It can sometimes be difficult to articulate all of things that research libraries and librarians do for a university and the larger scholarly community. I think many of us have had conversations in which the “other labor” so many librarians (and faculty, and administrators, and other staff) perform is contrasted with the really meaty academic research we imagine as something else. When in a casual elevator conversation I get the question “what are you up to?” I can sometimes answer with great gravitas “I’m giving a talk this weekend- very important stuff” but more often I answer more confusedly - like today when I replied to a friend “Oh I’m doing a few things. Today isn’t so busy though.”

It’s a shame it’s so hard to describe this work that my fantastic colleagues and I at the library do everyday and so I thought I’d give a stab at detailing the activities of just one day. So yesterday evening I went back and wrote down everything I did, looked at my calendar, went through my incoming and outgoing email and came up with a list. Here, a truthfully not-busy Tuesday at the Penn Libraries.

First, the email

Over the course of the day yesterday I received 89 emails in my work inbox. I deleted 22 of these immediately as being from lists, general junk, or auto-notifications — leaving 66 legitimate pieces of incoming mail. I also read about 8 work-related emails (mostly from a list) on my personal Gmail account.
The same day I sent 53 emails to 43 different correspondents (not counting people copied on emails with more than two recipients as well as three personal emails) from my work address. All told, I wrote 3,007 words in this correspondence and one emoji :) “Know” “thanks” “think” and “interested” were the words I used most frequently. My longest email was 300 words, the shortest, just two.

I wrote these messages to
* 10 Colleagues on the general library staff
* 9 Colleagues on the special collections staff
* 4 Booksellers
* 4 Penn faculty
* 4 Penn grad students
* 3 Curators at other institutions
* 3 External researchers
* 2 Former Penn grad students
* 1 Donor

The emails covered everything from reporting on items seen for sale, corresponding about upcoming classes, budget matters, scheduling meetings, asking for advice, answering student questions, responding to research queries, and asking for research favors.

Besides all of the business covered in email here’s what the day looked like in a kind of order:

  • Arrived and checked the online catalog for what had been cataloged the day before.
  • Made scans from a print reference work to send to book dealer.
  • Listened in live to Christie’s Paris for a lot we were bidding on (we didn’t get it).
  • Assisted a colleague in retrieving a book from the stacks that had been digitized but was missing page images. Consulted on whether page numbering was erratic or pages actually not shot.
  • Had a visit from a bibliographer to talk through plan for an upcoming course.
  • Looked up some invoices and purchases and compared against current funds.
  • One hour curatorial meeting with colleagues
  • One hour lunch meeting with search committee on another part of the campus.
  • One hour meeting with faculty member interested in knowing more about a document.
  • One hour catchup meeting with colleague including review of spreadsheets and a cart of exciting books.
  • Talked to a reading room patron about his materials.
  • 1.5 hour meeting on exhibits and planning.
  • Brief meeting with senior colleagues on upcoming project.
  • Bothered our wonderful registrar three times over the course of the day about random things.
  • Sorted incoming gift books for future destination
  • Discussed books/authors I haven’t read with learned office-mate.
  • Received and inspected an incoming package of manuscripts/ephemera from a dealer.
  • Called an auction house about post-sale lots from a recent sale and purchased one.
  • Unlocked seminar doors for faculty group, threw away some student trash.
  • Phone call to bookseller.
  • Booked three hours of future meetings on the shared calendar system
  • Put in a bid for a UK auction the next day.
  • Read or skimmed 4 bookseller’s catalogs, ~150 pages.
  • Ate amazing chocolates made by colleague.
  • Cranked at least 6–8 ranges of compact shelving (workout portion of the day).
  • Locked up

Oh, I also managed 4 tweets. Only one with real substance.

This exhaustive list is not meant not inspire a greater push for ‘metrics’ and rigorous accounting of every last thing performed by librarians and other academics. Nor, I hope, is it another salvo in the “Who is the most overwhelmed with work? Surely it must be me!” game that academics play pretty much constantly. Yesterday was great fun and rewarding and I imagine my schedule was genuinely one of the less-busy among my colleagues. There were no public events to run, classes to teach, or last-minute emergencies. Many of the great people I work have all this and more on their plates and excel at what they do. I hope though that this exercise shows just how much libraries and librarians are doing to bring intellectual communities together, even when sometimes it seems we never get as much done as we’d like.

Written by

Curator at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries

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