Molly Schoen is an Information Resources Specialist in the Visual Resources Collections at University of Michigan—Ann Arbor’s Department of the History of Art. She studied English and Creative Writing at Michigan State University and went on to earn her MLIS from Wayne State University.
While at MSU, she worked in the Government Documents Library, which led her to pursue library school. She did not start out with the intent to become a Visual Resources Librarian, but Wayne State was offering a pilot specialty program, focusing in Fine & Performing Arts libraries. “The great thing with this program was that there were internships built into the curriculum,” she said, including partnerships with the Wayne State Library, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Library, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and, her favorite, the Motown Museum. “I would intern at one place for 1-2 semesters, then switch.”
Although the Wayne State pilot program targeted work in Fine Arts, most of Molly’s professors never talked about visual resources management. She worked at the Wayne State VRC for a few weeks but said she was not fully aware of VR as a separate profession. Then, her first position out of school was as a Registrar / Librarian at the Mott-Warsh Collection, a private art collection in Flint, MI. “It was a fantastic organization,” she said, “A collection of modern and contemporary art by African Americans, based in Flint, and we’d install exhibitions at different sites around Flint—for example, churches and libraries—and also loan works out to national exhibitions.”
The position was only part-time, so she began volunteering at University of Michigan’s VRC, working under one of her former Wayne State professors, Kim Schroeder. As with all of the other VREPS interviewees, Molly emphasized the importance of mentorship in furthering her career. Kim, then-director of the VRC, and Marlene Gordon, VR Curator at UM-Dearborn and the Chapter Chair of VRA-Great Lakes, introduced Molly to VRA and encouraged her to attend the conference in Providence last year.
Attending her first VRA conference helped Molly feel a connection to her peers in visual resources. “I always felt my job at UM was so niche, and it always took me a few minutes to explain to my friends what exactly my work entailed,” she said. “So when I got to VRA, and there was a joke made about 2×2 cards, I thought, ‘Wow! These are my people!’” Like most of us new to the organization, Molly was also impressed with how friendly and accessible VRA members are. “What I like about VRA is that, since it’s not a huge organization, it’s easy to get involved and share ideas.”
Molly has stepped up this year to become the new VREPS co-chair as Heather Lowe steps down. As a fairly recent graduate, Molly hopes to help new and emerging professionals the way so many people helped her along the way. When I asked her how she thinks VREPS can do that, she said, “I think a lot of it is just getting the word out. When I worked at Wayne State’s VRC, I wasn’t really aware that it was a separate department. I didn’t know about the VRA.” And while many students want to go into art librarianship, not many know how to translate their MLIS degree to work in a broader art and visual resource field. “I was trying to use my MLIS to apply for museum jobs,” she said, “But even though I had museum experience, I didn’t get many interviews because I didn’t have the Museums Studies degree.”
She continued, “The great thing about VRA is that there are no set requirements: The position is a little different for anyone, so a profession in VR can be an option for anyone with a library, archives, or museum background, and it’s very closely related to the art library track, too. So I think if more students are made aware of it, they’ll be glad to know of other options available to them.” The more that students know about the kinds of work VR professionals do, the better they can prepare by finding appropriate internships and courses.
Speaking of internships, I asked Molly for her advice to current students: Predictably, she recommends interning and volunteering, and building a relationship with a mentor. “Also, even if you’re a new student,” she said, “Start looking at job postings. Save the ones you like, so you can see what experiences and skills you should have by graduation.” She added, “One thing I wish I would have done differently is to be more vocal at my internships. I wanted to get more involved but felt too intimidated to ask. Looking back, I should have asked. If you do it in a polite way, show genuine interest, and can bring your own ideas into the internship, most supervisors are pretty receptive.” Her final tip for students and recent graduates? “Apply, apply, apply. Once you’ve written a few cover letters, they become easier. Even if you don’t think you’ll get the job, there’s always that chance.”
Molly presented at VRA 32 in Milwaukee as part of the panel “The Teaching Turn: From Static Collections to Dynamic Learning Centers.” Her talk, “Promoting Visual Literacy Across Campus: a Case Study,” focused on revamping the VRC to better meet contemporary VR needs. To extend the collections’ reach, the VRC moved away from cataloging individual images at item level in favor of creating encoded finding aids as well as converting old finding aids to EAD, for which MLIS students from Wayne State were recruited. The VRC staff visits classrooms to promote visual literacy, collaborates with UM library staff, and works the Department of the History of Art (HART) marketing specialist to incorporate VRC information and announcements into the HART page. Her presentation slides will be uploaded to the VRA SlideShare site.
Molly is excited to get started in her new position as co-chair of VREPS, so be sure to get in touch with her with ideas and questions: schoenm @ umich.edu.
Marie Elia is the Processing Archivist in the Poetry Collection at the University at Buffalo Libraries. If you would like to participate in the profile series, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.