Thursday, May 24, 2012

So, You Want to be a Museum Librarian?, by Kristin LaLonde

Congratulations! Being a Museum Librarian is a noble pursuit and you are brilliant for considering it. Working as a librarian within a museum setting is pretty great for several reasons but there isn’t much information out there on this sort of librarianship. So here are some things you should know.

What do you DO?

Well, it depends! In my job as the librarian at the Arab American National Museum, my role has several different facets. The Library & Resource Center is, strictly speaking, a research library devoted to collecting books and media by and about Arab Americans, their experiences, culture, and history. Unlike many museum libraries, my library is available to the public without the need of an appointment or admission to the museum so my patrons also vary wildly, from Grad Students working on their dissertations to people walking in from the street with questions about something they saw on TV. I help my co-workers research upcoming exhibits; I catalog (a lot); I seek out media in weird places; and I am in MANY meetings and much, much more. But typically, the role of the Museum Librarian is largely archival in nature since they are developing collections of somewhat unique items for perpetuity and making them accessible (with restraints) to interested parties. So that’s important: if you’re interested in being a librarian in a museum, you should have some archival experience since you will probably be either in an archiving department or do some archiving yourself.

Work Environment

Depending on the size of your museum, odds will be good that you are going to be a Solo-Librarian or work with a very small staff. This means that you will need to be prepared to do EVERYTHING, and I do mean everything: collection development, reference, circulation, cataloging, programming, strategic planning, budgeting, and yes, you’ll have to shelve books, too. Your co-workers will likely not be other librarians; they will be archivists and museum professionals, which means different terminologies and needs, since your co-workers will likely be your main patron base. The library will be but one department in a larger eco-system so you have to be prepared to promote yourself and your library within your organization at every opportunity. This can sometimes be difficult but your days will be varied and pretty interesting.

What’s Your Specialty?

As you would imagine, museums are usually focused on one particular area, theme or group. The American Association of Museums reports that there are about 17,500 museums across the United States, many of them with a unique or regional focus. What does this mean for the budding Museum Librarian? That means you should have some expertise in an area because your Museum overlords will be looking for someone who will help with research on their museum’s theme. The most generalized specializations for Museum Librarians will be Art History and Public History, but your specializations can vary wildly. Though the opportunities will be fewer, if you can get the job as a museum librarian in your niche subject area, life can be pretty sweet.

Speaking of Special...

Museum Libraries are considered to be Special Libraries, which often have their own sets of rules outside of the world of Public or Academic Libraries. I find that a lot of the advice, trends, and hoopla that come from the usual library sources don’t apply to my library or patron base. Sometimes it peeves me off when I read someone going on about what Libraries are all about and they completely disregard the role of Special Libraries, but usually there are some kernels of wisdom I can adapt to my own library’s circumstances. This means that you’ll have to look elsewhere for networking and trends that apply to you; which can sometimes be hard to come by. Be prepared to adapt, hack, and modify everything.

Networking as a Museum Librarian

I will tell you, straight up, it is difficult to network as a Museum Librarian or any Special Librarian for that matter. Most librarians you will meet, online or in-person, are public or academic, so you sometimes have to seek out your peers. Museum Librarians are few and far between in most geographic areas so if you want some in-person networking action you’ll have to do some work. In my area of Metro Detroit, I created the group “Museum Libraries of Detroit” and reached out to the librarians at The Henry Ford, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the Holocaust Center Memorial to do some collaborative programming. Though the true benefit of this group was to meet and discuss some of the unique things about being a Museum Librarian, the programming was just an added bonus.

If you’re looking for networking on a more national scale, there are a few options. If you are looking into being an art museum librarian there is the Art Libraries Society of North America. The Association of College and Research Libraries division of ALA is also a helpful one. I would personally recommend joining the Special Library Association and joining the Museum, Arts and Humanities Division and not just because I’m the chair-elect, though that could be an additional incentive for you.

Get out of the Library

As a Museum Librarian, who is specialized on a specific theme or area, you CANNOT limit your networking to just other librarians. What organizations do your researchers and patrons belong to? Join them. What blogs do they read? Read them. Do you think I could get anything done in my library by just talking to other librarians? Heck no. For my position, I am constantly doing outreach to other Arab American organizations, as well as authors, musicians and scholars to keep up on what is happening and what people are researching. In addition, you should be getting involved in national and state museum organizations and seeing how your library fits in to their visions and goals. This is all in the name of ensuring that you are relevant and that whatever you are working on is on track with your larger organization’s future.

What’s The Takeaway?

Being a Museum Librarian is sometimes difficult and to be successful you will have to take a lot of initiative to make your own way and build up your library. Keeping all of this in mind, being a Museum Librarian is a LOT of fun. I do at least 5 interesting or cool things every single day at work. I have hung out with George Takei, written a speech for Diane Rehm, talked shop with Geoff Johns at DC Comics, laughed with countless amazing authors and poets, met a woman in a shady parking lot to get a paper bag full of donated books and lived to tell the tale. And everything I do, I know I am serving a larger mission of public knowledge and understanding about a subject, in my case the humanity and contribution of Arab Americans. At the end of the day, that makes any difficulties and complications totally worth it.

So if you’ve got the guts, join the ranks of Museum Librarianship!

Kristin LaLonde manages the Library & Resource Center at the Arab American National Museum in Michigan, the only museum of its kind in the world. She is the 2012-2013 Chair-Elect for the Museums, Arts & Humanities Division of the Special Libraries Association, founder of the group Museum Libraries of Detroit and manager of the Arab American Book Award, a national literary award program. She occasionally blogs at Action Librarian and she is @shinyinfo on Twitter, where she mostly talks about Benedict Cumberbatch and the television show Ancient Aliens.


  1. Thanks! And if there are any museum librarians out there who want to add anything, leave a comment!

  2. This is great! It's definitely something I'm interested in (I just finished my first year of LIS school), so I'm happy to find out more about it and to get so many great resources and links.

    1. I'm glad it was helpful! If you have any questions or need any help with anything, let me know!

  3. The Trust has played, and continues to play, a very significant part in the establishment and development of some 136 such museums in the United Kingdom today. They are as varied and individual as the regiments they represent. A visit to any of them will produce evidence of the Trust's activities: objects purchased with the assistance of a grant-in-aid; endowments to support their establishment or development and improvements to the preservation, conservation, display and recording of objects and archive material achieved through professional advice funded by the Trust. Most museums are now charitable trusts themselves and the legal costs associated with establishing them were, in most cases, borne by the Trust. Visit our website for more information about British Army Records.

  4. Thanks for this! I'm a first year MLS student and I think working in a museum library would be really interesting, it's nice to read a little more about it.

  5. Thank you for this post! I'm finishing my undergraduate studies (in History and Anthropology) and will be going on to get my MLS right afterward. I really want to work in a museum's library and have for years but couldn't find much information about it. This really helps.

  6. Thank you! Loved the whole article, and audibly "wow"-ed at the mention of George Takei.

  7. Do you need a specific degree to become a Special LIbrarian, or is a Masters in Library Science sufficient?

    1. Kelsey, you don't *need* a specific degree to become a Special Librarian beyond the MLIS. However, your specific organization or institution may want you to have specialized knowledge. So if you want to work as a special librarian for a law firm, the firm may require an additional degree in law where being a special librarian at a corporation may not require an additional degree. I hope this helps!

  8. Hi there, I know this post is older but I found it to be very interesting. I am a public high school librarian and have begun pondering the idea of being a museum librarian. Would love some more tips and advice if you are still sharing!