Three weeks in

I’m now three weeks into my new job, and I’m loving it more and more every day. There’s a huge amount to learn, but I now feel like I’ve got an idea of all the things I don’t know yet, which helps.

Everyone at Perkins has been tremendously welcoming, both in explaining things and all those things like including me in lunches and conversations. My predecessor (who is retiring and who had her last day on Friday) was extremely thoughtful about transitioning things to me. She’s left me with excellent notes and her entire file of reference answers over the course of 14 years. This being the kind of job where you get things coming up every few years, that’s hugely helpful.

(Fortunately for me, she’s continuing as a remote employee on another Perkins project, so I can email her if something comes up that completely stumps me. This is good, because there’s a vast range of information I’m still getting my head around, and expect I will be for some time to come.)

Read on for more about the actual job.

So, part of what’s fascinating about this job is the mix of kinds of information.

People and places:

I should start by saying that Perkins offers free guided tours of the museum and various other areas of campus – it’s outreach, and also very fascinating. I got to do a tour this past week, and was utterly fascinated by the tactile museum, and also getting to swap interesting historical stories. (Thomas Handasyd Perkins, for whom the school was named, had a very busy life, and Samuel Gridley Howe and his wife Julia were also fascinating people.) If you’re in the area, do consider it.

First, I should mention, the Hayes Research Library (where I am Research Librarian) and the Perkins Library (also known as the Braille and Talking Book Library) are two entirely different things – we’re actually in separate divisions within Perkins, and in entirely different buildings on campus. There’s also a Secondary School library and librarian, who is yet another division, but about 40 feet from my office.

The Research Library is part of the Training and Educational Resources Program, which also has various outreach programs, supports visiting educators, provides elearning to teachers across the country (and outside the country), and provides an information clearinghouse. Among a lot of other things. (

I work in the Howe Building, which is the large building on campus with the tall belltower. (You can see an aerial view of the campus: the Research Library is just to the right at the base of the belltower.) It’s a beautiful campus, and I love the design of the building.

The actual stacks are now climate controlled: they are three separate (small) floors with a current collection, past newsletters and journals from a wide variety of sources, and then no longer current teaching materials that are still useful at times. (Plus what’s actually in the archives, which is a different space.)

The catalog not only includes things like books and DVDs, but they have also been cataloging individual articles that are relevant (everything in the couple of major journals in the field, and selected articles in other journals.)

This has made it a little confusing to try and find things, but it’s mostly that I don’t know where things are yet. (And like all catalog systems, the catalog has quirks, but I’m finding they mostly suit the needs of the collection and its users. For example, circulation is a little clunky – it’s done manually in the item record – but we don’t actually do much circulation, since only Perkins staff can actually check items out.)

About 2/3 of the time, it’s just me working in the library. 12 hours a week, I have a library assistant (the other part of her time, she’s the archives assistant). I see the archivist regularly (her office is elsewhere in the building, as are the actual archives).

Various other people also come through the library, especially the secondary school librarian, and other people in my larger department who have offices upstairs, but there are often long stretches where I’m on my own and it’s quiet. Most of the reference and other questions come by email, but some come by phone or by people stopping in. I’m really enjoying the ability to spend half an hour completely lost in digging up information.

One of my first projects is shelf reading the main collection, so I begin to get a sense of the range of topics, and where those materials are. Also, it’s giving me a chance to get familiar with the catalog as I catch the occasional typo or add in location information.

Kinds of questions:

The Research Library serves a number of different groups. These include (in no particular order)

1) People doing research that relates to the history of Perkins, education of the blind or deafblind, or various related things. (The very first reference question I answered was about a bust of Laura Bridgman sculpted by Sophia Peabody Hawthorne).

It’s become quite clear that I should brush up on my knowledge of Boston in the 1800s, because Samuel Gridley Howe (who was the first director and served for over 40 years beginning in 1832) knew approximately everyone. This part is lots of fun, because I keep coming across fascinating stories basically every time I turn around. The other interesting part is how lots of people have very strong opinions about the various historical figures, and I anticipate I will too.

2) Perkins staff, who have questions about best practices, current research, who are doing ongoing education (we have many common textbooks in the field and a lot of staff are moving up the educational ladder), or other questions of that kind.

3) Staff at other similar institutions and organizations, trying to track down information for projects of their own (I got such a question last week, and then got to track an organization in England through three name changes, and find a centenary report in a totally different publication, but found the info the researcher was looking for. Go me!)

There’s a clear sense of people in other similar places being in contact and helping each other out, which is rather excellent. (Some of them are museum specialists, some are librarians, some are other kinds of roles.)

4) People in other countries who want to bring best practices and techniques to their own areas. (Perkins brings about a dozen educators to Perkins each year for extended study and learning – they just finished, so I didn’t get to know this set very well, but the conversations I had with them were fascinating.) We’re glad to continue offering help after they leave.

5) People who have a familial connection to the school – I helped someone whose grandfather had been a student, and who was looking for more information about his time at Perkins. (All of the Annual Reports were digitized and have OCR search, and until fairly recently, they included things like complete student lists, so it’s relatively easy to track this down. There’s also The Lantern, which was the Perkins annual newsletter and has more chatty information.)

