The Librarians Who Moonlight as Artists: A Roundtable Discussion
Six Information Professionals on Balancing Art and Archives
Because even (starving) artists need to eat, I ignored my creative instincts for a very long time in order to devote myself to building a career as a professional librarian and archivist. But when I moved to the creative oasis of Mexico City three years ago on a Fulbright grant to study digital preservation in Mexican libraries and archives, my desire to make art woke up with a vengeance. My reasons for staying in Mexico after my grant period ended were largely professional, but I also stayed for creative ones. Since finding my place amongst a community of artists in my new hometown, I’m beginning to feel comfortable calling myself a photographer and writer now in addition to a librarian; I focus mostly on historical and analog film processes, and I’m writing a mystery novel set in Mexico City.
As I embarked on my own journey, I discovered I was far from alone within my profession: many of my colleagues in library and archives were moonlighting as phenomenal artists and writers. My curiosity was piqued. I’ve interviewed six information professionals-slash-creatives whom I admire greatly to figure out what the secret is to balancing an artist practice and a day job in the library—and using that day job as a source of creative inspiration.
To begin, how did you find your way to a career in libraries and archives?
Alexandra Dolan-Mescal, UX Designer for Digital Archives and Lecturer in Archival Theory, Queens College: I graduated from college in 2008, when the recession hit, and I spent the next five years struggling to keep steady employment. I applied to the cheapest graduate program with a career prospect. My mom had attended the same program and gotten a good new career out of it when she was in her forties, so she was supportive of me.
Melissa Gasparotto, Assistant Director of Research Services, New York Public Library Research Libraries: I was a volunteer at my local public library during high school, my college job was in the library, and I had several library jobs during summers. By the time I was 22, I already worked in four different types of libraries (public, museum, law firm, and college), and I had a good sense of what my options were. I didn’t necessarily intend to be a librarian at that point—I briefly worked in publishing when I moved to NYC—but the pull of tuition remission enticed me back to academic libraries in 2003. I’ve stayed because I feel intellectually engaged in everything I do, and I have the opportunity to express my values through my labor.
Lisa Cruces, Hispanic Collections Archivist, University of Houston: I became an archivist because of my parents’ tradition of storytelling and my desire to help people. Early on, I realized that having a strong sense of one’s identity and heritage could be empowering, and I wanted to be a part of facilitating that process for others, specifically Latinx people. I also learned at a young age that helping others was a form of joy and happiness for me. It was during an internship in historic sites preservation that I met an archivist and discovered archives as an opportunity to merge both my interests, and to make a career of them.
Katy Rawdon, Coordinator of Technical Services, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University: I went to Smith College, where for one of my classes I had to do some research in the college archives. I distinctly remember sitting in the reading room, looking through the diary of a Smith student from the 1880s, and thinking, “I could work in a place like this.” Twenty years later, and I’m still working in archives. I picked up the rare book aspect of my career later, on the job, since there was no one else to do it at the institution where I was working.
Stacie Williams, Team Lead, Digital Learning & Scholarship, Case Western Reserve University: I was a journalist for 10 years before the Great Recession, when I started thinking I should gain a new skill set. Librarianship, and specifically archives, felt so right I couldn’t believe I hadn’t done it in the first place. The skills were similar, and I was surrounded by great writing.
Geof Huth, Chief Records Officer/Chief Law Librarian, New York State Unified Court System: I am an archivist specifically because I was a genealogist first. I looked at the erratic state of the records [I was working with] and said to myself, “This is no way to care for such records. There must be a job to do this.” However, I remained torn between becoming an archivist or a lexicographer, both of which are professions focused on information. I collected data on both and discovered there were more job opportunities in archives, so I found the closest library school with an archives track, applied, got accepted, and moved to Albany, New York, with my family.
How did you start out with getting in touch with your creative side? Did your work as a librarian or archivist have anything to do with it, or did your art have something to do with you becoming a librarian/archivist?
Alexandra Dolan-Mescal: I was an art and art history undergrad, where most of my work was documentary/conceptual art. Designing for archives was a natural blend of the skills I had built up in graphic and web design after college and my user-focused library education.
Melissa Gasparotto: I’m from a family of artists. I majored in Studio Art as an undergrad at Beloit College, and I have always practiced as a visual artist. But being a librarian has had a big influence on my research phase before beginning a new project—I feel I have a better sense of how to seek out literature on related exhibitions, technical processes, and materials.
Lisa Cruces: Feminist Chicana theory, specifically the work of Gloria E. Anzaldúa is what sparked my interest in creating. I can’t help but be influenced by the people around me and the experiences of women of color in Houston. My work as an archivist definitely plays a role in that. Working in the community, with current and past trailblazers, inspires me to live in the present and not fear being open with my work.
Katy Rawdon: I began writing before I can even remember, but I stopped entirely during my thirties and into my forties. Eventually, I realized that I had let my dream of someday being a published writer slip into the background. But I was lucky enough to have two poems published last summer and another forthcoming later this year.
Stacie Williams: I’ve been writing things in one form or another since I was about eight years old. As an avid reader, I always had a fascination with literature and wanted to write, but I wasn’t encouraged to be a fiction writer. My parents wanted to me play it safe with a career/major in college, so even though they sent me to all kinds of writing camps and workshops as a child, they didn’t want me majoring in creative writing. I majored in journalism thinking it would be a good way to still be a writer, and I gravitated to magazines and feature writing so that I could play a bit with narrative and form.
