Musicology in Archives (feat. Devora Geller)
Alumni Aloud Episode 38
Devora Geller received her PhD in musicology from the Graduate Center. She is the Digital Preservation Manager at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Devora talks about how she began her job search while still in graduate school, the work she manages at YIVO, and how she uses her training from her PhD and previous experience every day.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a 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.
ABBIE TURNER, HOST: I’m Abbie Turner, a PhD candidate in Educational Psychology at the Graduate Center. I work in the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development and I interviewed Devora, who earned her PhD in Musicology from the Graduate Center. She is now the Digital Preservation Manager at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Today I have Devora Geller in the office. And she is a, she just got her Music PhD here at the Graduate Center. And we’re going to hear about her work at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research where she is the Digital Preservation Manager. So, hi Devora!
DEVORA GELLER, GUEST: Hi! Thank you so much for inviting me, this is a treat.
TURNER: Yeah, great to have you! So why don’t you first tell us what you do at YIVO and then you can kind of get us into the steps of how you got there.
GELLER: Sure, I’m the Digital Preservation Manager. This encompasses a couple of diverse kinds of things. Every digital image that YIVO creates of its library and its archival materials, kind of falls under my purview. And I’m basically in charge of ensuring access to these digital materials online for researchers, genealogists, kind of anybody who comes to our websites to look at this stuff. And also ensuring long-term access to these materials which means monitoring things like metadata, file metadata, and file fixity. Making sure that the files stay intact and that the file formats are good over a very long span of time. So that’s a big part of what I do.
One of the roles I have as part of managing my organization’s digital assets is I supervise a digital lab. I am kind of like responsible for $10,000 of expensive camera equipment. I have a small staff. Every…basically everything that gets digitized and put online is something that comes through my office. Either me or somebody who works for me will, is in charge of digitizing and essentially keeping track of all of the metadata and quality assurance and ingesting all of this into our digital asset management servers so that everything goes online correctly. Yeah so my job is, yeah it’s a, it’s a lot of things. Managing in-aminate objects, managing people and doing kind of long-term project management to make sure that many of the moving parts of various digitization projects are happening on track for logistical and funding reasons.
TURNER: Great! And so what first brought you to YIVO?
GELLER: Yeah, I came to YIVO the first time actually as a Master’s student and I was doing research for a term paper on Yiddish operas. And I mistakenly assumed there would be a lot of secondary scholarship that I would just be able to find at this place. And I turned out to be very wrong but this kind of term paper turned into my dissertation project when I applied to the Graduate Center. And then I kept going back to YIVO. I had to learn Yiddish to do my dissertation work so spent a lot of time under that roof. And ended up asking to volunteer there. I kind of knew at some point during my time in my program that I did not necessarily want to pursue a traditional academic job.
And the idea of working at YIVO particularly was kind of enchanting. Archives seemed like very magical places so I went and I asked to volunteer and YIVO is a kind of “just say yes” organization in a lot of ways. So they said, “yes, why don’t you come in and volunteer.” And then I thought, “ok I really like this” and kind of following some of the traditional non-academic careers advice. And I went and I asked the director of the library about doing a summer internship and her very polite answer was, “you are probably over-qualified, this is an internship for you know, undergraduate and Master’s students and you’re like halfway through your PhD program.” She said, “but why don’t you send me your resume.” So I sent her my resume, my CV, and the next time I saw her a couple of weeks later, she ended up offering me a part-time job. She said, “it’s not a music job” and I said, “I don’t really care.” So I said yes, I took it. And I started doing quality assurance part-time which a couple of professions later has turned into where I am now.
TURNER: Yeah and so you were still dissertating, so the part-time job was probably a better fit.