6) Not so much at this time of year, but when school is in session, there are lots of 3rd and 4th graders doing reports on Helen Keller. One of my goals for the summer is going through our handouts for them, and seeing what I can do to spruce some things up. (We have better photo printing options than we did a few years ago.)

Other things on the horizon include working with some other departments to see about offering more outreach and resources from the research library. I’m also looking at ways to collect a lot of the random information that we have floating around in some format that’s easier to search – for example, terminology changes over the years, and you may need to try several terms to find everything we have. Or the name of an institution changes.

Things more than one person have asked me:

Do I need to learn braille? 

Not particularly, though I want to pick up some basics. (The archivist at Perkins uses it mostly for confirming dates on books where the binding is damaged, for example, and this is useful.) While we have some braille materials in the Research Library (mostly about how to teach it), most of the collection is print or in some kind of digital format (DVD, text files on CD, online articles)

There’s a whole long history of reading by the blind that I’m not going into here, except to say that there’s a very strong correlation between ability to read braille and employment as an adult. There’s different theories about this, but one of them is that spelling does some unique things in the brain.

Braille is also interesting because there’s a form where everything is spelled out, letter by letter, but also a form where there are over 100 contractions used, for common words or combinations of letters. These days, people in the US are working on the switch into Unified English Braille, which simplifies some kinds of constructions (especially things like email or web addresses) but makes other kinds of information more complicated.

Are the people I’m working with blind or sighted or what?

Both! Sometimes I know or can figure it out. Sometimes – like with email questions – I don’t.

This means that when I answer email reference questions, I default to providing the information in a way that will be reasonably accessible if someone’s using a screen reader or other devices, and then offer a scanned image if they want. (For example, I’ll type the part that directly answers their question, and then offer them more information.)

This is the kind of accessibility thing that works out well for everyone, since people may not need a scan. At least one of the people I’ve done answers for is in a geographic location where larger file sizes take forever to download. And there’s no reason for me to spend time scanning if they don’t need it. Scans can be hard on the accessibility front, so having other options is good.

What’s the average day like?

Looking at my predecessor’s (excellent!) records, the usual range is about 0 to 6 reference questions in a day, and I’m averaging about 2 a day so far. Occasionally we get something with a quick deadline, but most questions are less urgent.

I’m still at a stage where it takes me quite a while to answer things (between having to sort out terminology, name changes for people and organisations doing things, trying different things in the catalog, checking some items that turn out to be the wrong kind of source – I don’t always know yet if something is an academic title or an educational outreach one, for example, etc.) but I’ve been reaassured that this is perfectly fine, and I know I’ll get faster over time.

I’m really enjoying the chance to take my time and be very thorough. We’re often one of the only libraries who can answer some of these questions, so it’s much more ‘go as deep as you need to’ rather than trying to handle a lot of questions or needs in a short span of time. I’m really enjoying that.

The example I gave earlier, about tracking things through three name changes is one of those – the actual question was “Do you have this set of annual reports” with a side of  “This is what we’re trying to find.” If I’d been working somewhere where I had a lot of other immediately pressing needs, the answer would have been “No, we don’t.” But because that’s not the case at the Research Library, I could take an hour and go “Hey, what else might answer the question” and dig up the centenary report.

What else are you doing?

Right now, shelf reading, learning the catalog, doing some reading every day to get more familiar with content and subject matter (I’m reading through one of the most common textbooks for teachers of the visually impaired, so that I can get a basic grounding, for example.) Basically, just soaking everything up like a sponge.

I’m also looking at some other projects – a way to collect information about various people/journals/organizations/etc. into something easily searchable (perhaps a wiki, perhaps some other format) since I want to document at lot of it for myself anyway. There’s some items in the archives (some 16th and 17th century books) we’d like to do something with, and I mentioned the handouts and other materials I’d like to look at in detail as well.  Updating various materials to have my name on them, that kind of thing.

I’ve also sat in on the twice yearly archives advisory board meeting, had several meetings with various department leaders, done a tour of the Howe Building including the tactile museum, gone to the all-staff meeting for the year (seriously the most pleasant and efficiently run meeting of that kind I’ve been to), and met a number of the secondary school teachers and some of the kids (the secondary school is on the 1st floor of the Howe building too). I have my actual official orientation on June 2nd, when I’ll get a more general overview of the place, as well.

What’s it like where you’re living?

Excellent! I’m still getting used to the commute (Going from half a mile and maybe 5 minutes if I hit the stoplight wrong to 5 miles and 30 minutes, and sometimes worse if I hit traffic wrong is a big transition, but I’m learning the routes I prefer.) However, the basic practice is to set your hours to when traffic is not too horrible, and that’s helping a lot as long as I get out of the house on time. And I’m really enjoying being able to listen to NPR while commuting again.

I’m loving my location otherwise. I went into Boston (to the Museum of Fine Arts, to see some of my favourite artwork) on Saturday, and to demonstrate to myself it was not a huge production. I’ve sorted out a lot of the grocery/errands/etc. type stuff. I’m almost done with the major post-move things like changing my driver’s license and car registration (this is much more tedious to do in Massachusetts than it was in Maine). I have a couple more things like that to do, and still a lot of unpacking of book boxes, but I’m making steady progress.

And I really love that I have a number of friends within easy driving distance again. It’s very very good to be home. (The cat also likes that she has an excellent view of the outside.)

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

More about my job and a day in the life

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