Ask a Librarian: Re-thinking Professional Contributions in Area Studies

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This week at #AsiaNow, we are pleased to offer our readers a series of posts on library careers in area studies. The series begins today with an introductory post by the four authors who will share their experience and expertise with #AsiaNow readers throughout the week: Rebecca Corbett (University of Southern California), Ann Marie Davis (The Ohio State University), Regan Murphy Kao (Stanford University), and Ayako Yoshimura (University of Chicago).

These four 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.


Specialists in Area Studies often wonder what the future holds, especially as the U.S. stands divided over issues of international cooperation and higher ed. Anxieties about careers in the academy are often compounded for graduate students (and their advisors) as they face the perennial question of what to do with their advanced degrees. In this series, “Ask a Librarian: Re-thinking Professional Contributions in Area Studies,” four Ph.D. grads discuss their career paths and experiences as academic librarians at major universities. In discussing their work as scholars, educators, and collection managers, they shed light on their unique positions, which are often behind-the-scenes, varied, and thus rarely understood. In highlighting their contributions to Area Studies, their essays aim to spark conversations about career prospects post-Ph.D. that readers might not have considered.

Traditionally, humanities Ph.D. programs train students for a career as a tenure-track Assistant Professor. With the dwindling job market in recent years, there have been calls to reconsider the broad value of Ph.D. training, which feel increasingly urgent with the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education. Positions in museums, libraries, galleries, and archives, for example, are often presented as attractive alternatives for humanities Ph.D. holders who either do not wish to pursue the traditional path, or who are unable to do so due to the vagaries of the job market. While focusing on the value of skills gained in a Ph.D. for careers other than a tenure-track Assistant Professorship, this series suggests a re-thinking of the concept “alt-ac” and advocates for a broader definition of academic careers. 

Notably, we highlight academic librarianship as one example of a career path for humanities Ph.Ds with expertise in Asian Studies. However, we present our profession not as an “alternative academic” career, because we see our work as central to intellectual inquiry and scholarship and very much an extension of our academic training. Indeed, our graduate training enables us to help maintain the library’s position at the heart of scholarly pursuits. We hope that by describing our career paths and the ways in which we contribute to Area Studies we will inspire current graduate students and coordinators of graduate student programs to broaden their view of how graduates can have meaningful careers while using the skills gained in their doctoral programs. 

An ancillary theme in this series is the diversity of academic librarian positions and the degree requirements. For the specific role we hold within our libraries respectively, the Ph.D. was the degree that was most critical to our landing the job. Only one of us, Dr. Ann Marie Davis (Japanese Studies Librarian at The Ohio State University), in fact, has a Master of Library Science, which she earned after earning her Ph.D. in Japanese History. In her essay, Dr. Davis discusses why she transitioned to  librarianship after working for several years as a tenure-track professor in History. Dr. Rebecca Corbett (Japanese Studies Librarian at the University of Southern California) discusses how taking a break from academia after feeling disillusioned with the precarity of adjunct work led her to the ideal world of librarianship, which combined her interest and training in Japanese Studies with her love of libraries. Dr. Ayako Yoshimura (Japanese Studies Librarian at the University of Chicago), after describing her serendipitous introduction to the profession, relates how librarianship enables her to fulfill her commitment to community outreach as a public folklorist. Dr. Regan Murphy Kao (Head of Special Collections (East Asian Library) and Curator for the Japanese Collection, Stanford University) shows the degree of responsibility and knowledge necessary to excel as a research librarian while painting a picture of the various critical roles within the library organization. While recounting our individual experiences, each of us describes respective skills and qualifications, in addition to the Ph.D., that helped us become subject specialist librarians. 

We hope that readers may draw ideas or even inspiration from our experiences as they think about their own career development. For all of us, academic librarianship is a rewarding and fulfilling career which we feel utilizes and builds upon the skills we gained through the Ph.D. In particular, we value the cooperative nature of librarianship, which requires collaboration with numerous colleagues to achieve common goals; the “generalist” role of being a librarian whereby we work on projects and with people across the disciplines of Area Studies and beyond; and the opportunities for outreach and public engagement that characterize our profession.

More Posts in This Series

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

“A Circuitous Path to Finding the Right Career,” by Rebecca Corbett

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

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