I am an undergraduate interested in pursuing a career in rare books and manuscripts. What should I major in?
Almost any major can translate into a valuable qualification later in your career. As the American Library Association notes, "There is usually no specific program of undergraduate study required for entrance into master's level library and information studies programs. Whatever your area of interest -- be it art, music, law, psychology, medicine, etc. -- there is a place for you in the field of librarianship."¹ When choosing a major as preparation for a career in rare books and manuscripts, you might consider these points:
- Although English, History and Foreign Languages are probably the most common degrees for special collections librarians, they are by no means the only possibilities. To give a few examples, an Art History major could work in a prints or binding specimens collection; a Biology major could work in collection of rare scientific and medical texts; a Photography major might be a future photo-archivist; a Chemistry major could become a conservator. Choosing a major that fits your passions is probably a better way to approach your undergraduate degree than trying to pick the "best" option. If you are attracted to the field of rare books and manuscripts because you love texts and reading, choose to become a Literature major for that reason, not because you think it will look better on your resume ten years from now.
- A bachelor's degree in Library Science alone is not likely to get you a job as a professional librarian. Almost all librarian positions require a Master of Library Science (MLS) degree from an institution accredited by the American Library Association. See What qualifications do I need to become a librarian / archivist? for more information on minimum degree requirements.
- There are certain courses that are likely to be useful to you no matter what type of librarian you become, including:
Computer science – Introductory programming and web development classes are useful to almost all librarians and will help you with your library school coursework.
Writing and research – The ability to write clearly and succinctly, conduct thorough research, and produce reports are skills that all librarians should master.
Foreign languages – Having foreign languages is a plus for any librarian. For some jobs, like rare book cataloging, it can be required. It will be much easier to put in the hours to learn a language while you are in college than it will be when you’re taking classes in library school, so take advantage!
“Becoming a Librarian,” American Library Association web site, http://ala.org/ala/educationcareers/careers/paths/librarian/index.cfm.