Changing Careers But Not Gears – My Path to Librarianship

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.

Image by ElasticComputeFarm from Pixabay

By Ann Marie L. Davis, Ph.D., MLS
Assistant Professor and Japanese Studies Librarian, The Ohio State University

When I first started grad school, I thought I wanted to become a tenure track professor. I think many Ph.D. students, especially in the humanities, have similar expectations. Since then, I have discovered that my personality and skill sets are well-suited for a career as a university librarian. I was a tenure track professor of History when I finally made the decision to change paths.
My first thoughts about librarianship surfaced when I was already deep into my Ph.D. program at the University of California, Los Angeles. I had passed my qualifying exams, and I was conducting dissertation research on pleasure work in late nineteenth-century Japan. I spent countless hours in different libraries and archives in Japan and the United States. During those years I became passionate about special collections, and I gained a lifelong respect for the curators who manage them.
Also during those years, my dissertation chair, Dr. Sharon Traweek, was conducting a large-scale oral history project on the history of science research in Cold War Japan. She spent many hours generously sharing her insights about the challenges of digital data creation, management, preservation, and curation. Through her research project, I was honored to meet a number of her collaborators: prominent faculty from UCLA’s Department of Information Studies and library specialists from the California Digital Library. The group’s provocative inquiries opened my eyes further to the fascinating world of Information Science.
Nevertheless, I told myself that I had invested too many years in my doctoral degree to think about changing gears. This notion of “changing gears” was one of my first fallacies about librarianship. I thought (incorrectly) that a Ph.D. in Japanese History was unsuitable for a career in librarianship. By the same token, I assumed (incorrectly) that all librarians had to have an advanced degree in Information Science. Meanwhile, I had been socialized to think that the tenure track position was the most appropriate career goal for a Ph.D. grad. My main objective as “ABD” was to finish my dissertation and become a professor, regardless of other career interests.
My thinking about potential career paths was rather rigid, but gratefully, Dr. Traweek’s was not. She encouraged my interests in Japanese History as well as Information Science, and she brought my attention to a variety of positions, including a postdoctoral fellowship at the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). Ultimately, I applied successfully for a tenure track position with the History Department at Connecticut College (Conn). Although I had begun to consider applying for research library positions, I accepted Conn’s offer before actively pursuing other options. I was filled with gratitude, and I thought the opportunity at Conn could not be passed up.

The Tipping Point: Seeking Flexibility in Research and Teaching

As a history professor, I enjoyed teaching while working closely with college librarians. I learned more about their work through several teaching and learning collaborations. After a few years, I was appointed a Faculty Technology Fellow (2014-15), a program at Conn that provides critical institutional support to explore pedagogical applications of new digital technologies. I thus collaborated with Conn’s librarians on several Digital Humanities (DH) projects for my courses in East Asian Studies. These projects, in turn, led to our publication of two separate online digital exhibitions, two edited primary sources (with our students), and a co-authored article for a special issue on digital humanities in College and Undergraduate Libraries.
Moreover, through these collaborations, I was inspired by my colleagues’ initiatives to engage diverse communities of students and scholars through their outreach and programming. Eager to learn more, I took a couple of online courses in Library Science at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). Eventually, I was at a crossroads and had to decide whether I wanted to pursue an MLS and make a transition to librarianship.
The tipping point for me was a desire to work with broader populations of learners and pursue more diverse scholarly projects. Additionally, as a new mother, I was seeking a more compatible work-life balance, and I gambled that a position in a university library might afford me more flexibility. (In retrospect, I know now that the pressures and opportunities can be comparable in both jobs, but personally, I feel that my current position offers more disciplinary freedom and control over my schedule.)

