History at the American Philosophical Society (feat. David Gary)
Alumni Aloud Episode 97
David Gary earned his PhD in History at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is now an Associate Director of Collections at the American Philosophical Society.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, I speak with David about his passion for book history, how intensive research prepared him for a career in librarianship, and the challenges of learning how to manage other people in the workplace.
VOICEOVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with the GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
JACK DEVINE, HOST: Welcome to another edition of Alumni Aloud. We are here with Dr. David Gary. Thank you so much for joining us.
DAVID GARY, GUEST: Thanks Jack. It’s great to be here.
DEVINE: Alright, so I’m just gonna begin with the question that I tend to ask most guests who come on Alumni Aloud. What questions drove your research at the CUNY Graduate Center?
GARY: Sure, so at CUNY I discovered book history while I was studying in the History Department there. I took an independent study with my advisor Martin Burke. Book history became one of the subjects of that independent study and that sort of really grabbed my attention. It was the topic that sort of just like really reached out to me and I was very excited to study it. But I became very interested in the history of reading. So the book history covers everything from the creation of books, the publishing of them, the distribution of them, but I’m most interested in the use of them. The last stage of a books life you could sort of say. So the big questions I had for my dissertation involved how do readers use print to achieve their goals. In my case I was most interested in political goals.
So I combined political history with book history by writing about an early Founding Father named Rufus King who was from New York. He was a U.S. Senator for four terms. He signed the U.S. Constitution. He was a diplomat. He was the ambassador to Great Britain at the time. He was an anti-slavery politician. He collected this massive library, about thirty-five hundred volumes. One of the biggest in the country at the time. Some very very rare and extremely hard to get books. He marked up those books. He kept notebooks about his reading. He kept scrap notes. And I sort of took all those notes and all that information about his interaction with texts and tried to connect it to his politics. So when he was giving a speech, what book was he reading, was he looking at a certain pamphlet to make an argument about slavery. Things like that. So really wanted to know how books take an active life in a persons, an active role in a person’s life. And I’m also very interested in the history of collecting. So you know, I was very interested in how Rufus King collected books as well. And that sort of collecting history has gone even further for me now. So I work in rare books. I work in libraries. So the notion of collecting. How things are acquired. Why they’re acquired. And what you do with are just very important to me.
DEVINE: So you discovered this passion for the history of books, the history of reading, how books are used politically, and you focused in on Rufus King, a Founding Father from New York, his political career and how he used books to push forward the policies that he was supportive of. So you had this passion and you kind of expanded it into collections as well. So how libraries collect books. So this really became important in your career. So when did you first make the decision to pursue a career in librarianship? What steps did you take along your path to end up as an Associate Director of Collections?
GARY: Yeah sure so when I started at the Graduate Center in 2005, my thought was that I’d be a History professor. I would write books. I would do what the sort of tradition PhD student hopes to do at the end of their time in Grad School. But then, you know, I passed my orals right in 2008 when the big economic crash happened. And I looked around and I thought well this is gonna be very hard terrain to navigate in the future. I wonder what could I do. What could I different. Will I get a job at the end of my time at the Graduate Center? I reassessed everything I was doing. And I looked at my life and I realize, you know, I was working part-time in an archive at the Gilder Lerhman Collection which is located inside the New York Historical Society. And for them I was doing a lot of cataloging, processing of archives. You know I was working like 15, 20 hours a week to make ends meet. I really enjoyed that work. My wife is a librarian. I was studying book history. And all these things just kind of struck me. I really love librarianship. I’m doing that partly. I really care about it. At CUNY there’s a library school at Queens. I lived right down the street from it. So it just started this congruence of my interests came together at this time when, you know, there was this challenging economic environment which made me want to go into librarianship. Which I’m very glad that I did because it gave me lots of different options and I think it really suited me more. So I had a great time at the Graduate Center studying for the PhD, writing the dissertation, you take that deep dive and that’s sort of very narrow sliver of a topic you’re working on. You make that impact that way. But in librarianship I have to think much more generally, much more as a generalist. I get to take on different topics and different ideas. And that really got me excited. This sort of notion of going a little bit wider in my academic work than just what I would be doing if I was just studying history of the book and the early American Republic for the next forty years, which would have been a great life don’t get me wrong, but I really like this notion of like figuring out new problems all the time and helping people get the answers that they want or need.
