Historians working in Libraries: a conversation with Dr. Jeffrey Wayno (Columbia University Libraries)

January 2, 2020

Jeffrey Wayno completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at Columbia in 2016. He is currently the Collection Services Librarian at The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University Libraries


Derek: To jump right into the question of what it looks like to work as a historian outside the professoriate: has your sense of what it means to be a historian shifted--and how?--since transitioning from your Ph.D. to a postdoc and current job?

Jeffrey: In many ways, my sense of what it means to be a historian has broadened since transitioning first to a postdoc and then to my job in the Columbia University Libraries. Even in the best of history departments, I think it’s probably inevitable that you slide down the rabbit hole of your own particular subfield. I imagine that trend continues in the professoriate. But working in the Libraries has forced me to take a broader perspective. Even while the teaching that I do as a librarian is still rooted in my training as a historian, the students and faculty I work with aren’t all medievalists, and they aren’t even all historians. The day-to-day rhythms of my job revolve around a wide array of resources and kinds of source material. As a medievalist, my view of history has always been inseparable from the idea of interdisciplinarity. That has become even more profoundly true since starting to work as a librarian.


Derek: When we as researchers access a library, we may only see an aspect of what librarians' work looks like. Could you say more about the different facets of your work at Columbia? I'm curious also about what you feel has been gained and lost in pursuing this career compared with a university teaching position in an academic department.

Jeffrey: My position is somewhat unique in the Columbia University Libraries, in that I am subject librarian who also serves as a curator of a major collection of rare materials. As the collections librarian for the Burke Library, which is part of Columbia’s library system, I am in charge of Burke’s general and special collections, which include a dizzying array of archival materials, Greek papyri, medieval manuscripts, a large collection of incunables and early print materials. We still buy rare materials, so I am constantly scouting interesting new acquisitions. As a subject librarian, I am also in charge of the Libraries’ general collections in ancient, medieval, and religious studies. It’s a big portfolio, and one that constantly keeps me on my toes. More than anything else, I think your typical library user probably doesn’t fully appreciate how complicated it is to keep a large academic library running efficiently. I certainly didn’t. It’s a detail-oriented job, but also one that allows for a lot of interesting intellectual creativity. You have to be able to pivot from the big picture to very specific issues rather quickly.

Ultimately, I don’t feel I’ve lost anything in pursuing this career. I still do research, and I still teach, so I feel very tied to the larger product of producing and disseminating knowledge. But now I have an added role as a preserver. And in this day and age, when knowledge is under attack on several fronts, I think that’s a very important role as well.


Derek: Traditional Ph.D. programs aren't designed to train historians to work in libraries, right? But in practice, do you think that rigorous training as a historian can equip one to do so? To ask the question another way, what is the skills gap between a historian and someone trained as a librarian?

Jeffrey: You’re right that traditional doctoral programs aren’t set up to train people for library work. But the basic skill sets are the same. The ability to do research and to teach are absolutely foundational to library work. And I think that more academic libraries would benefit from people who have advanced research training. Still, having said that, there are things that librarians do that traditional PhDs aren’t trained to do. We don’t typically know much about cataloging, or some of the very complex systems that libraries use to keep materials organized and accessible. So there is a learning curve. I’m certainly still learning a huge amount after a year in my current position. But it’s extraordinarily rewarding work that builds on what I trained for years to do. That past experience has been vital in helping me to be successful.


Derek: With the likely already overworked Ph.D. student in mind, what steps can one take to better prepare for a career in libraries? Or, from the library's perspective, what would an applicant with a Ph.D. need to demonstrate to be an appealing candidate?

 Jeffrey: Libraries are definitely looking for people who have advanced research and teaching skills, which doctoral students are already acquiring in their programs. But any doctoral students interested in library or curatorial work would probably do well to gain some experience working in a library as well. I didn’t whiel I was in graduate school, but my first jobs in high school and college were in Cornell’s library system, and that experience—although very different from what I do now—was helpful. Some libraries offer graduate internships to help masters and doctoral students gain experience in a wide array of library skills. It would be worth pursuing those opportunities in the summer, or whenever they can squeeze them in. I usually found that I was most productive when I was also busy, so I think that devoting time to a different kind of work could prove quite enriching and useful.


Derek: Can you imagine structural or curricular changes that a Ph.D. program could make--or perhaps you know of History departments that have already done so-- to support students interested in careers in libraries?

Jeffrey: The internship programs that I mentioned would be a good model for traditional doctoral programs. PhD programs need to find a way to weave such experiences into the fabric of the standard curriculum. Above all, “library work” shouldn’t be treated as something odd or extraneous, but rather something that could help doctoral students learn more about the institutions that surround them. It’s impossible for students to do research without libraries and archives. Gaining a greater appreciation for how those repositories work would be very helpful all around.