The Art of Librarianship: An Interview with SAM Librarian Traci Timmons

By , August 3, 2010 5:50 pm

by Karen Helde

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Traci Timmons, Librarian at the Seattle Art Museum. If you’re intrigued by this glimpse into a different kind of library, check out the SAM library page or Traci’s blog.

Q: Let’s start with some background. What path brought you to your current job?

When I entered college, I never imagined myself being a librarian. I always loved my school librarians, but never thought about that as my intended career. I began as an engineering student, then moved over to the School of Visual Arts when I realized I liked math, but didn’t want to do it as a career, and remembered how much I liked design and art history. I ended up going the interior design and art history route for undergrad.

I had worked at the campus museum developing a small library for them (still didn’t get it that I was destined to be a librarian) and ended up working in a mid-size museum in the education department when I graduated. I knew I needed an advanced degree in art history to go anywhere in the museum field, so I then went back and got my MA in Art History.For my MA, through a series of chance encounters and being at the right place at the right time, I ended up focusing on early book production in Europe as my specialty and wrote my thesis on a 16th century Venetian costume book. It took me two years to write my thesis and during that time I worked as a graduate assistant in the Department of Special Collections in the university’s library. I also spent two years during my coursework working in the Art Department’s Visual Resources Center (slide library). It was in those two experiences that I finally realized I wanted to be a librarian.

I decided then that I’d go on for an MLIS, rather than a PhD in Art History. I got into a program and during my course of study, did fieldwork, directed studies and assistantship work in the Art Department’s Visual Resources Center, the Department of Special Collections (University Library), and several special libraries.

When I graduated with my MLIS it was the height of the “Internet Boom,” and I took several jobs related more to web design and content management than physical libraries. The pay was amazing, but it was not satisfying. I started volunteering one night a week in the museum library system of which I am now head. I did this for two years.

Then, the person I replaced announced she was retiring after 34 years, and I just knew I had to go for it. I interviewed four times, waited six months and was ultimately offered the job. It was a substantial pay decrease. Substantial. But, it was completely worth it.

Q: Law librarians rely on groups like LLOPS, AALL and SLA for continuing education, advocacy, networking and good parties. What are the relevant organizations for museum librarians?

The Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA) is the society I interact with the most. They are “my people,” and I can’t shout their praises enough. I feel like they are my sounding board and my support system.

Q: Can you describe a typical day at your job?

Every day is different, so I’ll go with today: I checked email, I checked phone messages. I completed some cataloging I started yesterday. I got projects ready for my volunteers (I had 4 today). I conducted an interview with a potential intern. I went to two meetings. I responded to two phone-based reference requests. I finished a big “wish list” project. I helped several patrons and docents (tour guides) find books they needed for research. I took 20 minutes and went down to the third floor to see the new SAM NEXT: Cris Brodahl exhibition.

Q: What are some of the challenges in your field right now?

The two biggest are: 1. finances and 2. resources. Every art and museum library I know is struggling right now financially. Money is always an issue, but it’s a bigger issue now in this economic climate. My book budget was essentially cut for next year. I have to think creatively about how to get books without an operating budget for them. To deal with it, we’re having a huge book sale on August 21st (shameless plug!), and we created a wish list where we are directing potential donors. I’m a solo librarian. I am the only paid staff person at the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library at SAM. I oversee an associate librarian at the Seattle Asian Art Museum who is half-time. She, too, is a solo librarian. We need more staff! We need an archivist and a cataloger. I don’t see it happening any time in the near future.

Q: What do you find most rewarding?

I thoroughly love my job. I love helping people discover things about art and artists. I love finding difficult-to-find information. I love learning about art – which happens every single day.

Q: You write for SAM’s blog, SOAP. I’ve been enjoying your Book of the Month Club posts. Tell us about your involvement with the blog.

I think because I have a web-development background, I got asked to be on the initial committee that got the blog going. I feel like the library is still so under-the-radar or unknown for most people that I wanted to jump at the chance to raise awareness. It only takes a few minutes to do, and it gives us some good exposure.

Q: What might surprise other librarians about museum librarianship?

I love this question! We are heavily affected by the Antiques Roadshow! I can’t tell you how many people come to us with art-research requests that are ultimately about the sales value of a piece.

Q: If SAM were burning and you could rescue just one book from the library, what would it be?

I’d have to say two things: 1. For the institution, I would run and get Edward Weston (New York: E. Weyhe, 1932). It’s a beautiful book of his black-and-white photography, but more importantly, it was owned by Mark Tobey and has a hand-written note to him from Weston. 2. For myself, I would save the multi-volume Racinet, Auguste. Le costume historique: Cinq cents planches, trois cents en couleurs, or et argent, deux cents en camaieu… (Paris: Firmin-Didot et Cie, 1888). I used this set in my thesis research and think of it as a dear, dear friend.

Q: So . . . sock monkeys. Tell me more.

I think I resisted being domestic my entire life, and now I’m completely into sewing! I make sock monkeys on a weekly basis for friends, family and occasionally, auctions. I just love them and their long tradition and I love how they come together: I start with an idea and sock colors and then go with materials I have on hand (buttons, ribbons, patches, etc.) The random-ness always ends up creating a monkey with a distinct personality.

One Response to “The Art of Librarianship: An Interview with SAM Librarian Traci Timmons”

  1. Erin Hoffrance says:

    Great interview! Thanks, Karen!

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