The Conversationalist: From PhD to Librarian and Archivist
Greg Eow, February 2017
As I was beginning my final year of college in 1993, I had a conversation with my adviser that went along these lines:
Me: I intend to earn a PhD in history. Would you be willing to write a letter of recommendation for my applications?
Adviser: Have you thought about what you’ll do for your career after graduate school?
Me (confused): Of course! I will be a history professor.
Adviser (concerned): Have you thought about what you might do other than being a professor?
Me (more confused): No.
Adviser: Greg, you’re a talented student, and I will write a letter on your behalf. But we’re two decades into a job crisis in history. Even the most talented and ambitious students are unable to get tenure-track jobs, and for me to feel good about writing your recommendation, you have to convince me that you have considered career possibilities beyond being a professor.
The conversation forced me to grapple with the realities of the academic job market for history PhDs before I even applied to graduate school. I had not thought for a moment about what I would do other than be a professor, and I was skeptical that the situation was as grim as my adviser suggested. I began to explore academic prospects for historians, added terms such as “adjunct professor” to my vocabulary, and began to suspect that my adviser was correct. So, instead of entering a PhD program after graduation, I moved to Washington, DC, where I planned to work in government and policy before applying to law school.
For the next two years, I held a series of positions: as an unpaid intern on Capitol Hill and in fundraising, first at the Cato Institute and later at the Smithsonian Institution. I became familiar with the network of elected officials, bureaucrats, think tanks, lobbyists, and cultural heritage organizations that give Washington its particular rhythm and pace. More importantly, I learned how to navigate an unsparingly competitive job market. Having sent out dozens of cover letters that read like mini bildungsromans, I learned to craft finely tuned marketing efforts articulating how my skills could help achieve the mission of the organization. After being unsuccessful partly because of my conspicuous lack of professional connections, I mentioned to a new contact that I was a finalist for a position. “Oh, I have a friend there—let me give them a call,” she responded. I later discovered that this call helped break the tie between me and another candidate. I learned these tough lessons begrudgingly and not without a little pain. Any sense of entitlement I had after graduation was greatly diminished through hours walking the halls of the Dirksen Senate Office building, handing out résumés door by door, hoping to get a callback interview for an entry-level staff position.
For these two years, I assumed I would go to law school. But what I really wanted to do—which grieved me not to be doing—was to pursue a PhD in history. My formal studies in history had ended just when I was developing admiration for the historical profession and the aims of historical inquiry. Instead of making truth claims, historical inquiry is a conversation within a community committed to certain rules of engagement: good faith argument and honesty about the evidentiary record. I wanted to become part of this conversation, not to further my career, but because I was convinced that it would make me a clearer thinker, a more thoughtful person, and a better, humbler, and more humane citizen of the world. But I still could not answer my adviser’s question: how would I support myself after earning a history PhD?
The answer came when I worked at the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian Archives was located in the building in which I worked. Curious about the work of the archivists there, I used my networking skills to ask them about their careers. They were enthusiastic about their jobs, the research projects and exhibits they worked on, and the collections they built and stewarded. Their activities were clearly related to the historical community; indeed, they suggested that the combination of a master’s degree in library and information science with a history PhD would be a powerful asset for a career in libraries and archives. Heartened, I went to library school at the University of Pittsburgh, concentrating in archival management.
After graduating in 1998, I worked as an archivist at the DeKalb History Center in Decatur, Georgia, while preparing to apply to history PhD programs. Building on my exposure to libertarian economics and political theory at the Cato Institute, I decided to study the intellectual history of conservatism. In 2001, I entered Rice University, and from the start, my professors and colleagues supported my plans to work in academic libraries and archives. When Thomas Haskell called to tell me I had been admitted, I asked him if my aspirations would be a poor fit for Rice. To the contrary, he assured me, having a career plan before beginning graduate school was a luxury, and my background might pay off intellectually in the seminar room. Not all graduate students with ambitions like mine receive such support from their departments, so I am deeply grateful to Professor Haskell and my colleagues.
After finishing my PhD in 2007, I became the Kaplanoff Librarian for American History at the Yale University Library. During my interview, one of the Beinecke Library curators asked me a clarifying question: “Imagine your career in 10 years. There exists either a shelf of books you have written yourself or books written by others who thank you in the acknowledgments. Which do you choose?” Although I was happy with my dissertation, helping others with their own research and teaching gave me more professional satisfaction. The choice was easy.
Through generous mentorship, I got to know Yale’s historians and learned how to be a history librarian. I purchased collections (books, databases, archives, microfilm sets) to support historical dissertations and research projects. I also helped the Department of History teach undergraduate majors. After six years, I moved into a similar position at Harvard. These jobs became a conduit between the Yale and Harvard libraries and campus historians. My history PhD was directly relevant, and invaluable: I met with faculty and students, learned about their search for sources, and purchased collections to support their scholarship. When I found items relevant to various researchers’ projects, I would notify them. Building relationships with historians on campus came naturally. I enjoyed working with graduate students in particular, having so recently been one myself. I helped them find resources, encouraged them when their confidence flagged, and talked openly about my own career trajectory. (One of them is now well into a stellar career as a librarian!)
Last year, I made a significant career move—into a senior administrative position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries. At MIT, I lead several library departments, including our Scholarly Communications and Collections Department, our Institute Archives and Special Collections (including a terrific rare books program), and our Digital Preservation program. This is very different work than what I was doing at Yale and Harvard, and I no longer have the same direct, day-to-day relationship with the historians on campus I once did. But I am in a position to support humanists and stay engaged with the scholarly literature in history. The work is extraordinarily exciting.
Scholarly communication, publishing, and library collections are in flux—old models of publishing, dissemination, and preservation are in question, and new, sustainable models have yet to solidify. There is much ambiguity, and the stakes are high. What are the benefits of print collections in a digital age? Is the future of books entirely a digital one? Should it be? What is the appropriate relationship between commercial enterprises and publishing? Should archives allow commercial vendors to digitize their content and then place it behind paywalls?
As I contemplate these big questions as an administrator, I am heartened by how much I find myself looking to historians and historical scholarship for guidance. In a recent presentation to the MIT Libraries staff, I quoted from Elizabeth Eisenstein and Andrew Pettegree’s work in book history to point out that the digital revolution has antecedents in the first century of print. Kirsten Weld’s work exploring how social and political contexts affect what the archival record does—and does not—capture influences how we think about archives and historical knowledge. I am inspired by the advocacy on behalf of open access and democratizing access to scholarship by historians such as Robert Darnton, Dan Cohen, and Bryn Geffert. I am still deeply engaged with the historical profession and historical literature, not as a hobby or an avocation, but as a necessary part of doing my administrative work responsibly and well. It now occurs to me that since my conversation with my adviser years ago, I have been searching for, and finding, ways to participate in and support historical inquiry, an enterprise that I find both noble and ennobling and of which I am incredibly grateful to consider myself a part.
Greg Eow is associate director for collections at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries.
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