British Association for American Studies


My Career Story: Matthew Shaw, Librarian

U.S. Studies Online is excited to introduce our new segment “Career Stories”.  Our “Career Stories” feature is an attempt to incorporate more professional development posts on U.S. Studies Online and address some of the wider anxieties in the postgraduate and early career cohorts regarding employment, employability and the options available. We hope to include interviews with professionals in a variety of research or American studies related positions.

With us this week is Matthew Shaw, Librarian at the Institute of Historical Research.

Current role

How would you describe your current role at a job interview?

Looking after a unique library that supports historical research not just in London, but nationally and across the world. It’s both a time capsule of how historical thinking has developed, and at the forefront of digital developments.

What professional organizations are you associated with and in what ways?

British Association for American Studies has been vital for keeping up with the huge range of approaches in the field of American Studies. I’ve been fortunate to serve on the Library and Resources subcommittee and, currently, the Development and Education committee.  It’s a chance to see how librarians can make links with academics. In contrast the Bibliographical Society offers a reminder of the rich world of scholarship surrounding the history of the book.

What do you see are upcoming trends in the industry? What developments have you seen in your industry during your career?

Although we’ve been getting excited, challenged, and sometimes annoyed, by digital, the importance of libraries as physical spaces (and the physicality of the collections) has only been heightened by the virtual. People want good spaces to work, to think, and to connect; and libraries offer these valuable spots.

At the same time, librarians have had to adapt to the new digital work of XML, open access, Creative Commons, as well as embracing public engagement and exhibitions. We are no longer as specialised as perhaps the profession once excelled in: the rise of the generalist has been the theme of much of my career.

Is there anything you didn’t do during or after your education that would have helped you better prepare for a job in your industry? What’s the one skill I should learn to make myself more marketable in your industry?

The first few months or years after graduation are hard, and it is easy to get dispirited and remove yourself from the academic or sectoral networks that you were involved in. I could have spent my first 18-months in London making better use of the chance to attend events, meet people, network and volunteer.

If you can point to project management skills (even formal training qualifications), then given the world of short-term contracts and research body projects, you will be in demand.

What are you most looking forward to over the next 12 months?

I’ve just arrived from 14 years at the British Library (working with manuscripts and Americas collections), so I’m looking forward to working with a smaller organisation and seeing what we can do. The first thing will be History Day 2016 (15 Nov), which pulls together libraries and archives across London to introduce postgraduate to the resources on offer. I’m also looking forward to getting a sense of the themes confronting the IHR library coming up to our anniversary in 2021.

What do you think is the most common misconception about your job role/industry?

Librarians and archivists are obsessed with library stereotypes, so I’m not going to revisit that. The biggest secret about the profession is the sheer range of things that you can do.

Across your working life

What has been your most rewarding accomplishment so far?

Curating a major exhibition at the British Library (Taking Liberties), which was opened by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

Is this where you thought you would end up? Would you do anything differently if given the opportunity?

I always said I wouldn’t, but kind of knew I would. I grew up in libraries.

Can you name the most exciting place your career has taken you? Who has been the most inspiring person you have met in your career?

Courier trips take you to some odd, and sometimes exciting places (being escorted through LAX with a manuscript in a secure case for example), but I’ve enjoyed speaking at the WWI Memorial and Museum at Kansas City.

You get to meet a lot of people with a kite to fly, and whose enthusiasm and persistence is inspiring.  Polly Harvey probably takes the ticket though.

What were the formative moments that have contributed to where you are today?

Time spent in Libraries (the JB Morrell at York, Taunton Local History Library, the New York Public Library) gave me a sense that these are places you could make a career. A series of interviews for short term lecturer posts, and a pile of marking for an  BA course I taught made me wonder if there is more to life than academics sometimes assume.

Life after the PhD

How have the skills you gained during your PhD impacted your career path?

Library skills have been vital, but so has the training relating to public speaking and problem solving at seminars and organising things as part of the York GCR. The chance to spend 3 years trying things out – from theory to free-form databases – gives you something to build on later.

What contributed to your decision to stay, leave or take a hiatus from academia?

I suspect something about my personality; I’m more of a hedgehog than a fox, and probably an antiquary more than a systems-maker.

And finally…

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Polly Harvey, Martin Carr, Charles Gilbert Romme (a French Revolutionary), Polly Hewson (Ben Franklin’s landlady’s daught), and James Gordon Bennet.

About the Author

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