I never set out to work in archives or special collections; it’s something I fell into by accident. While I was at library school I didn't take any coursework specific to the fields, choosing to focus instead on my interests in digital libraries and open access. However, I learned the most through internships I completed in the Special Collections department of Swem library at the College of William & Mary where I worked with a variety of documents about Virginia in the age of the New Republic, and in the library and archive of The Mariners' Museum where I worked on an IMLS grant cataloging items about a Civil War naval battle known as the Battle of Hampton Roads. Through these experiences I learned that work in special libraries offers more opportunity for research than some other positions, and I was hooked. When a job opened up at The Mariners’ Museum library, the stars aligned and in June 2015 I became a project cataloger.
Despite the internships, I felt like I had some catching up to do. Special libraries seemed to cover a variety of topics and I only knew my tiny corner of the library world. I was instantly intrigued by the annual meeting of the Special Libraries Association. This would be my first opportunity to explore my new field in greater depth. I hoped to get a handle on all the different types of special libraries out there. What issues did they think were most important? I was also looking towards the future. If I want to present at a similar conference in the future, then I want to learn how their panels are structured. I was interested in the conference's format as much as its content.
Although I had anticipated a great breadth of specialization, I was still blown away by all the different kinds of work people are engaged in. And it was all so fascinating: historical preservation, citizen science, local historical societies, and more. I was especially heartened to see major efforts being put into digitization, digital libraries, and online publishing. One panel from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania was about a project that entailed a great deal of fieldwork. These archivists were traveling to small, volunteer run organizations—churches, schools, clubs, community organizations—that had notable historical collections but due to their size lacked access to professional archivists. Working quickly they performed triage on document organization and arrangement, put some basic preservation measures in place, and generated a finding aid. It was the information professional as activist, performing archival work in service of the community. I daydreamed about the possibility of somehow melding my love of libraries with my love of road trips. I felt inspired, and maybe a little hamstrung sitting at a computer all day long.
One of the most important experiences I had was outside the conference. The 2016 annual meeting of the SLA was held in Philadelphia, which is also home to the Independence Seaport Museum, another maritime culture museum and peer to my home institution. I barged into their museum library quite unannounced (and dressed like a tourist to boot) but the staff there was extremely gracious. I met their head librarian as well as a library student working as intern and after a tour of their facilities we enjoyed an extended conversation. Independence Seaport was a much smaller operation than The Mariners’ Museum. They have only one full time librarian and there are great demands placed on her time. No effort could be wasted! We commiserated around shared problems: the impossibility of cataloging everything in the library and educating museum professionals who want to treat archives like collections. It’s funny to think that working in a role as niche as Maritime Culture Museum Librarian that you could meet someone in the same field who wrestles with the same problems you do. I think they were as appreciative to see me as I was them.
Arriving back home I perused my notes, scribbled hastily throughout the sessions in a leftover composition notebook with my third-grader’s name on it. This chicken scratch would have to become a report for my colleagues so that I could share with them all I had learned at SLA. At first the task didn’t seem straightforward, the breadth of special libraries meant the topics were all over the place. But soon themes emerged, such as the librarian as mediator or connection-maker. Although our resources and clientele might differ, all professionals in special libraries are tackling the problem of helping people answer questions in a dynamic and complicated information environment. We cannot be content to sit behind the reference desk and wait for “them” to come to “us.” At the SLA I met folks who were taking a more active role in connecting people to the information they needed. The librarian of the future is anything but passive. More than anything, the Special Libraries Association embraced this proactive and future-forward ethic. Now if I could just collar my CEO and make him listen to all these good ideas!
Matt Thompson is a Project Cataloger at the Mariners' Museum Library in Newport News, Virginia.
Image: Matt Thompson experiencing some virtual reality at the SLA conference. Photo credit: Matt Thompson