A Circuitous Path to Finding the Right Career

This week at #AsiaNow, we are pleased to offer our readers a series of posts on library careers in area studies. The four series authors will convene on Monday, March 22 at 3:00pm Eastern Time for a panel at the AAS 2021 Virtual Annual Conference, “Ask a Librarian!: A Discussion of Alternative Careers in Japanese Studies.” Please join them to participate in this important conversation, which will build on the essays published at #AsiaNow.

Photo of library bookshelves
Image by ElasticComputeFarm from Pixabay

By Rebecca Corbett, Ph.D.
Japanese Studies Librarian, University of Southern California

Japanese Studies librarianship was not a career path that I imagined I would follow when I was a student. While doing a Ph.D. in Japanese Studies, focusing on Edo and Meiji period history, at the University of Sydney (Australia) I didn’t even know such a position existed, as there are no subject specialist librarians at Australian universities equivalent to those at North American institutions. After completing the Ph.D., I worked as an adjunct instructor of Japanese and East Asian history at universities in Australia and the United States for two years. I was aware that it could take me years to find the coveted tenure-track position (or equivalent in Australia), and that doing so may mean I would have to move to somewhere I had never been nor had no particular desire to live. Teaching large undergraduate courses, often well outside my area of specialization (such as Australian history), and sometimes with up to four hundred students a semester across my classes, I began to feel dissatisfied and disillusioned. It did not seem to me that I was having much impact on the field I had trained in and I was anxious to find a stable career path rather than just waiting semester to semester to see what teaching I could pick up.
I then decided to explore the possibility of working in a library. Becoming a librarian was something I had thought of occasionally over the years and was attracted to as a career. I decided against doing an MLIS because at that point I could not face going back to school for more study—I wanted a job. While I did not have a strong CV for a library job and was often told I was either over- or under-qualified for jobs I applied for (the curse of being a Ph.D. holder with little “real world” experience), I fortunately gained a short-term position at a small military history library helping transfer the card catalog records into an electronic catalog. After six months, I was able to get an entry-level position at the National Library of Australia—they were one of the few research libraries in Australia that would hire people without library degrees but with general humanities education. My role was in reference for the Oral History & Folklore Branch. It was a steep learning curve, but I flourished in that environment. I could see that I was helping researchers, who were very grateful and appreciative to access primary sources. I also felt I was part of a team that had a shared mission and values of creating, preserving, and providing access to the cultural heritage of the nation, and it felt important. Later, I transferred to a reference department at the National Archives of Australia, which involved learning about archival principles of arrangement and control, and how access restrictions differed from those in a library. After a few years, I knew that this was the type of work I wanted to be doing—but I missed the connection to Japanese Studies. I sometimes questioned whether I had “wasted” all those years of study, and people started to let me know that the job market for history positions in North America had picked up again since the lows of 2009/2010 when I was first on the market. I decided to apply for postdoctoral fellowships (I was at the end range of eligibility in terms of years since graduation), rather than jobs, as I thought I needed to get my foot back in the door and take time to figure out what I wanted to do.
In 2013, I was fortunate to be awarded a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Japanese Studies at Stanford University. There I met Dr. Regan Murphy Kao, Japanese Studies Librarian, and realized that a career path did exist that would allow me to combine my skills in Japanese Studies and remain in the academy, with my interest in librarianship. Over the two and a half years of my postdoc, Dr. Murphy Kao mentored and guided me toward a career in academic Japanese Studies librarianship. While I once again found myself in the uncertain position that comes with being on the academic job market—and the issue of having to see where the few jobs that were advertised for which I was qualified were located, rather than having control over where I would get a job and live—I felt less anxious. For one thing, I knew that even if I did not get a job as a Japanese Studies librarian in North America, I still had other options. I had real world work experience. I also felt well-prepared, thanks to Regan’s advice, and I felt fairly confident that this was a career path which made sense for me and would allow me to explore, develop, and use my skills and knowledge in a way that would be fulfilling. In 2015, I was offered a position as Japanese Studies Librarian at the University of Southern California (USC), a role which I took up in 2016 after completing my postdoc.
