Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track: Deborah Schlein *19 (NES)

Written by
Duygu Coskuntuna, GS (NES)
Aug. 9, 2021

Deborah Schlein *19 (NES) interviewed by Duygu Coskuntuna, GS (NES).

In the Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track series, current Princeton graduate students interview graduate alumni pursuing a range of careers beyond the tenure track. Collectively, these stories help graduate students develop a vision of the journey ahead by exploring the experiences of trailblazers who have gone before them. 


I am the Near Eastern Studies Librarian at Firestone Library, Princeton University. In 2019, I graduated with my PhD from Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies Department, and I wrote my dissertation on the history of Yūnānī ibb - Greek medicine in South Asia, from the 16th to the 19th centuries. For my research, I used marginal notations in Arabic and Persian medical manuscripts to gain insight into the owners and the students of these texts – what it means to possess such a text and how one studied them. Also, I found the marginalia useful in grasping how Yūnānī ibb changed over time – how, for example, specific South Asian remedies became part of this medicine.

Laying the groundwork

As an undergrad at Emory University, I worked in the Michael C. Carlos Museum’s education department. I also acted as the Islamic Arts intern for a summer at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. So when I was applying to graduate programs, I made clear in my personal statement that I was interested in a career in museums or libraries, since I was more fascinated with the idea that I could help people learn in terms of resource access and having the materials in front of them.

I was very lucky that in my first year at Princeton, the people who would eventually become my advisors in the Near Eastern Studies department, Michael Cook and Qasim Zaman, looked at my statement and said they would be happy to support me – they even offered to send any relevant opportunities my way. I had support from my advisors, which can be hard to find, so I am very grateful for that.

Other than that, I had to self-motivate a lot, because I needed to figure out how to acquire more library or museum experience to become a better job candidate. I was in India for research during my fourth year, so I started my involvement at the library after that. After I returned, I applied to become a graduate assistant at the Center for Digital Humanities (CDH).

Much of my work was administrative, such as sending out the newsletter and helping to set up for events, but I also started learning a lot about the ever-changing field of digital humanities because of my work at the Center. Being there helped me figure out what digital humanities approaches can look like and how they can work within a library context. And later on, in my sixth year, I was a CDH grad fellow, so in that capacity, I learned valuable digital humanities skills and met with people who had followed alternative paths after their graduations, all of which was very helpful and eye-opening for me.

Here at Princeton we also have the University Administrative Fellowship (UAF) program. As I started getting interested in that program, I realized that I had interests in working in Special Collections because of my background in manuscript research. I reached out to Eric White and Gabriel Swift in Special Collections as well as Amy Pszczolkowski who was in charge of the UAF program at the time, and together we came up with a project on early Arabic printed books in our collection. There were no employees in Special Collections who specialized in Arabic, so I suggested we utilize my linguistic skills to help surface this collection of materials and make them more accessible. With Amy’s help, and the UAF program as a foundation, I was able to find funding for this student-led project. So you can see that's where a lot of the self-motivation had to come in, since I had to reach out to others to find a niche to fit into.

Co-creating a UAF position that helped Special Collections showcase some of the earliest material printed in Arabic was an exciting proposition, since this UAF position did not exist before I pushed for it. For this project, I surveyed our Arabic materials printed between 1500 and 1800. Just in case you are curious, Princeton owns a copy of the first printed Arabic book ever, a Book of Hours, printed in Italy, in 1514.

For this project, I compiled information on three centuries of Arabic printed material from Europe and the Middle East and composed a webpage that includes a bibliography and digital copies for some of the books. Doing this work allowed me to gain library experience in a different way, and this path helped me to learn more about where libraries were heading, which is a hugely valuable skill. But I didn’t yet have any traditional library work experience.

In my sixth year of grad school, when I was searching for work, I applied to postdocs, museum jobs, and library jobs – I think 13 jobs in total. I got one job offer and that was a library postdoc that had just been created at New York University, a Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellowship. They created two of these fellowships specifically for PhDs who wanted to train to become librarians. As part of the fellowship application, I had to reach out to a librarian at NYU to come up with a mentorship program. I contacted Guy Burak who is the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Librarian there, and asked him if he would be willing to act as my mentor for this program. Guy and I came up with a mentorship plan that was meant to teach me major library skills. Ultimately, it was Guy Burak and Aruna Magier, Librarian for South Asian Studies and International Relations, who acted as my mentors. What was most valuable for me was that I was apprenticing to librarians and learning practical skills on the job, day in, day out, that I would not have known at all if I just applied to a librarian position straight out of grad school.

