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Melanie Emerson, Dean of the Library and Special Collections

Melanie Emerson
Librarians and archivists help people learn and grow and that’s what I find really amazing about the profession.

Melanie Emerson is Dean of the Library and Special Collections for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she oversees a variety of departments and collections, including the John M. Flaxman Library, Joan Flasch Artists’ Books Collection, and the Video Data Bank.

After graduating from Wayne State with a bachelor’s degree in art history, Emerson was unsure of what she wanted to do next. While working in the museum shop at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a friend mentioned that she might be a good fit for library school.

“I had never really thought about it. I thought I would become a museum curator or conservator, but I realized that the part of art history that I liked was the research,” Emerson said. “When I learned more about the LIS field and the variety of what librarians do – it really appealed to me. Wayne State’s MLIS program was wonderful in that it gave a lot of practical experience, but it was flexible. I could work full time while getting my degree.”

Emerson says the experience she received through her practicum at the DIA and working in the archives at Wayne State’s Walter P. Reuther Library was invaluable. It not only gave her a strong foundation, but also helped to guide her to her current career path. She briefly considered pursuing a career as an archivist, but after working as an adult services librarian she realized how much she enjoyed working with – and helping – people.

“In this field you are able to help people through their educational experience in a variety of ways,” she said. “Librarians and archivists help people learn and grow and that’s what I find really amazing about the profession.”

Emerson says her current position is ideal as it brings together all of her work experience and interests. She previously was head librarian of the Ricker Library of Architecture and Art at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after working for 10 years at the Art Institute of Chicago where she served as a senior reference librarian and head of reader services within the Institute’s Ryerson & Burnham Libraries. In addition to her MLIS and archival certification from Wayne State, Emerson holds a master of art in art history from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

One of Emerson’s priorities, especially in the era of COVID-19, is to make collections accessible to all. “We’re still trying to give people the hands-on experience with object-based research. Sometimes you need to touch and feel something to really understand it and that’s something we don’t want to lose,” she said.

Her advice to current students: “Continue to always be curious and open to change. Think about the ways you can help make those changes for the world. Especially now, everything is changing at every moment and information professionals are at the forefront of making those changes happen.”