GELLER: The part-time job was a better fit. When the job offer came to me, I had been teaching. I had been teaching as an adjunct lecturer at Brooklyn College. I had been teaching one or two sections of a music appreciation course. And I decided I’d probably improved as much as I was going to with my teaching of that particular course. And it didn’t seem likely I’d be offered anything else to teach. So I decided to stop teaching. I’d recuse myself for whatever the next semester was and decided to focus on finding like a part-time, non-academic job. For that semester I actually also had a quantitative reasoning fellowship up at Hostos Community College. So I was doing that two days a week, I still had a semester left of that fellowship. And then I was working at YIVO the rest of the week. So it was kind of almost, full-time between those two…
TURNER: That’s great though experience between the two.
GELLER: It was really, yeah. It was surprisingly enriching. I never thought of myself as a quantitative person and honestly a lot of what I learned during that fellowship has been useful ever since.
TURNER: That’s, that’s awesome. So you actually started your job search much earlier than most graduate students probably do.
TURNER: You were always thinking ahead or…?
GELLER: Part of it was I started my degree at the Grad Center before they offered a fellowship to everyone. So I actually came…came here without really any kind of funding. And it made me very like resourceful and kind of hungry metaphorically about just like making sure I had something in the works. So I actually started, I had connections from Brooklyn College from doing a Master’s degree there so I was able to start being contingent faculty my first semester essentially at the Graduate Center. Which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend but… So I was able to kind of piece together different you know, adjunct appointments or short-term fellowships. I applied, I just remember spending so much time applying for different fellowships. And you know, having faculty read different proposals for me. And just having this sense that like, I needed to make sure I had something lined up. And eventually that transitioned to, well what about a non-academic job? Like here are all of these Jewish, cultural, Yiddish, musical, theatrical organizations around town where you know, I could maybe do something.
TURNER: They’re kind of hybrid aren’t they? There’s scholarship there for sure.
GELLER: There’s a lot of overlap for sure.
GELLER: There’s a lot of, there’s a surprising number of people that are musicians or have like PhD’s at YIVO. And then, it’s a pretty small world so like the only like remaining Yiddish theater, the National Yiddish Folksbiene, come to YIVO all of the time to look at our music collections. And there’s a lot of collaboration and co-resourcefulness between these organizations that’s been really rich.
TURNER: So what would you recommend for the PhD group or even, we have Master’s students as well. What do you think about that?
GELLER: Yeah so for me it’s been a good fit. For the people for whom it’s a good fit I recommend it. At my organization there’s been a lot of room for people to make a place for themselves and self-direct. I’ve been, I’m pretty independent as a researcher and as like a person in an office. And so it felt really natural for me to come to a place where there was just a lot of room for whatever people could envision. And kind of start steering things a little bit. That worked out a lot for me. I like a lot of things about my job. If you at all like working, doing archival research, this could be a very fruitful job.
TURNER: I think it is really attractive to a lot of our researchers.
GELLER: I mean, like there is something pretty magical to me to go to work every day. I work in a building with centuries worth of Jewish culture just kind of at my fingertips. And one thing about working at YIVO and seeing so many of our collections is it’s really broadened my scope of Jewish history and in particular Yiddish history and Yiddish culture has been. And it’s really enhanced my appreciation for the kinds of things that we’ve collected and have to show the public.
TURNER: So how did your Musicology PhD really lend well to this kind of job? What did you get out of completing your dissertation here or your PhD here that helped?
GELLER: I got a lot of things. A huge thing was support from the career and professional development office.
TURNER: Oh ok. *laughs*
GELLER: I basically, every non-fellowship thing I applied for I think I made an appointment with somebody in here or I just kind of came in as a walk-in and you know, showed someone my resume, showed somebody my cover letter. And it really, I mean it really took several years to kind of, for me to feel comfortable writing about myself to you know, pitch to somebody like in a cover letter. But everything I know about that I think I learned here. And also I, the kind of rigor of a grad program and learning how to write and talk about history, both to other people in my field and people not in my field, has really been tremendously useful. I spend a lot of time trying to make the case either to coworkers or you know, administrators above my pay grade at my organization or for grants of why our collections are important and that sort of thing.