DEVINE: So I’m also in the History Department and I have questions about what sort of jobs I want to get with the current academic job market. I have aspirations to become a full-time professor, I’m currently teaching at the College of Staten Island, but the market is difficult. So it’s very compelling to hear about these alternatives. It seems like you kind of had your foot already in the door in the way that you were exploring this option while you were in school. Like working at the archives and then a world historical event happened with the financial crisis. It spurred sort of a change, a shift in mentality, oh maybe I could pursue something else. Maybe this steady path to being a professor is not as readily available. What can I do? So you were already working in libraries, working with books, and you saw this opportunity. You continued to work with history, but rather than having this more narrow focus, you can expand it and work with books more generally. So you were kind of already heading in that direction, were there any other career paths that you considered?
GARY: No. So when I was in graduate school it was either professor or librarian. And librarianship sort of just won out. And I stuck to that from the get go. So I had to work. I passed my orals exam and I had to start again. I started library school right after that. So I was doing two programs at once. It was kind of a big lift at the time. So, you know, I was paying tuition to go to library school. So when I was, when I dove into that I went in for real. And librarianship is just much easier sort of, there’s more options in the field. Much more opportunity to decide where I wanted to live. So I was able to stay on the East Coast because I was involved with librarianship. So I didn’t consider anything else. Previously before, I worked at, before I started at the Graduate Center, I worked at a financial firm doing research. I worked as a journalist for a year. I worked a museum for a year. So the reason I knew Rufus King was cause of the time I spent working at his house in the education department there. That house is in Queens, in Jamaica. So I sort did these different things and realized that a lot of what I care about, public history, working with original documents, collecting, all this stuff sort of comes together the best way for me in librarianship.
DEVINE: So you had all these experiences before you ended up at the Grad Center, but once you were there you saw two paths. I could become a professor or work in librarianship. As events culminated more and more you were pulled in that direction in line with the sort of research that you had. And you already kind of hit on this question already somewhat, but I think it’s worth expanding on it. What role did the Graduate Center have in your intellectual development? And how did your experiences at the GC transform you into the Associate Director of Collections that you are today?
GARY: Yeah sure, so look the Graduate Center was essential to everything that I’m doing right now. So, you know, I mentioned earlier the independent study I did with Marty Burke. It just sort of opened up a whole new way of thinking about history to me. Probably, I might have found that eventually, but finding it with him and doing that work really sort of moved my interests in a big direction which sort of led to where I’m at today. But you know the Graduate Center also offered me lots of, because I was at the Graduate Center I had opportunities to teach all over the city. You know I taught all together something like ten classes when I was in Graduate School. It helped me become a better public speaker. It helped me to be a lot more confident in front of people. Right now in my job I have to speak all the time. I have to learn things really quickly. And so often I’m asked to talk about, you know, a topic of a donor who, a topic who interests a donor who is coming tomorrow so can you get together a batch of documents and wow this person to help us woo them and get them interested in our institution. The Graduate Center helped me do that.
I learned how to analyze texts quickly. I learned sort of how what we call gut the book. I can gut a book really fast. I can sort of figure out what I need. I learned how to do great research at the Graduate Center. I also learned how to write in a really serious way there like I can write a large dissertation, I can write an article. All of those skills help me as a librarian all the time. And then just the really wonderful friends I made there and the network I made there as well. I still tap into the people from my cohort all the time. Without the Graduate Center I would not have had the basis I would have needed to become, to get to where I’m at today.
DEVINE: So the Graduate Center provided a lot of resources and a network that you could work with. The experiences you had with your advisor and the work that you did together focused on book history and the history of reading and using books politically by Rufus King. So you kind of took that as well as the teaching experiences that you had all over the city developing skills like public speaking and connecting with students. And now you’re connecting with other people who are attending events that you’re leading. And the sort of research skills, breaking things down, turning works into something that you can translate for other people who listening to you in some capacity or another. So the Graduate Center prepared you in a lot of ways, but anytime that you’re starting a new career there’s obstacles. So what were some of the challenges you encountered as you transitions from graduate school to your career in librarianship?
GARY: Yeah sure, quite a bit. I’d say the Graduate Center made me a good academic. I can do all of that. I know historiography. I know how to do research. But when I graduated I had my library degree already. I finished the PhD. My first job was as the American History Librarian at Yale University Library. And so I covered several departments. African American Studies, American Studies, American History for them. The thing at Yale is that I was often working with people who wanted to study the 20th century. I’d say probably 75% of the grad students in American History at Yale were studying 20th century topics. So here I am, you know, a book historian. My main interests are like the colonial period, you know, the Early Republic period, and I have to learn how to help people on topics that I’m less familiar with. So I had to sort of had to do a lot of learning to be this generalist that I mentioned about earlier. So that was kind of a big challenge for me. Just sort of the vastness and diversity of topics that I had to help with. I was able to do it, you know, it was kind of like dizzying at first. I got much better at it. Of course, being at a school like Yale with all its resources, every database you could ever want is there, their microfilm room is endless, with some effort I was sort able to get there. You know, I worked there for three years and I wanted to move forward in my career.
