Thursday, November 13, 2014

So You Want to Work in a Foreign-Language Library?, by Chrissy Bellizzi

Confession time: I didn’t always want to work in a German-American library. Frankly, I didn’t know such a thing existed until I was a grad student looking for ways to get experience. That’s when I stumbled across my now-employer. But here I am, two years into being the part-time special collections librarian for a 250-year-old cultural institution, fielding research requests and pulling together exhibits from our vast archive.

What advice would I offer to someone considering work in foreign language special collections?
  • Know the language. This may seem obvious, but you’ll need at least a working knowledge of the language your materials are in. By no means would I consider myself a Deutchmeisterin (master of German), but after studying German through high school and college, I’ve got enough vocabulary and grammar to reckon with our 22,000+ books, pamphlets, and manuscripts. It’s also enough to correspond with the occasional German-speaking remote researcher.
  • Know your collections. This one is harder and takes time, but it’s worth exploring your collections beyond what catalogue records and inventory lists tell you. Like many an archive, we have a serious backlog of uncatalogued materials, and if I relied on our OPAC alone, I’d be overlooking all of the “hidden” books and ephemera of potential interest to my patrons. It’s very satisfying to be able surprise a researcher with an “invisible” item, especially if it turns out to be valuable to their work. Plus, taking the time to occasionally leaf through a scrapbook or remind myself what’s in that flat oversized box just makes the job more fun!
  • Learn when to be nice and when to say “nein.” Working for one of the oldest German-American organizations can be pretty cool, but with great power comes great responsibility. That is to say, EVERYONE wants to give us their German books, and that’s not much of an exaggeration. (Seriously, an unsolicited box of mass-market German translations showed up on our doorstep last week. The return address? California. We’re in Pennsylvania.) Sometimes this is a good thing, like when the donated items complete a partial set of books already in our collection. However, more often than not, the materials in question may be dear to the potential donor’s heart, but they have little scholarly or monetary value. After the first dozen or so instances, it gets a lot easier to thank someone for wanting to give us their father’s paperback Goethe collection while tactfully explaining why we can’t accept the books and suggesting some alternative recipients.
  • Those who can’t do, refer. Thanks to the wonders of internet searching, anyone doing any sort of research pertaining to German-Americans and the state of Pennsylvania finds me. This is mostly a great thing, especially on the rare but exciting occasion that I’m able to facilitate a major durchbruch (breakthrough) in someone’s research. (One of my proudest moments: helping a sweet older gentlemen finally locate the burial site of an ancestor as recorded in a Civil War-era local newspaper. Geil!) Yet at the end of the day, we’re a cultural society, not a genealogical library or government archive, and thus our resources for tracking down specific people are limited. As a result, I’ve built up a great referral list of other local organizations and individuals that may be better equipped to help patrons track down their long-lost great-grandfather. I never want to leave a researcher hanging, but at the same time I know my collections’ and my personal limits.
  • Network, network, network. This goes for any line of work, but I’ve found it especially vital in the small, eclectic world of special collections. Schmoozing is not something that comes naturally to me, and I was admittedly pretty awful at it for the first year or so of this gig. However, as you attend various meetings and functions, you start to get a sense of how to talk to your counterparts at other institutions and how to approach them for help. While large-scale collaborations are great, I’ve found some of the most beneficial boons of networking to be discovering who will help promote our events and will appreciate us promoting their events in return. A little mutually beneficial back-scratching goes a long way in this business!

It’s not the most glamorous job (pro-tip: don’t wear anything in the archive that isn’t red rot-proof), but it’s inarguably interesting and pretty unusual. If you happen to have both an MLIS and multilingual faculties and are looking for an unconventional workplace, give working in a non-English repository a try!

Chrissy Bellizzi splits her time between the reference department of a public library and the 1888 reading room of the German Society of Pennsylvania.  When she’s not rummaging through 19th-century manuscripts or deciphering Fraktur, she can often be found testing a new recipe, competitively watching Jeopardy!, or supporting Philly’s local music scene.  She tweets as @marimbamaiden18

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