Playing a Critical Role in Achieving a Bigger Goal

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 Regan Murphy Kao
Head of Special Collections (EAL) & Curator for the Japanese Collection, Stanford University Libraries

There is a great joy in knowing that you are working with others toward a meaningful goal. If higher education stands for the pursuit of learning, the library is a bastion of knowledge standing against the shifting tides of the time. It is for the curious. It is a storehouse of potential.

At core, an academic library preserves information deemed valuable for research and teaching, present and future. A conscientious curator of information must be aware of the different types of information that can be useful to scholars. Such a conscientious curator is actively building the historical record. I have written about my journey from PhD to librarian elsewhere, so I will not go into that here. Instead, I will aim to give a picture of my role within the larger enterprise that is academia.

There are many roles within a research library: curators, cataloguers, ordering and receiving specialists, IT professionals, and so on. When each person plays their role in coordination with the others, great things are achievable. Imagine an orchestra: each member contributes to produce harmonious music. Working together, the many people who make up the library preserve knowledge, make it accessible, support research, and build community. Looking around at my library colleagues, I see dedicated professionals who are committed to this greater goal. They are kind and supportive of each other and find meaning by being part of this great institution. I am humbled and inspired by their example. 

In my position, I have found that the potential to continue learning is nearly endless. Beyond researching and building diverse collections, I think about how best to introduce them to the world. Which digital tools will make the collection most accessible? How best to provide a framework for understanding while simultaneously encouraging users to pursue further study? How to engage with other parts of the university, academia and broader community to bring greater attention to collections and projects? 

We live at a point in history when more and more information is available, if ephemerally, but the great challenge is to curate, preserve, and frame it in a way that is transparent, clear, and tantalizing. Graduate school provided me the opportunity to not only learn the classical languages necessary for research in pre-modern Japan, but also to study the theories and methods of literature, religion, and history. This knowledge and the skills acquired along the way have enabled me to contribute in a meaningful way to the academic enterprise. 

Even as the digital medium has the potential to provide greater access, there is the danger of excluding important voices. The tendency is often to digitize highly prized and appealing pieces, which can lead to an incomplete record. Without the conscious decision to collect and digitize materials that fall between genres or reflect various voices, digital collections can become a distortion of history, a parade of the most stunning. Just as scholars must delve beyond these limitations to give a more balanced perspective on the past, a scholar-librarian seeks to ensure a wide-range of historical materials are preserved, digitized, and accessible. Two projects I built reflect this goal: the Travel through Time Japan digital archive and the Snapshot of Japan web archive. In both cases, I aimed to preserve and provide access to important perspectives that fall outside the mainstream historical record.

I have said that the Ph.D. training provided me with the necessary skills to excel in my role as a curator at the Stanford University Libraries, but I do not think that a graduate degree alone is a qualifier for my position. One needs to enjoy research, love learning, and delight in teaching. One needs to find satisfaction in being part of a larger organization and working with others. One must have acquired the critical thinking and analytical skills to make decisions about which projects to pursue, which collections to acquire. 

Research skills, experience in teaching and liaising with community members, the ability to astutely analyze and deliberate between options, and a confidence that one will be able to persuasively explain one’s decisions—these are skills that can be the product of graduate training and are highly valued in careers throughout society. Transitioning from a student position, many careers will value an applicant who shows confidence in writing grant applications, reports, budgets, etc. They will look for those who have the ability to envision, plan, and strategize how to achieve larger goals by breaking down a project into achievable parts and who have a comfort in prioritizing, delegating, and working both independently and with a team. Being detail oriented and having high standards are critical when each part of an organization works toward a common goal. 

A deep knowledge of a narrow subject area alone is unlikely to get you a job in the library. However, if you, like me, found that you acquired these broader skills along the way and if you enjoy playing a critical role toward achieving a bigger goal, then you may find that graduate school has provided you with just the training you needed to excel as a curator at a library, or in another role in society more generally. 

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

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

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