SIS Distinguished Alumni Award winner Kraig Binkowski on art librarianship and his work at Yale
Kraig Binkowski (MLIS ’94) is the 2017 recipient of the School of Information Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award. Kraig has served as the Chief Librarian of the Yale Center for British Art at Yale University since 2005. Previous art librarianship positions include Head Librarian of the Helen Farr Sloan Library at the Delaware Art Museum and Associate Librarian at the Detroit Institute of Arts. He is currently an Associate Editor for Art Libraries Journal.
What is a typical day like for you as Chief Librarian? Well, a typical day for me includes a lot of different activities which is the way I like it. Too often, a lot of meetings (museum and Yale Library), but also answering email, working with students and staff on their reference questions (the Library staff all rotate shifts at the reference desk, myself included), working with interns, student assistants, and library fellows on performing research in the library, and if I’m lucky, I work on collection development for the library. I also make time to work on my own research and to assist other library staff with theirs. I enjoy thinking about the library strategically and how to best meet the needs of our users, but admittedly, this isn’t a daily function of mine.
You are part of Yale’s personal librarian program, a more personalized one-on-one service that more academic libraries are utilizing. What has your experience with this program been like? How has it changed your work and interaction with students? I think it’s a great program and so very beneficial to the students. The resources and avenues for research can be very daunting and the library can really be an intimidating place – I love getting to know the students a bit and helping them get on the right path from the beginning. Here at Yale the students are supposed to go to their personal librarian for their first two years and then switch to a subject specialist in their major field, but I have many students who are comfortable coming to me with questions throughout their time here. Last year I had my first question from a past student who had graduated and was working at her first job.
What aspects of librarianship are you most passionate about and why? I think that public service and collection development are the two areas that I am most passionate about. Public service is our whole reason for being and in an academic environment, reference and teaching are things that we hold highest in our priorities. I feel all other aspects of librarianship feed into being able to help transfer information into knowledge. Collection development ensures that we have the most recent scholarship — and in the humanities — all the necessary scholarship going back in time, to meet the informational needs of our patrons.
You began your career as a librarian in 1994 and then went started in art librarianship in 1998. What would you say is the biggest change you’ve seen in the profession since that time? I would say that the proliferation of primary sources in digital format has really changed art librarianship and the way we teach how to conduct research in art history. And I include images of art objects in my definition of primary resources. It really is amazing to think of all that’s at a scholar’s fingertips now that used to be flung across the far reaches of the globe. Historical newspapers, archival collections, rare books, public art collections, ephemeral materials – so much is now available digitally. Unfortunately, the mass of materials available digitally makes it seem as though all of the pertinent material is available online, and that’s still far from the case.
Are there any trends you’re seeing on the horizon for art librarianship that you’re particularly excited about? Well, I do love the fact that research into works of art has become much more multidisciplinary – in any one semester I will have history, drama, literature, and even some of the sciences using the collections in addition to the history of art students. It certainly keeps it interesting from a reference and instruction point of view. And it helps us as librarians to think in more multidisciplinary terms, which is good. And I do recognize a return to (or perhaps a more modern appreciation of) connoisseurship in art historical discourse, which I do appreciate as well.
As Associate Editor for Art Libraries Journal, what type of articles and information do you seek for publication, or wish you saw more of? What advice do you have someone who might want submit an article to Art Libraries Journal? I think at Art Libraries Journal we try to maintain a balance of scholarly versus practical articles. Research-based articles and articles that help art librarians in the tasks they do on a day-to-day basis. I just wish I saw more submissions and queries about articles in general. I think if a librarian or library student has an idea or an inkling of an idea about a topic he/she would like to cover, then don’t hesitate to contact one of the editors – we are always happy to advise writers on submitting to ALJ.
What do you love about your job? In a general sense, I love my job because it always challenges me – I learn something new every day. Something new about the collections, about our patrons, about the institution, and in the field. Art librarianship, in particular, allows me to connect with artwork and museum collections on a daily basis – and working at the YCBA allows me to experience one of the most beautiful architectural achievements each day when I arrive at work. How could I not love it?
What recommendations do you have for someone considering art librarianship as a career? I would recommend that anyone considering art librarianship as a career seek out art librarians of all types and from different size collections – museum librarians, in small and big institutions, academic art librarians and art school librarians, visual resource professionals and those in digital humanities — just talk to these librarians to see if your expectations for the field match actual experiences. It can be invaluable to have some insight and working knowledge of the field even before starting a masters program in library and information science. It can be beneficial to cater courses and coursework to the exact type of art librarianship you are most interested in, if possible.