The one thing I wanted to do was manage people or be in charge of something. I’d say a challenge for me was just that I never had that experience before. Graduate School gives you a lot of great things, but that sort of day to day working with people and managing them and help them get their goals taken care of and the thing they’re working on resourced. That kind of thing. And seeing through all those problems I had to learn that on the fly. I had to, you know, someone had to trust me to do that. And I had learn on the job how to manage people which is the biggest part of what I do today. So at the APS I’m the Associate Director of Collections. I oversee four different departments with fifteen people in them. I have five direct reports. So that takes up a huge part of my day which is something I never learned about in academia. So those sorts of challenges have been hard. So I’ve been doing this for about ten years. It’s taken me some time to sort of get to where I’m at because I’m trying to figure it all out. But, you know, over time I did. I had some really good mentors who helped me along and people who, you know, took a chance on me and gave me an opportunity to learn as well.
DEVINE: So, even though you finished grad school learning never stopped.
GARY: That’s exactly right.
DEVINE: The journey continued and you had to work with students who were focusing on something that was different than your area of expertise so you had to expand your knowledge and work with documents in a different way, understand the library. So that’s like one challenge you faced. And then beyond that, you don’t learn to manage people in graduate school. I mean the closest thing that comes to that is maybe teaching in a classroom and managing the expectations of your students and grading their work and dealing with them and meetings and things like that. They’re not working for you. It’s a different sort of relationship. So you had to kind of learn how to do that on the fly. I could understand that being a big challenge. So what would you recommend to current graduate students interested in pursuing a career in librarianship?
GARY: Yeah well I would say it’s a wonderful, wonderful career, at least for me. I’ve, you know, I do wonderful things everyday. I get to see things that, you know, if you were to have told my fifteen year old self that I would be seeing some of the things and being able to handle some of the materials I’d be just astounded. But to get into this world I’d say you’d have to gain some experience. You know, so graduating with a PhD is very helpful in a library, but most librarians have a Master’s in Library Science. There’s special skills they learn in school in getting their Master’s degrees that helps them do their job right. And there are sort of ways things are processed. There are sort of, you know, the ins and outs of a library is an apples and oranges kind of thing in some ways from academia. So I’d say, I’d recommend really taking some time to get involved with a library, working part-time or volunteering. You know, we get applications from recent PhDs all the time. What we really look for when we look at those applications, is this a field that someone really wants to work in? Do they show some passion for it? Do they show some big interest? Because really what I do is a service job. I don’t have, I’m not given time to write at my work, at my job. I’m not given, you know, leave time to do any sort of writing. They really love it if I do and it’s gonna be praised if I do, but that sort of notion of working for yourself, put your ideas forward, sort of takes a backseat. And you know you’re not, you deal with collections on the backend, you process them, it’s not the same as the enjoyment of research and taking all that information and then interpreting it for yourself. What I really like to see when I deal with new PhD students and they apply to jobs here at the APS and that they’ve had some, at least a little bit of experience and have shown some effort to break into the world in some way. It doesn’t have to be immense, but just some aspect of that.
DEVINE: So academics need libraries, but libraries are very different than working in academia. It’s a whole different process. And I think, so I guess there’s a lot that needs to be done in order to prepare yourself if you wanna make that sort of transition into a different career. It’s more about, rather than diving into research for your own and writing for yourself, and kind of testing your theories, you’re helping other people do their research and find the documents that they need. So I just want to thank you again so much for appearing on Alumni Aloud and do you have any final word for our listeners?
GARY: Well I’d say please come down to Philadelphia and visit the historical, the Philosophical Society. It’s a wonderful place. I mean, you know, we have the papers of Ben Franklin, the Lewis and Clark Journals. We have one of the biggest, you know, history of science collections in the country. It’s really fantastic. So if you’re interested in coming down, please let me know. You can find me on our website.
DEVINE: That sounds great. I’ll definitely try to check it out. So thank you so much again for joining us on Alumni Aloud.
GARY: Yeah no problem Jack. Thanks for having me.
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