, excited and terrified! After the second class, there was a huge temptation to run home, burn all my technology, grab my favourite Terry Pratchett novel and flee to a cabin in the woods. What I am starting to grasp is that data, documents, and images, are everywhere. In my last post, I pondered romantically over the notion that data is simply a ‘sea of information’. A rookie mistake, data is much more like a vast swirling galaxy, set in the black velvet of deep space, reaching to infinity and beyond. Data is omnipresent!

Time to weigh my options:
1) Carry out the ‘cabin in the woods’ plan and live my days in blissful ignorance of technology and the inescapable data.
2) Buy a Cat.
3) Let myself be swept away with the tide, explore, read, soak up what I am learning like a sponge, and try to find the bigger picture.

Let us go for option 3… it sounds like that could be an exciting odyssey.


Swept Away with the Tide – The Big Picture in an Ocean of Images.

Before the arrival of our dear friend the internet, viewing images required much more physicality than that of our digital generation. To see one of J. M. W. Turner’s beautifully elemental paintings, you would have to traverse to a gallery or visit a library to find a book on him. Master painters were singular content creators, and in the solace of their studio this was a solitary process. Cue scene… here comes the tidal wave… meet… the Internet!

The advancement of technology and open access to the world wide web has been a sweeping tide for the contemporary art practice. Art is now part of a collaborative and multidisciplinary digital world. No longer does art have a restricted creation within its own industry. Anyone with access to technology and the internet can create and share visual content. (Arbelo, M. 2014).
It is also now possible to follow practising artists on social media, feasting your eyes on real time art and infinite content. It does not end there too, endless newsprint, television, and smartphones bombard our eyes daily with images.

What does this all mean for the Library & Information Science profession?
Firstly, we must question the boundaries of contemporary art as a document. Visual literacy explores Paintings as a document and the ways in which they contain historical, social and political context. As the Fine Art practice has expanded into conceptual, installation and performance based work, we will have to develop new ways of documenting and making art accessible in the Library.
Secondly, information literacy, copyright, and censorship have become important ethics that Library and Information professionals must be aware of.
The IFLA Code of Ethics for Librarians and other Information Workers states that “Librarians and other information workers reject the denial and restriction of access to information and ideas most particularly through censorship whether by states, governments, or religious or civil society institutions.” (IFLA. 2017).
To provide freedom of information is what every Librarian should aspire to, however, in an academic library is this truly possible? The two mighty leviathans that are Safeguarding and Equality, Diversity & Inclusion are a legal requirement and moral responsibility within the education sector. Balancing freedom of information alongside safeguarding and EDI is not easy.

Recently in my own workplace, I encountered a group of Fashion & Textiles students who were having trouble accessing images from the Vogue Archive, within our virtual learning environment. It is not uncommon for images to hit the firewall and become censored. Unavoidably, fashion and art often explore sensitive content (also read as… nudity!). I am contractually obliged to safeguard students from sensitive material. Is the service then restricting learning if it is unable to provide uncensored access to images? The truth is I am not sure I know the answer yet. I hope further studies at CityLIS will bring clarity to my obligations as a Librarian and help me find the bigger picture in a complex ocean of images, data and ethics.


References:

Arbelo, M & Franco, J. (2014). “Towards Digital Art in Information Society”. CLCWeb Comparative Literature and Culture. Volume 16, Issue 5.

IFLA. (2017). Code of Ethics for Librarians and other Information Workers. Available at: https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11092#colleague. (Accessed: 09 October 2017).