Central to the work I do as a librarian is a mission to help others to access the academic body of knowledge in Japanese Studies, and facilitate their scholarly work. I organize and deliver outreach events and programs such as talks, performances, and workshops, on and off campus. Through these I am contributing both to the field of Japanese Studies in academia but also (depending on the event) enhancing understanding of Japanese culture in the wider community. When working with graduate students, my understanding, and even empathy, for their experiences is helpful, as is my direct knowledge of the academic research lifecycle, and experience undertaking graduate research in Japan. At the same time I contribute to Japanese Studies as a librarian, I also have the space and support (i.e.: funding) to pursue my research as a historian of Japan. For example, I published a monograph, Cultivating Femininity: Women and Tea Culture in Edo and Meiji Japan (University of Hawaii Press, 2018); have received research funding to go to Japan regularly; and have most recently written an article “Arts of the Tea Ceremony” for the Oxford Bibliographies Art History. The two roles of librarian and historian are not mutually exclusive. Of course, it is difficult to carve out time for research and writing, but this is true of departmental-based teaching positions too.
I can shape research and teaching in Japanese Studies at USC through collection development, and my Ph.D. training informs this work. For example, my training in Edo period history and culture informed my selection decisions when I decided to start acquiring Japanese rare books (primarily from the Edo period) for USC Libraries and to develop programming around it (workshops; guest speakers; sample syllabi; a digital publication). This training also helps me build our premodern Japan collection in support of the USC Project for Premodern Japan Studies. Without an understanding of and grounding in the premodern history of Japan it would be more difficult for me to develop a collection that supports the needs of graduate students studying tenth and eleventh century history.
As a librarian my role is very interdisciplinary, in that the collection I manage is united by language (Japanese) but includes material from a wide range of disciplines and fields. I work with faculty and graduate students to support their research, teaching, and learning, across a range of departments and disciplines including History, Religious Studies, Literature, Language instruction, and Political Science. Being a librarian helps me contribute to the field of Japanese Studies in a broader way than my disciplinary specialization in history. For example, I have worked on projects with Japanese-language materials on gender and sexuality at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at USC Libraries, and with materials in our Special Collections Library such as the Cassady Lewis Carroll Collection, which includes the largest public collection of Japanese materials related to Alice in Wonderland anywhere in the world, as well as early twentieth century Japanese posters on tourism and travel. These projects are bringing hidden collections to light through student and faculty research, exhibitions, conferences, and digital publications. I myself am not an expert in any of these fields and am not contributing to the projects as a scholar, per se. Rather, by having stewardship of the collections, collaborating with colleagues, and facilitating projects, I am creating the conditions for the production of new knowledge by others.
My Ph.D. studies prepared me well for the work I do now, even though this was not the career I had in mind while a student. I hope that current graduate students and recent Ph.Ds on the job market have the opportunity to think creatively about possible career paths, including those within academia but which fall outside of the traditional tenure-track position in a teaching department. Librarianship is just one example of many such careers within our universities, and for me it is proving to be a fulfilling one. It allows me to make an impact on the field through the collections I build, the programs and events I create, as well as by facilitating the research of others, and by publishing research as a historian and a librarian.

More Posts in This Series

“Ask a Librarian: Re-thinking Professional Contributions in Area Studies — Introduction,” by Rebecca Corbett, Ann Marie Davis, Regan Murphy Kao, and Ayako Yoshimura

“Changing Careers But Not Gears — My Path to Librarianship,” by Ann Marie Davis

“An International Student’s Long Road to Librarianship,” by Ayako Yoshimura

“Playing a Critical Role in Achieving a Bigger Goal,” by Regan Murphy Kao