Hack Your MLIS Program: Art Librarianship

This is part one of a two-part series on how I’m hacking my MLIS program to study art librarianship and visual resources. I’m focusing on general art librarianship today and will cover visual resources specifically next time. We have discussed what to do if your program doesn’t offer an art librarianship track before, as well as learning metadata on your own, but I thought it would be fun to share some of the specific things I’ve done to learn more about art librarianship in a program that doesn’t offer an art librarianship course or track.

Become involved in ARLIS

Hands down, this is the best way to stay connected to the field, especially if (like me) you are one of the few people in your program interested in art librarianship. Not only do you have access to a large network of art professionals, but you can also follow news, concerns, and trends on the listserv. I encourage you to be active on the listserv as well since name recognition can help you in your job search later on! Check out your local ARLIS group. I have really enjoyed being a member of ARLIS/SE and had a blast at the 2013 conference in New Orleans. I am excited to attend the 2014 ARLIS/NA conference this year and expect I will find even more advantages to my membership in ARLIS.

Focus coursework and projects on art library topics

The best way to ensure you are getting a similar education to a MLIS program that does offer an art librarianship track is to see which courses they require and which electives they offer. I also recommend looking at similar tracks, such as digital content/asset management or archives. I’ve studied art librarianship and archives tracks to come up with the following classes my program offers as suitable options: humanities information services, digital libraries, descriptive cataloging, advanced cataloging and metadata, database design, preservation, rare books and manuscripts, and archival theory and issues. I should mention that one of the benefits of my program is that you have the flexibility to take what you want; you are not required to pick a track.

The courses listed above should give me a general education of the topics art librarians must know, but I take it one step further by focusing my projects on art library topics. I’ve explained to my professors that art librarianship is where my true passion lies and they understand my desire to focus on these topics. Class projects have included working on East Asian painting for my collection development class (which I took during an informal internship with the art bibliographer at the university where I work), designing an information class on Manet/impression and creating a selector’s guide on modern art for my humanities reference class, and a preservation plan for the works on paper collection at a museum (based on the real works on paper collection at the Georgia Museum of Art – I worked with the Head Registrar to get the information I needed) in my preservation class.

Take an independent study

I am actually taking an independent study on art librarianship this summer. My advisor is overseeing the course but I am responsible for designing the course outline: reading assignments, projects, etc. My program allows independent studies, but only if they do not offer a similar course. I encourage you to find out if this is an option. I am going to study art librarianship course syllabi to get an idea of what students do in an introduction to art librarianship class. I do plan to specialize my class a bit since I’m hoping to get some inspiration and preliminary research done for my capstone project. I hope this will be the push I need to read through some of the art librarianship books I’ve acquired, such as Art Museum Libraries and Librarianship by Joan Benedetti, The Handbook of Art and Design Librarianship by Amanda Gluibizzi and Paul Glassman, and The Twenty-First Century Art Librarian by Terrie Wilson. I will follow up with ArLiSNAP in August once I’ve completed my course.

Study art

Don’t forget that art librarianship is all about, well, art! It can be easy to let our love of art slide by in favor of studying metadata or creating libguides for our classes. I encourage you to take studio art or art history courses if you are allowed. Unfortunately, I am enrolled in an online MLIS program and, though I work in an art department, I can’t add an additional class to my schedule. Other options include volunteering – or even just visiting! – at museums, going to gallery openings, or studying artist books and art history materials at home or in the library. Since I have a background in classical art and archaeology, my passion has always been ancient art, but I’ve tried to choose less familiar (to me) artists and period of art for my projects just to expand my knowledge. After all, when I am an art librarian, I must be able to assist patrons or scholars with their interests and specialties.

So this is what I’m doing to study art librarianship in my MLIS program. Are you also in a program without an art librarianship track? If so, what are you doing to hack your program?


3 Comments on “Hack Your MLIS Program: Art Librarianship”

  1. sadlerabigail says:

    Great post! It can definitely be hard to know what courses to take when your program does not offer a concentration in art librarianship. Besides being careful on how you select the courses you take and being active in ARLIS, I think one of the best things you can do for yourself is look for internships or volunteer positions in an art library. Also, I would look into taking some foreign language classes. I can tell you that in my own experience working in an art library having a background in French, Italian, or German would be very helpful!


  2. ellenjt says:

    Nice recommendations. We will definitely be interested in hearing how your independent study course goes! If possible, it would be great to share the syllabi you’re looking at to plan your course, I bet they would be useful for others in similar situations.


  3. Charisma says:

    Hi Courtney,

    As the program in which I’ll be enrolling doesn’t offer this particular track, your tips are super helpful. I may audit a course on architectural history, if my schedule allows, or at least have a gander at the reading lists.

    In any case, I look forward to reading your follow-up!