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Iron & Glass

A Q & A with Amy Ballmer, Chair of Library Teaching, Learning & Collection

by Staff Pratt Institute Archives on 2022-08-30T12:01:00-04:00 in Library Collections, Art Librarianship, Library Science, Art History | Comments

Post contributed by By Maya Lekach, Libraries Graduate Assistant

You may know Amy Ballmer as your friendly Collection Development professor or from her reviews of your Request a Purchase requests for the library (yes, she responds to each and every one of them!). Her official title is Chair of Library Teaching, Learning & Collection Development, but what else is there to know about her? We sat down with her on the eve of her fifth anniversary working at Pratt so you could find out! 


Amy Ballmer, Chair of Library Faculty 


How did you become a librarian? 

I’ve worked in libraries since I was 14 and, eventually, I decided, “Wait! Librarian is a career. Something I’d be interested in.” As an undergrad, I specifically wanted to be an art librarian in a museum, so I went to Pratt so I could do just that with the Art History/MSLIS double major. Working in museums after school, I realized that what I liked most was working with art students, which brought me to academic librarianship and then, specifically, art school librarianship. And now here I am, very happy to be back at Pratt. 


What are some of your earliest library memories? What do you love now about exploring and engaging with a collection? 

I first got really excited about a library at the University of Michigan. They have an art library and, although I wasn’t a student at the University, I was still able to use it, which I think is so magical. I was exposed to a really incredible open stacks art library. Being able to hang out for hours with whatever books I wanted was amazing and really formed the way that I would interact with libraries later on. Even as a librarian. With every job I got it was always about the collection. 

Since those formative years, I’ve encountered other amazing library spaces, many of which I was lucky enough to work in! I worked at the Brooklyn Museum, which has a really cool art library. I was working in a library annex in the Museum Education Department where I learned how to connect children and teachers with art through secondary materials. This was also where I first taught and started making the connection between teaching and a library collection. 

I also worked at the Art Institute of Chicago, which also has a great library. And the way that I learned about the collections was just by going into the stacks and looking at things; grabbing anything that interested me. I always discovered things that I never understood or knew about before. I get so much from browsing and having something simply catch my eye while I have the leisure time to empty my mind and fill it with the collections. It’s amazing to explore instead of doing research for research purposes. I love just looking at cool stuff. It’s very inspiring to be in a library — I love it. 

Amy in her teens – just when she first started working in libraries! 


What is your favorite thing about working in the Pratt Libraries?

I just love our collection. The subjects that are taught at Pratt are so interesting. It’s an art school with such an interesting Social Science program and ideas I don’t fully understand and all sorts of different kinds of research. I love being able to engage with all of it. I love how, with artists and the art collections, there's a kind of research that is just about getting inspiration. I love how artists approach things and I love the kind of books that we have in our collection that support that sort of exploration. I love when I get to engage with a class or a student one-on-one, helping them figure out what materials they need or to find the best path in their research. Working with creative students is the absolute best. It’s so fun — and also really hard. I never know what I’m doing, but I find it so exciting and energizing to be around that sort of inspiration. 

I also really like working in an academic library because part of my job, at least as I like to define it, is to stay clued in on research. What’s happening in Library Science? What’s happening in academic libraries? What’s happening around issues of open access or scholarly communication? I love that I can just say: “Today, I just need to learn about stuff.”


You’re really selling it!

I mean, it’s the best. I love it. I love my job. 

Amy edits Wikipedia at an art + feminism edit-a-thon


What does your day-to-day look like at the library?

A large part of my day is just focused on our collection –  adding to it and learning from it –  and the other part is spent thinking about how we’re using it  to teach. Today, for instance, I was speaking to our head of Collection Management, Johanna Bauman, about weeding projects and ways to keep track of spending money. We also went over some books we’re interested in adding to our collection, like those from Cassandra Press, a new publisher I just found and loved at the Whitney Biennial. That was a fun conversation. I was glad I got something big to be excited about and I was totally obsessive about it. 

But my main work in collection development is with purchase requests – which anyone at Pratt can do by simply filling out a form. I’m the one who receives these requests and orders things, finds out when it arrives, and emails every single person who has requested something to let them know that their item is here. It’s a ton of work but, in some ways, it’s the best use of my time because I’m actually having contact with our community – with the students and the faculty who have taken the time to suggest something to add to our collection and I’m really grateful to them for doing that. I’m there to let those people know that we have seen their requests and there is a friendly librarian who is here to help if you need anything else. 


What is your favorite item in our libraries?

I love my artist magazines. We have M/E/A/N/I/N/G, an art journal Susan Bee and Mira Schor. I think the fact that we have this is so cool. Our artist magazines are really awesome at Pratt. 


Image via Duke University Press


Tell me more about your project, Avalanche Magazine Index.

Back when I was working at the Art Institute of Chicago, and really trying to get students to use our stuff, I discovered Avalanche Magazine, Dé-coll/age, and Aspen in the stacks. The Institute had amazing professors in conceptual art and art of the 60s who taught about Fluxus [an avant-garde art movement from the 50s and 60s] and who would bring their classes to look at these famous Fluxus things – basically museum objects in book form. 

And then I just stumbled upon these awesome artist publications from the 70s that no one seemed to be using. Nobody. People were writing papers about artists that were in, say, Avalanche but they were reading articles about these works that were written by people 30 years after the fact. And I thought that this was so weird! This got me thinking that so much of art history is written about the same people doing the same projects as though they were the only ones doing the work. Because that’s what was known, that’s what people had access to, and that's what they were studying. So they’re writing articles and journals that are indexed by these indices that libraries are subscribing to but there’s this whole body of literature that isn't being acknowledged at all. And these are actually the artists in their own words talking about their own work. But nobody knows about it. So I was like: “Let’s index those magazines. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could digitize them too?!” 

Then I realized I didn't know how to build a database, so I couldn't actually do it myself. Instead, I wrote an article about the need to make this information known and how we can include these very important primary source materials into our research. Eventually, the Avalanche Index did actually come about because I had a colleague at CUNY, Jennifer Poggiali, who was very good at building databases and she built the Avalanche Index. I indexed everything and had crazy notes, but without Jennifer nothing would have happened. Together we were able to build this thing. 


Avalanche Magazine Index homepage 


Do you have any other projects?

Oh, you mean like having a kid? The kid is the project. 

Amy with her family 


What things do you like doing when you’re not in the library?

I like walking around and going on runs. I like listening to podcasts or music and just kind of being out in the city. My favorite thing in the world is to just walk around New York. I love it more than anything. I also enjoy cooking and yoga and I recently started going out and listening to music again which fills me with great joy.


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