And so learning how to kind of put things into a historical context, learning how to master information in a very short amount of time has proved to be a surprisingly important skill. I’ve been in a lot of meetings this year alone where just you know, I have very little preparation and have to go in and kind of like take a position and convince somebody of why doing something one way is better than another. And how will this save us money and how is this a better use of our time and how does this, you know improve YIVO’s you know, stature for you know, the general and scholarly public. I will also say that I have run into a lot of my colleagues in our reading room and connected with people whose work I only knew from journals or from email exchanges.
TURNER: Oh wow.
GELLER: And was able to you know, meet a lot of Yiddish, I mean, you know there aren’t a lot of Yiddish music scholars, but the ones that there are I have met most of them through my job at YIVO. So it’s been surprisingly, a surprisingly good place to actually network… *laughs* … with my musicology research.
TURNER: Great, great. So what did you do your dissertation on?
GELLER: So I wrote my dissertation on Yiddish theater music in New York in the early twentieth century, which encompassed things like music and Yiddish films and Yiddish popular music and kind of taking a look at a Yiddish musical comedy and just kind of trying to look in a lot of different ways.
TURNER: Cool! Great so, so having that historical perspective also made you probably more attractive to archives?
GELLER: Right, so the person who hired me, the director of the library, also has a PhD in musicology and so she, she’s a really generous person professionally. And I think she liked the idea of you know, another person working on a musicology degree joining the organization.
TURNER: Cool. Great, great! And congratulations on finishing this year!
GELLER: Thank you!
TURNER: So what kind of advice do you have for Graduate Center students who are thinking about the job market or maybe they’ve located something they like and want to start applying? What are kind of, your tips or things you learned along the way?
GELLER: Yeah that’s a good question. I think it’s good to think pretty broadly of not only career fields but also like what kinds of skills are you good at and do you really enjoy using and would kind of be your requirements for feeling fulfilled in whatever career that you have. For personally kind of thinking through really changed how I thought of my job search. And I thought, “oh well actually you know, like doing the tenure-track thing or contingent faculty, this maybe doesn’t fit as well as I thought it does.” There are other things I could do that could still you know, use some of these skills. The other thing is I think it’s important to think really broadly about like what kinds of experience that you already have that translates into whatever your career search looks like that you can bring to the table. For me, before I came to the Graduate Center I spent four years actually working my way up the corporate ladder at Starbucks and I left the company as an assistant manager. And I ended up with some corporate management training and I never thought when I left the company and started at the Graduate Center that this would be useful in any way. And I have to say, it was a stressful job but I use those skills every day at YIVO. And I really think it’s because I had this previous experience that not a lot of other people in my organization have had I don’t think.
TURNER: And just coming out of graduate school as well.
GELLER: Right, right, right. I haven’t really… I feel like I had a really weird kind of credential that recommended me to my job but you know, I do a lot of project management now and kind of overseeing you know, the day to day like are we on track, what do we need to get on track. And I learned all of that outside of an academic setting. And I think that a lot of the times people in PhD programs think that I shouldn’t talk about anything that’s not strictly academic. So I have to say, this is one of the first things I look for in interns and like people I would be interested in hiring at my organization is, “what else can they do?” Like have they worked a retail job, you know.
TURNER: Is there any volunteer experience somewhere?
GELLER: Do they, you know are they passionate about something you know? And just kind of, you know, does it look like this person can function in a lot of different places or have experience from a lot of different areas to bring in? And so I think that’s really important. I feel like we get taught a lot of the time, or at least I did in a music program, like don’t talk about anything you’ve ever done that’s not music or that’s not academic. And I think, especially if you’re looking at a non-academic job it’s really important to look back at those experiences and see how they can help you with…
TURNER: What might transfer.
GELLER: Yeah, absolutely. Because I think there’s a lot.
TURNER: Yeah, great! So if someone was interested in archival research, what I think is very attractive a lot to especially our humanities grads, is it practical to shoot for archives? Or is it very competitive? What’s your kind of read on the market and the availability of positions? New York versus elsewhere?
