From PhD to Librarian


I have the best job in the world.  Great colleagues.  Wonderful challenges.  Meaningful impact.  On a daily basis it is my job to think about the big issues.  What that is happening now will be critical for historians in years to come?  What types of historical material can I collect that will enable scholars to present a new view of a topic or time period? What part can I play in ensuring the “little guy’s story” is also documented and preserved?  On a weekly basis, I attend stimulating talks and interact with scholars who are deeply engaged in important studies.  I learn new things everyday.  I am constantly amazed at human creativity and diligence.  I am excited by the teaching possibilities each time I encounter a “hidden gem” in our collection or when I find a particularly intriguing artifact.  I love hearing about the research that our graduate students and faculty are pursuing.  I enjoy looking for materials that might help them in their studies.  I am delighted when a resource is useful and thrilled, in turn, when it raises new questions.

I am a librarian at Stanford University.  I came to this position after receiving a PhD in Japanese religion from Harvard University in 2010.  Many people when they enter graduate school are looking forward to a career as a professor.  When I entered graduate school, I was simply enamored with the idea of spending years studying and learning.  So, when I completed graduate school, the idea of working at a library, which is a repository of learning, was attractive to me.  Having worked in libraries throughout my graduate career and even before I entered graduate school, I knew the invaluable role that libraries and librarians play in the academic community.  To me, libraries have always been the central axis from which the various spokes of my academic life have spread.  They have been gathering spaces, places of inspiration and deep research.

As an academic librarian at Stanford University, I use my PhD training to support the research of our current scholars by acquiring relevant materials, providing training sessions and drawing attention to items in our collection that may be of use.  I further procure unique materials that have deep research potential for future scholars.  After reaching out to faculty and students and learning the parameters of their research interests, I seek out resources that could be of use to them.  I search various sites to see what has been published on the topic; I read up on relevant articles to see what types of sources other scholars have used; I scour the antiquarian bookstores to see which unique resources might shed a new perspective on the topic.  In other words, I do the part of PhD training that I enjoyed the most – finding great resources and thinking about a topic from many different perspectives.  Each time I embark on this sort of project, my imagination takes off envisioning the various avenues the research may take.

Another aspect of my job as an academic librarian is discovering “hidden collections” within the materials accumulated by my predecessors.  For example, within the over 500 titles of newspapers collected during the immediate postwar period that are held in our library, I identified a significant number of titles that are not held by any other library in the world. We quite possibly may hold the only extant copy.  By adding a note in the online record, I was able to pull together a list of these rare titles and create a dedicated webpage highlighting their existence and drawing scholarly attention to their potential research value.

Collection development entails finding items potentially useful to current scholars, but also thinking broadly about what might be a valuable resource for future scholars.  What is happening now that future scholars will find representative of or critical about this moment in history?  What types of resources will provide a unique perspective on a topic?  What types of things will disappear from the historical record unless we actively collect them?  Whose voices will be left out if we ignore certain non-mainstream types?  How, as active documenters of this moment in history, can we ensure a wide spectrum of voices is preserved?  It is a lot of responsibility, but also exciting to approach collection development from this perspective. With this in mind, I have collected materials related to the 2011 tsunami and nuclear accident, such as children’s books, posters and pamphlets published by local nonprofits.  I also collect certain non-book trade materials, such as textbooks, museum catalogs, and games.

I have collected some rare historical items with research value.  My aim in acquiring these types of materials is not to obtain items already known by scholars, but to procure items that fall between the cracks of modern academic divisions. During my PhD training, I learned the advantages of a bottom-up approach that starts with examination of primary materials.  Indeed, I found that some of the modern disciplinary divides simply didn’t make sense in the early modern period and could, in fact, reify misleading assumptions when examining materials dating from a time prior to significant Western influence.  As a librarian, I have the opportunity to bring to students’ attention materials that speak against the grain of modern assumptions.  For example, I built a collection of early modern prints that fall between several genres.  Most aptly termed “souvenir prints,” this collection consists primarily of map-like single sheet woodblock, copperplate or lithographic prints of temple or shrine compounds.  The collection reveals the different potentials of various printing technologies, shifts in modes of imagining geographic space, changes in relations between Buddhism and Shinto over time and at different locales, and uncovers a perspective on religious pilgrimage that will not be found from traditional doctrinal study alone.

