Jill E. Baron MLIS’12 serves as the Librarian for Romance Languages and Latin American, Latinx, and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College. She also co-directed “Change the Subject” (2019), a 54-minute documentary film about a group of Dartmouth students who challenged anti-immigrant language in the Library of Congress subject headings.
In a Q&A with SC&I, she shares her exciting career path and advice for current students.
SC&I: Library science wasn’t your first career. Would you tell us about your early career explorations?
JB: Before attending Rutgers for a degree in library science, I explored a couple of different career paths. My B.A. was in French and comparative literature, and after graduating, I taught English for a year in France before moving to Philadelphia. I thought I might want to go to law school and so found work as a paralegal. But I wasn’t very happy at my job. What I wanted to do was learn how to cook (I love food). At first, it was a hobby, apprenticing and volunteering in the kitchen of a French restaurant in my neighborhood. But with time, I found I wanted to dedicate myself full-time to cooking. After some years in pastry and garde manger stations, I found work in a former monastery-turned-hotel in Cazalla de la Sierra, Spain. I later ran the kitchen in a restaurant in Seville. After three years in Spain, I wanted to write about these experiences, so I left Spain to do an MFA in creative writing at The New School.
During my MFA, I spent a lot of time in the library doing research, and I loved darting around the stacks, finding books, which led me to more books, and so on. It was such a delight to come upon a reference to, for example, the Ivoirian writer Véronique Tadjo, look her up in the online catalog, and then consult a book of hers within minutes. Towards the end of my degree, I started wondering how I could stay there, in the library, because I loved that feeling, that sense of inexhaustible intellectual exploration. I remember sitting in a study carrel in Bobst Library and asking myself, “Could I work in a library?” I got up, took the elevator downstairs to the reference desk, and asked the librarian on duty: how can I work in a library? What kind of training and credentials do I need? I think I made his day! I started to learn about the role of subject librarians in academic libraries and decided that this was the job for me.
SC&I: What led you to pursue a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS), now the Master of Information degree, at SC&I?
JB: Once I identified this goal, I chose SC&I at Rutgers because I wanted to have access to the resources of a research university, including gaining work experience in a research library. During my MLIS, I had two part-time jobs: one as a reference assistant in Alexander Library and another as a collections and reference assistant in the Art Library. The combination of hands-on experience and mentoring by several of the librarians on the New Brunswick campus was invaluable. After graduating, Princeton University Library hired me to process archival collections, and I later moved to Dartmouth College, where I have been the subject librarian for romance languages and Latin American, Latinx, and Caribbean studies since 2012.
SC&I: You co-directed the documentary film “Change the Subject” about a group of Dartmouth students who lobbied the Library of Congress to replace the term “Illegal aliens” with “undocumented immigrants” in the Library of Congress subject headings. How did this come about?
JB: I did not foresee becoming a filmmaker per se, nor did I envision finding in librarianship a story to tell through film, but I do believe that my MFA honed my ability to think narratively and identify good, even important, stories. The idea for this film came about after seeing the movement to change the subject heading grow from a local action at Dartmouth to a source of debate by members of the House of Representatives and covered in the national news media. This happened just prior to the senior year of many of the students involved in the original effort, and so I wanted to interview them in order to document this intersectional social movement. I brought together a film team consisting of Sawyer Broadley, a video producer, and two of the students, Óscar Rubén Cornejo Cásares and Melissa Padilla. Three years later, we ended up with a 54-minute feature length film that far surpassed our original project vision. While a documentary about a library cataloging term might not seem all that interesting, when we see and hear about the impact of this term on the students who launched this movement, we care. I think the film does a good job of plucking the subject heading out of a distant, abstract realm, and exposing it as racism in plain sight.
SC&I: What classes or instructors at SC&I were most influential? Have you continued any of these professional relationships? How did SC&I help you define your career path and achieve your career goals?
JB: I took some really great classes at SC&I. Jana Varlejs’s course on library instruction provided training in pedagogy and classroom teaching. Tefko Saracevic’s online course in digital libraries was an exciting mix of conceptual and practical information. I realized from his teaching that online learning could be just as engaging as in-person learning so long as the professor sets clear expectations, gives room for creativity, and is responsive. However, the professor that had the most significant impact on me was Marija Dalbello, whose class “Knowledge Structures” showed me that the field of library science offered space for deep thinking and speculation, with connections to disciplines such as history, anthropology, and philosophy. Intellectually it was a rigorous class, but Marija was always encouraging and supportive and continues to be—she still advises me, and every conversation with her guides me through more complex thinking about the issue at hand. In her class I took a specific interest in the complicated role of libraries and archives in shaping culture and knowledge production. I think that “Change the Subject” tries to get at this: what happens when patrons experience the library not as a beacon of inquiry but as a source of discrimination or oppression? And with that knowledge, what do we, as a profession, do about it?
SC&I: What advice do you have for SC&I undergraduates?
JB: Try and take advantage of the resources of this expansive research university. Working in two of the New Brunswick campus libraries gave me excellent work experience. The Rutgers librarians that I worked with, including Sara Harrington, Melissa Gasparotto, Tom Glynn, and Jim Niessen, were incredibly generous in their mentoring and professional guidance. I also sought out coursework outside of SC&I to help further my professional aims of Latin American Studies librarianship. In my last term at Rutgers, I took a graduate seminar in the department of Spanish and Portuguese with Professor Marcy Schwartz. It was among the most challenging and absorbing classes I have ever taken, and it exposed me to another whole side of Rutgers. I was active in the student club SOURCE (the Student Organization for Unique and Rare Collections Everywhere) and made connections that have endured to this day. At the beginning of my master’s degree, I told myself that I was only going to be on the New Brunswick campus two times a week, but as my degree progressed and I got more involved with work and SOURCE, I found myself there four or five days a week. But it was worth it. The relationships I formed with students, Rutgers librarians, and professors informed my interests and career choices. To this day, I run into folks at conferences and even collaborate on occasion with people I met at SC&I. My professional network started at SC&I and continues to sustain me in many ways. Take care of that!
SC&I: Finally, are you still cooking?
JB: I don’t cook much these days, though my husband is a professional chef, so I do eat well. For a long time, I didn’t have any idea what career I would find myself in, but now, with hindsight, I see that there were connections and continuity all along and that it was through librarianship that many of the seemingly divergent paths came together.
SC&I thanks Jill Baron for her generosity in sharing her story and advice. We urge you to watch “Change the Subject” and perhaps host a screening with your class, club, or friends.