Job title: Florence and Herbert Irving Librarian for Collections, The Thomas J. Watson Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art
What that means:
Watson Library is the central research library for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We provide services and resources to Met curators and other staff, as well as the public. With more than 1 million books covering art and visual culture from all periods and parts of the world, in more than 100 different languages, the Met library collections are even more encyclopedic in scope than the museum collection itself. I lead and manage Watson’s collection development team, which reviews and selects titles for acquisition through gifts and purchases. My day-to-day responsibilities include reviewing offers of books from a variety of booksellers, publishers, artists and donors; developing programs and outreach to promote Watson’s resources to a wider range of audiences; organizing and assisting with exhibitions; collaborating with curators, conservators, catalogers, educators and other Met staff across the museum; and sharing works from the collection with visiting groups and individuals.
Yes, you can visit:
We often hear people say things like, “I’ve been coming to this museum for 40 years and I never knew there was a library!” We’re not so hidden—we’re right off of the Great Hall. But there was a period up until 15 or so years ago, when Watson wasn’t particularly welcoming and encouraging of outside visitors, especially if they weren’t affiliated with an institution. That’s one of the biggest legacies that we’re trying to overcome: we want everyone to know that yes, there is a library in the Met, and it’s open to researchers who are college-age and older five days a week. You just need to register in person or online. If you’re outside the tri-state area, you can still enjoy Watson via our Instagram channel, digital collections, and online resources, which are also available through Watson’s home page.
Expanding representation, access, and inspiration:
I’m particularly proud of recent initiatives within Watson in the areas of collection assessment, expansion, and outreach, specifically related to artists from historically underrepresented cultural heritage groups. In 2020, we launched a project to assess publications in Watson by and about African American artists, searching artist-by-artist and title-by-title to identify publications that we were missing, then locating them for acquisition. The following year, we received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to expand that focus to include Asian American, Pacific Islander, Latinx/Hispanic American, Indigenous American and Native American artists. To date, we’ve analyzed representation in our collection for more than 5,000 individual artists from these groups and identified and acquired over 3,000 titles. Watson staff have also developed public-facing resource guides and artist indexes to improve visibility and discovery of these artists in the Library’s collections. The indexes cast light not only on these new acquisitions, but also on thousands of publications already existing in the collection. I love helping to expand the collection, but I love sharing the collection and seeing it in use even more. We’ve been developing closer connections with artists in the community, both established and emerging, and are welcoming an increasing number of visitors to Watson who are seeking inspiration and resources to inform their own art.
How family ties and a museum exhibition ignited a lifelong passion:
I started studying Russian in high school, after having studied French for many years. My family comes from different areas within the Pale of Settlement—what is now Belarus, and Austria or Poland—and I always enjoyed listening to the Russian language, even though it had been multiple generations since any of my relatives spoke it. My family had also been involved in Russian resettlement in our community in the 1980s, when waves of Soviet Jews fled to the US to escape anti-Semitism and persecution. I continued studying Russian in college and became increasingly interested in Russian art and culture. Freshman year, I saw an exhibition at the Guggenheim titled “The Great Utopia,” which celebrated art of the Russian avant-garde—a dynamic period from the 1910s to the 1920s, when you had these really brilliant artists, architects, poets, and others coming together to create completely new forms of art. After the Revolution, they were quite literally tasked with transforming their world and replacing all traces of Imperial Russia, and the more I learned about them, the more I wanted to learn.
Following a love of books all the way to the Met:
Since middle school, I’ve always loved gathering information and resources for research. I have really clear memories of thumbing through the card catalogs in my local and county libraries, and even some specialized indexes. I completed my undergraduate degree at Brown University, graduating with a double major in Russian Studies and Anthropology. I spent a semester abroad in St. Petersburg during my junior year, and knew that when I graduated, I wanted to do something Russian-related. I had pretty much accepted that that would likely mean working for a consulting firm in Moscow, even though I had minimal interest in that sphere of work.
After graduation, I went to see a Russian avant-garde photography exhibition at a gallery on the Upper East Side. I started asking the gallery director questions about the work, and she said, “Wait, you know this stuff?” I told her I had just written about the artists in my honors thesis, and I wound up getting offered a part-time job doing translation and cataloging for them. It had never occurred to me that a gallery specializing in Russian avant-garde books and photographs might even exist, or that I would ever actually be able to work with material that I was really passionate about. I stayed in the city and began to carve out a niche career doing cataloging and research for dealers and collectors who were buying and selling Russian avant-garde books, posters, and photographs, but didn’t speak or read Russian. That eventually led to an opportunity with the Judith Rothschild Foundation, where I got to serve as the curator of a major collection of Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde books that was donated to MOMA and featured in an exhibition there in 2002. I completed my Master’s degree in Russian Studies at NYU while I was working with the foundation, and then got an MLIS degree in library science at Rutgers University. I spent six years as Special Collections Curator and Librarian at the Newark Public Library in Newark, New Jersey, which I will forever love dearly, before joining the Met as a Slavic Language and Special Collections Librarian. That was nearly eleven years ago, and I’ve been in my current Met role a little over a year.
Fondest NYU memory:
I was a graduate student living in Brooklyn at the time, and I remember really relishing my little locker in Bobst library—I paid 25 bucks a semester and had 24-hour access to it. One of the reasons that I chose the NYU program was that it was so interdisciplinary—I was able to take classes in history, politics, literature, and art. But alongside the courses and the professors, the NYU libraries and librarians played an equally strong role in my academic success and professional development. The resources, staff, and collections at Bobst and the IFA library, combined with the other spectacular libraries across NYC, especially NYPL and the Met, provided everything I ever needed. When I graduated, it took three suitcase loads to return all the books that I had borrowed during my time as a student. So, thank you, NYU libraries, and Diana Greene, the Slavic Studies Librarian at that time!
Advice for those pursuing similar career paths:
Once you discover your passion—the thing you really love and hope to do—find whatever opportunity you can to get hands-on experience doing it, ideally through an internship or an entry-level position. That will confirm for you early on if a field or type of work is what you had hoped and envisioned it would be. It also helps by conveying to a future employer in that field that you know what the job entails, rather than having some idealized, romanticized vision about it. Often people will say “I want to be a librarian because I love to read,” thinking that librarians just sit around reading books all day, not realizing that it might demand a fair amount of tedious tasks like entering info into databases, placing orders, reshelving—all of that kind of work. If NYU students are interested in librarianship, I encourage them to seek out work study opportunities in NYU’s Special Collections, or maybe even with a subject specialist elsewhere within the libraries. If you’re interested in art and museums, try to get work at the Grey Art Gallery or a paid museum internship. That way you can get a head start and start gaining experience in the field before you graduate. Understand that as much as you learn from your courses and academic studies, equally valuable is applying that knowledge, working hands-on with material that interests you, and doing the actual work.