Grants can be critical in acquiring particularly expensive collections, creating digital archives or processing un-cataloged materials. Research and writing skills honed in graduate school can be put to use when proposing a project, such as creating an online exhibit or arguing for the archiving of certain born digital items.

Electronic resources are another critical part of collection building and maintenance.  Procuring them requires researching available resources, determining their value for scholars, negotiating favorable license agreements, ensuring they are easily accessible once acquired, and giving training sessions so that they can be used to their fullest extent.  In addition to such purchased electronic resources, I monitor an ever-enlarging field of free digital archives. I have created a dedicated online guide that brings together links and descriptions to many of these archives that are useful to current students and faculty. There are many avenues to find the electronic resources that are available; I have found that the community of librarians is extremely supportive of each other.  While the breadth of information we may be expected to know can be intimidating, there is always a helping hand nearby.

Terrific colleagues surround me.  The opportunity for collaboration is ever-present for an academic librarian.  We work together to teach seminars, purchase special collections, and spearhead various projects.  It is always interesting to learn more about the collections my colleagues are building and thereby learn even a little about a topic that may be far outside my own studies.  Teaching together a similar topic but using materials from far different places, such as the history of printing in early modern Europe and Asia, is wonderful for the students and also for me.  We all get a little glimpse into a whole other world.

Academic librarians engage with the scholarly world in a supportive and creative way.  We create exhibits of unusual materials in our collections for visitors to the library.  We build online exhibits that draw visitors from all over the world.  We write articles, give talks, and publish books.  We help foster a collaborative learning environment by providing a central place for students to gather.  We are often a sounding board for first ideas, helping students organize inquiries and map out a path forward.  We can facilitate meetings between people with similar questions.

I am part of a team of people who ensure the library runs smoothly.  As a public services librarian, my role is to build a collection that supports current and future scholars, to identify and highlight gems in our collection, and to provide training for users.  Our technical services librarians play a critical role in cataloging the materials that come into the library.  Without excellent and detailed cataloging, these acquisitions might never be discovered by our patrons.  Further, our ordering and receiving specialists diligently and daily ensure that all the different types of materials are tracked to the correct locations, that invoices are paid on time, that labels are affixed and records accurate.  There are so many details that go on behind the scenes in a library, I am daily amazed and grateful for the conscientiousness of the team with whom I work.

Just as a book condenses a wealth of thoughts and ideas, memories and dreams, the walls of the library overflow with inspiration and collaboration, inquiry and perseverance.  It is a meeting place, a place that inspires questions and presents possible paths to discover answers.  A librarian helps gather materials, provide access to them and teaches researchers how to find and use resources.

A joy of learning led me to graduate school and to develop friendships with the librarians at Harvard and other universities where I pursued my research. These relationships were critical in helping me to land the position as a Japanese Studies Librarian at Stanford University.  My advice to graduate students is to follow their interests, keep an open mind, and maintain a wide range of connections.  You never know where they will lead.

If you are considering applying for a role in a library, let me warn you: the interview process can be grueling.  It includes a full day of interviews with various groups within the library system.  You will need to be prepared to explain to them why your background will make you a good fit in the library.  Which aspects of your past experience are applicable to the role?  You will probably have a meal or two with your interviewers.  During these informal moments, they likely want to see if they will be able to work with you, if you have a vision for building a unique collection, and if you will be able to interact productively with faculty and students.  Graduate school has prepared you to make a convincing argument.  Use this skill to argue you are the best candidate!

Regan Murphy Kao
Japanese Studies Librarian, Buddhist Studies Librarian
East Asia Library
Stanford University

Image: Asakusa Kōen daifunsui no kōkei 浅草公園大噴水之光景. Tsutsumi, Kichibē, author, publisher.

堤吉兵衛, author, publisher.  Tōkyō-shi Nihonbashi-ku : Tsutsumi Kichibē, Taishō 2 [1913]

東京市日本橋區 : 堤吉兵衛, 大正 2 [1913]


The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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