Faculty Appointment at OSU Libraries

When the Japanese Studies Librarian position opened at The Ohio State University (OSU), I decided to go for it. After having worked as a traditional professor for several years, I knew I was looking for a better fit. I loved teaching and research, but I wanted to expand the types of scholarly communities and projects I engaged with. The position at OSU did not require an MLS degree, but it helped tremendously that I was about to complete the MLS at SCSU. Importantly, the hiring committee was more focused on finding a candidate who had a deep knowledge of the field and expert language skills.
The interview process for my current position was grueling. Following an hour-long Skype interview, I was invited on a campus visit that required an overnight stay and a day-and-a-half series of meetings. Specifically, these included a second hour-long interview with the hiring committee; a ninety-minute lecture (or “job talk”) to university librarians and staff; an hour-long meeting with constituent faculty; and more meetings with the Libraries Vice Provost, human resources team, and representatives from the tenure and promotions committee. In this latter meeting, the terms of the appointment were emphasized. I would be hired as an assistant professor and undergo a tenure review during my sixth year. Three key criteria would be evaluated: my scholarly publications, librarianship (including teaching), and service. 
Since my appointment at OSU, one main adjustment I have had to make is to figure out how “librarianship” and “teaching” are assessed in the context of a university library. In my position as a subject specialist in Japanese Studies, these categories can include offering research consultations, leading research fellowships and practicums, working as an embedded instructor, and more. As a research librarian, I am also evaluated on my collection development, management, and outreach.
I came to my position with substantial experience in many of these areas—except in collection development and outreach. Despite this gap, my training as a Japanese historian gave me invaluable knowledge. During graduate school and intensive language coursework in Japan, I had cultivated a strong network of scholarly connections and interdisciplinary knowledge. I have drawn on these experiences daily in making recommendations on access and discovery, and when making decisions about the university budget for Japanese-language materials. My deep subject knowledge gives me credibility and informs my work with students. Additionally, having written a dissertation (and subsequently published it as a book manuscript), I can appreciate first-hand the rhythms and pressures of the research lifecycle. I am keenly aware of the different types of support that faculty need over the course of an academic year and at different stages in their careers. 

Contributions to Area Studies and Beyond

One of the things I love about my current position is that I continue to teach and interact with students and other faculty in a variety of stimulating and fulfilling ways. I haven’t “lost” anything, if you will, in making the transition from traditional faculty to faculty librarian. (I have observed some Ph.D. grads assume that when choosing librarianship over traditional tenure track positions, they must “give up” their plans to teach and/or pursue academic research.) On the contrary, I have found that the opportunities in my current position feel more expansive. 

As a university librarian, I often collaborate with major stakeholders on campus and contribute to teaching and learning through programmatic and institutional channels. Additionally, I have had the honor to serve on thesis committees; mentor graduate students; and lead credit-bearing courses, academic workshops, and conferences. I have served as the lead instructor of K-12 outreach seminars, and I have participated in the collection of critical data that has informed successful multi-million dollar grant proposals in Area Studies.
Since joining OSU, I have been astonished by the tremendous power that university librarians wield in the academy. In selecting and curating new special collections, for example, librarians choose which voices will be documented and heard for generations to come. In my own experience, I have worked with a donor to acquire and process the Song Family Papers and the Thomas Gregory Song Papers. Together, these collections shine a rare light on the history of Japanese colonization, Korean diaspora, and transnational queer experiences in the twentieth century. Since their accession in 2017, the Papers have served as the basis for two new student research fellowships, and they have been a major source for original scholarship on mobility, imperialism, and intersectional political persecution.
On a much broader level, I have been hugely inspired by the work of my predecessor, Professor Emerita Maureen Donovan (Japanese Studies Librarian at OSU, 1978-2015). Recognizing its potential as a scholarly resource well before it was regularly imported or translated in the U.S., she began collecting manga in the early 1980s. In the decades since, Donovan’s visionary work has resulted in a world-class Japanese comics collection that has inspired new courses and majors at OSU. In addition, it has contributed to the development of new interdisciplinary fields such as Comics and Popular Cultural Studies. 
In light of such examples, my colleagues and I have engaged in animated discussions about whether the term “alt-ac” is appropriate for describing our work. Certainly, in pursuing librarianship, we have not followed the traditional path of other Ph.D. grads. However, our work as university librarians is integral to the pursuit of academic inquiry and scholarship. It not only supports and drives the scholarly pursuits of our users, but it fundamentally shapes and defines future modes of scholarly inquiry. Meanwhile, as we remain active producers of knowledge in our own right, we contribute to our original disciplines and beyond through our research, librarianship, and teaching.

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

“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