Career Journeys: Autumn Johnson

Autumn Johnson is the Special Collections Librarian, Assistant Professor at the Zach S. Henderson Library at Georgia Southern University.

What are your main responsibilities as an archivist?

I am currently a tenure-track assistant professor and Special Collections Librarian at a large, rural University. Despite my institution’s size, I am somewhat of a lone arranger, overseeing all functions of the Special Collections unit within my library. These include administrative functions such as developing policy and managing a small team of one full-time staff and student workers. I work with my team to arrange, describe, catalog, and digitize manuscript and rare book holdings as well as lead the promotion of our unit through exhibitions, programming, guided tours, and archival instruction. Additionally, I serve as a library liaison to several academic units. In this capacity, I teach information literacy instruction and provide research assistance to faculty and students in these areas.

What is a typical day (or week) like for you?

There truly is not a typical day or week for me. There really never has been. Day-to-day processes are greatly dependent on the needs of researchers, incoming donations, evolving priorities of the institution, and other opportunities that pop-up spontaneously. There are certainly patterns to an academic year, however. Summer and intersession periods are usually dedicated to staff training and large-scale processing projects. We also will use the Summer to plan for major programs such as Georgia/American Archives Month which is usually our most robust program of the year. Fall and Spring semesters are more focused on researchers, with Special Collections instruction demands peaking in the beginning and individual research needs of faculty, student, and community peaking towards the end. Overall, this keeps things quite exciting and I don’t find myself ever stuck in a rut.

How have your responsibilities changed throughout your career?

Technically, my current position is the first, full-time position I’ve had where the primary focus of my work was in Special Collections and archives. Prior to securing this position, I was an Information Literacy Librarian at a medium-sized HBCU and an Outreach Librarian, at a medium-sized research university. In these positions, I worked very closely with our Special Collections units which I believe set a solid foundation for teaching and public services in my position today. Although my studies in graduate school were solely focused on archives, a career in this area was obviously not immediate. My journey to a career in Special Collections/Archives has been a windy road that best demonstrates the versatility of the MLIS, which I earned about a decade ago now! But even my current position has evolved and changed. When I first began working at my current institution, the position was solely focused on public services, specifically instruction, outreach and reference. Now I oversee the entire unit and have had to relearn many technical processes.

What are some career accomplishments you’re most proud of?

My dual role as a Special Collections Librarian and liaison librarian has afforded unique opportunities to engage with faculty and students. Awareness of Special Collections has grown as a result and increasingly teaching faculty are more willing to incorporate archival materials into the curriculum. The type of Special Collections instruction has also evolved, from traditional “show and tell” instruction sessions, to instruction that offers more meaningful, hands-on experiential learning experiences. Just this past year, I began working collaboratively with faculty to create a teaching collection of historical materials for use in courses about Latin American history and culture. Last semester we worked with a class of graduates to fully process the new collection, complete with finding aid, and this semester we have undergraduates researching and curating an exhibition based on the collection. This has been a meaningful project for almost all of the students. They’ve dedicated hours and hours outside of class time to work with the collection and a handful have realized a new interest in archives as a career as a result. Potential shaping a new generation of archive/library workers is certainly something I am very proud to have done!

If you could start all over again, would you change your career path in any way? Why?

I found it incredibly disheartening not to have found my dream “archives” career straight out of grad school. However, looking back, I don’t think I would change my windy path. The skills I gained as both an Outreach and Information Literacy Librarian early in my career have certainly shaped how I approach the collections in my care. I find I am more willing to initiative more innovative instructional methods and program ideas. I also find that there is quite a bit of opportunity having one foot in the “library” world and in “archives.” Having membership in both regional and national organizations in both fields, I find that I can often share a unique perspective with colleagues who may not have experience of the other. There is quite a bit to learn from those in allied fields!

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