GELLER: There are not a lot of archives jobs. I mean, and I don’t really know in comparison to tenure-track jobs or contingent jobs like what the comparison is like. I mean there are, there are some archives jobs at least in New York, which is primarily where I’ve looked. And a lot of them kind of want specific training. Like there is a degree you can get in archival, in archives.
TURNER: Great, yeah.
GELLER: And it’s usually coupled with like a MLS degree, Master’s of Library and Information Science.
GELLER: Like you can specialize in archives. And I know a lot of archivists at my organization who come from like a library and archives educational background and not a humanities background. And I would say there’s a difference. I wouldn’t really consider myself an archivist at this point. I don’t process collections, I work in more of an administrative role and digital role. But I think that in my kind of non-profit world like there is definitely room for people to come in and say, “here’s what I can do.”
TURNER: And, you just made me think to ask, are there specific skills that this field is looking for right now? You mentioned, so yeah there’s other degrees you can get but like a computer skill, something that there could be some training that you might pick up?
GELLER: Yeah it’s an interesting collection, it’s an interesting skillset. Aside from like the academic training, there is some light programming in terms of XML coding, any kind of literacy with, I don’t know, with Adobe. The usual kinds of software like it’s, it’s pretty common outside of the academic world to be very familiar especially with Excel spreadsheets. Which I think for my own experience coming out of a humanities program, like everything I learned about Excel I learned somewhere else. But you know, having good spreadsheet skills and knowing how to like, how to work with information in that kind of format is really important. Yeah, programming like having any kind of like light software knowledge.
TURNER: So those should be highlighted to on like cover letters?
GELLER: Yeah, a lot of, like a lot of the things to be familiar with are pretty specific to archival work. That I don’t know how accessible some of this stuff is to like people kind of outside of that as a profession. But I mean there are a lot of transferrable soft skills. Things like having attention to detail and being able to work on deadlines. And you know, if you’ve already worked in an archive you already have a baseline knowledge of how do you handle rare and delicate materials.
GELLER: A lot of that applies when you’re working with these things, you know in an office as well as when you’re looking at these materials in a reading room as a researcher.
TURNER: Is your position something that all archives would be like really looking to… It seems like making everything available online has to be the thing now, right?
GELLER: Yes so there’s been a huge trend, I mean I’ve noticed this as a researcher and particularly since coming to YIVO. There’s a huge trend toward digital access to books and archival materials. And I mean digital component and having like digital literacy in terms of like file metadata and what have you, is something that’s not going away for libraries and archives. It honestly I think depends from organization to organization. Industry-wide, I think there’s a pretty clear shift to digitizing things. It’s not only a means of making this stuff accessible online for the public, it’s also a way of preservation.
TURNER: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
GELLER: You know, because paper materials, they’re going to fall apart eventually. And you know, at least in my organization, we’ve had to take a lot of hard looks at how much effort we want to put into stabilizing and preserving the physical materials versus preserving the…
TURNER: …the content that’s on them
GELLER: … materials by digitizing them.
TURNER: Yeah, yeah.
GELLER: So yeah, I think yeah. I think a lot of what I do other organizations are looking for.
TURNER: Great. If that’s it, unless you have one more thing to say for sign off?
GELLER: Just thank you! This has been…yeah I got a lot out of coming repeatedly to the career planning office and just benefitting from everyone’s advice and it’s cool to come back and share.
TURNER: Yeah and it’s great to finally have a music perspective too!
GELLER: To share what the journey was like.
TURNER: Yeah, alright thanks so much!
GELLER: Thank you!
TURNER, VOICE-OVER: Thanks again to Devora, for spending time with us to talk about her work at YIVO. If you’d like to make an appointment with one of our career advisors like Devora did, visit our website at cuny.is/careerplan and you can follow us on Twitter @CareerPlanGC. Thanks for listening!
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