Geof Huth: Creativity was not something I found within myself; it was something that always existed there. Only recently did I conclude that my interest in archives stemmed from a general interest in information, in data raw or cooked—and that my interest in literature, writing, and language was truly a part of that broader interest in information.
What projects are you currently working on?
Alexandra Dolan-Mescal: In the past year I have mostly worked in mixed media collage and encaustic wax painting. My recent wax paintings deal with the archive in a theoretical way, from a painting about fame and memory I made using the imprinted residue from pop culture magazines of the 1950s, to a piece sealing in old matchbooks that remind me of a bar I once visited in Chicago.
Melissa Gasparotto: I’m a mixed media artist borrowing whatever techniques suit the project at hand. I’m interested in portraiture of the unnoticed in nature; I have two ongoing photography and porcelain sculpture series on pollen, and I recently started an installation involving large relief prints of illustrated seaweed portraits.
Lisa Cruces: I keep coming back to work on a zine with contributions from my friends in Houston. It is a collection of personal essays and polaroids, with the city as a unifying theme.
Katy Rawdon: I currently have three different writing projects: I’m co-authoring a book chapter on a library and archives topic, writing poems, and I’m in the beginning stages of this romance novel. I am never sure where my inspiration comes from for fiction. I catch a stray idea of what might make a plot, almost like a daydream, and then I build characters that I think might fit the story. Once I know who the characters are, they tell me how things are going to go.
Stacie Williams: Lately I’ve been writing essays, mostly entertainment criticism on TV or books, but I’ve finally been able to turn my attention back to fiction. I’m inspired by good storytelling in any format. The voices of black women writers have always been front and foremost in my reading habits so I’m inspired by the music, film, novels, poetry, short stories and essays I’ve absorbed by women like Tayari Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Rihanna, Doreen St. Felix, Dee Rees, Claudia Rankine, Morgan Parker, and Brit Bennett. I’m also inspired by black women I just see out and about in the daily course of my life. At the grocery store, at work, on the subway, my friends, sisters, mother, and mother-in-law.
Geof Huth: Much of my work is extremely minimalistic (for instance, poems one word or one character in length). We call these visual poems. My major visual poetry project now is called Document Dust, and its creation coincides with and builds from the major archives project in my life. This series consists of a sequence of bottles into which I’ve arranged tiny scraps of brittle archival records and bits of cotton tape, string, wood, and metal that accompanied those records. All these small scraps of records were those I could not repatriate with their mother documents—the earlier found examples of which I had previously simply thrown away.
How do you balance your day job with your creative practice?
Alexandra Dolan-Mescal: Poorly. Since I work mostly remotely and on my own time, work often gets the better of my evenings and weekends. I end up building up pressure, stress, and exhaustion for weeks or months, then freaking out and devoting X amount of time to art until I feel balanced again.
Melissa Gasparotto: I’m a less happy human being when I’m not engaging my creative interests, so I consider a healthy artistic practice to be part and parcel of my productivity in the library profession. Ultimately, I know that not producing creative work isn’t an option for me, so it simply has to happen regardless of time, space, or financial constraints.
Lisa Cruces: Art has always been an outlet from the day-to-day of being an archivist. Art doesn’t have rules and order, the opposite of archives!
Katy Rawdon: Other than the fact that I never have enough time for anything, I’m not sure I consciously need to try to balance my day job with my creative work. Somehow they complement each other.
Stacie Williams: It’s incredibly hard [to balance] right now. The day is for my day job, period. That’s the job that pays for daycare and student loans, so I put in 100 percent while I’m there. I’ll try to write pitches, essays, or stories at night or on the weekends, but I have two very young kids under age four, and that’s also ideally the time that I’d want to spend with them. There is no balance; there is no having it all.
Geof Huth: I might say that I do my job during certain hours of certain days (which is not necessarily true, since I may work over a weekend or late at night), and I might say—as I often have in the past—that I am a nocturnal artist, because it is during the hours of the night, the time of darkness, that I make most of my work.
If you could be an artist full-time, would you quit your gig as a librarian or archivist?
Alexandra Dolan-Mescal: Yes, though I would probably continue to teach or volunteer in some small way at a local archive. Art and archives are both things I need to do.
Melissa Gasparotto: No. My creative practice is fairly solitary, and I’m a very social person. Having a steady paycheck also shelters me from market concerns around my art, which I appreciate. And of course I love what I do professionally, and I am deeply engaged in my work as a public servant.
Lisa Cruces: No. One feeds the other and creates a sense of balance for me.
Katy Rawdon: I would, but not yet. I would love to be able to have the time to really apply myself to writing the way I apply myself to coming to work each day.
Stacie Williams: I greatly enjoy what I do as a librarian. But writing will always be a part of me. It’s how I make sense of the world. If I could devote my entire day to sitting down and making sense of the world through writing, it would be a dream come true.
Geof Huth: If I had the means to write and to make art full-time, I would. That is my plan for retirement. Making is one of the main drivers of my being. I constantly want to make things, so I constantly do.