Digging Into My Non-Library Past

Like many academic libraries, library faculty at my college and university are required to have a second graduate degree in addition to the ML(I)S. I came to librarianship after a couple of other careers, and one of the things that attracted me to the field (and to academic librarianship specifically) was the opportunity to use some of the knowledge and skills I’d picked up in my prior work, especially in research, teaching, and instructional technology.

Those skills could be gained during graduate study in lots of different disciplines, though. My prior graduate work is in anthropology, and specifically archaeology. I spent 8 years in a graduate program to get my MA and PhD, and sometimes I find myself wondering, what does that have to do with librarianship?

Anthropology in the U.S. typically takes a four-field approach, in which cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology are all in the same department (this is not necessarily the case outside the U.S.). As an anthropology major in college and at the beginning of my graduate studies I was required to take courses in all four fields, and while I sometimes felt that a non-archaeology class was less relevant to my immediate interests, I appreciated being exposed to the full range of the discipline. Close and distant observation as well as listening to others’ experiences are important aspects of all four fields of anthropology, and the opportunity to explore ethnographic methods has been especially useful to me in both my daily practice as a librarian and in my research on how students do their academic work in the library and elsewhere.

What about archaeology? Digging up remnants of the past, cleaning and refitting what we find, using drawings and photographs to record the site — that couldn’t be more different than librarianship, right? But since I’ve become a librarian I’ve been thinking more on the similarities than the differences. To be somewhat reductive, archaeology is using what people have left behind to try to answer the question “what happened here?” It involves looking at objects – tools, garbage, etc. – as well as structures, roads, and other traces of work and life. A circle of soil that’s a different color and texture than the surrounding soil might be a post hole, where a log that held up the roof of a house once stood; broken and sawed bones could be the remains of a meal.

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I ask that question in the library, too: what happened here? What did students leave behind — books on the desk? the remains of a meal? (always a challenge for us) rearranged furniture? Two or three kickstools clustered in the stacks around an electrical outlet suggest students using them as seats while they charge their devices. Sometimes I take a picture of an unusual situation or innovative solution to a problem, like this photo taken during finals week last semester of a student who brought their own extension cord to reach an outlet and made a handy sign to warn other library users not to trip on the cord. (Access to outlets is definitely an issue in our library.)

I also ask what’s happening in the library as a whole. How do the different parts — our facilities, services, resources — work together for the benefit of our patrons? When the group study area is buzzing with conversation in the late afternoon, is there enough space on the quiet floor for those who need silence? Figuring out how students use the library often involves observing people in physical spaces in addition to the things they leave behind, but like archaeology we can use our observations to puzzle out both “what happened here?” and “how might things happen differently?”

I’m sure I’m not the only one to consider what my extra-library experience brings to my library practice. What does your additional academic experience, either undergraduate or graduate, bring to your academic library work?

One thought on “Digging Into My Non-Library Past

  1. Maura, I love this. I hadn’t thought about it before, but it seems like archaeology could have a huge amount to suggest about the physical spaces in which we work, and all the small objects we interact with every day!

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