The moment that changed everything

We all figure out what we want to do at different points in our lives. I feel like a lot of people I have spoken to about libraries and moving from PhDs to libraries realize this along the way. For me, the moment came about when I was working more publicly at the Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, with audiences composed of members of the public, students, K-12 teachers, and other groups.

Working with public audiences like this and helping them learn about histories they may have not encountered before or ones they wanted to learn more about was a wonderful experience, and I realized I most enjoyed work where I got to help people access these histories and resources. So I think that moment for me was not in grad school at all, but earlier in undergrad. And here I’d like to thank my advisors at Emory for being really amazing and pushing me in directions that helped me discover my interests this way.

Life beyond academia

So the position I have now was open for two years. I applied both times. The first time I applied, I had a phone interview, and while it was a very helpful learning experience, they asked me questions about terminology that I knew nothing about, so it was very clear that I was not qualified at the time. They reopened the job search a year later, and I applied again in the middle of my postdoc. I remember very explicitly that at the campus interview, the librarian who is now my supervisor, Patty Gaspari-Bridges, took me out to breakfast and told me that she was so glad that I had this year of professional experience, because now they could make a case for hiring me, whereas before I was a graduate student without any professional library experience. I think the key is that although it is important to get experience when you are in graduate school, the best library experience you can get is actually being in libraries and doing librarian work. That apprenticeship and training that I got in my post-doc was truly integral in preparing me for this job.

For post-PhD library training, I wish there were more programs like the one I took part in, but I can only think of two right now. There's this library postdoc at NYU, which will resume recruitment in fall 2021. There is also CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources. They specifically do a program for PhDs who want to become librarians. The idea is that institutions present projects for which they want to hire a postdoc. Candidates then apply specifically to that project, already having the necessary skills for that project since they have to mold themselves around the job. On the other hand, the NYU postdoc that I had necessitated that my supervisors and I could create projects that would enrich the skillset I would need for an actual library job. Both options end up training you for library jobs but in different ways.

When I started my postdoc, I worked very hard to ensure that it was a Monday-Friday, 9-5 kind of job. This kind of work-life balance is hard to find when we’re grad students, and I really wanted a more solid line between work and life than what I’d had while I was writing my dissertation.

I remember what it was like to be a grad student and to be researching and writing constantly. I feel like among the grad students I knew I had more of a work-life balance than most, but I was still in the library about 10 hours a day. Even during this pandemic, I think it's important to have a life outside of work. My academic efforts did not end with the dissertation. I am still interested in publishing, and I am still writing. But I do have to intentionally make time for that, because my job is a full-time job.

I think there are lots of reasons for wanting a job that is different from the traditional path and one of the key worries for me was not having time to grow as a human being. As I went from undergrad to PhD directly, my time of personal growth coincided with my years in graduate school. I tried very intentionally to focus on what was helpful to me mentally and emotionally, as well as academically, because I knew that graduate school can often be a place where students feel isolated, and I didn’t want that for myself. I think that's why I wanted to focus on maintaining a good work-life balance.

As for my position now, I divide it into three: First, my priority is to work with students, faculty and researchers who are interested in material from or about the Middle East and North Africa. This includes research consultations where a student may ask for guidance in going through resources we have. I also do library instructions for our faculty, going into classrooms and explaining for example how the library catalog works, starting from basics and then looking up Arabic, Persian, and Turkish resources, using transliterations, etc.

The second component of my job is my work with vendors. In addition to the major vendors my colleagues and I work with in English and other European languages, I also work with eight vendors in the Middle East and North Africa to acquire materials such as books and periodicals in the regional languages. As librarians, we put together plans on what Princeton would like to collect in terms of subjects and we update those plans based on what’s going on in the research world and globally. Being an area studies librarian also means that I have to pay attention to sector-related changes such as the growing availability of e-books, and follow regional news in order to notice shifts in economics and politics.

The third component of this job as I see it would be projects on accessibility and discoverability of library resources. A solid trait of being a good librarian is being able to gauge where the field is headed and what the new technologies are. For this work, I explore questions such as whether we are digitizing and making accessible manuscripts that aren't necessarily available anywhere else, and what it means to make them accessible beyond digitization.

Right now, I’m working on a project with Special Collections where we will be digitizing a collection of Arabic manuscripts. In doing this work, I’m also considering how we can engage communities and researchers with this digitized material. Additionally, there’s also a web archiving project, that I started working on last year. Web archiving is about conserving online material whose future is unsure. The project I worked on was started by Princeton’s South Asian Studies Librarian Ellen Ambrosone, and the idea was to archive global social responses to the pandemic: responses from NGOs, artists, musicians, and charities in the region to see how people responded to health and safety protocols and how they felt during the pandemic. The project was at its height in spring and summer 2020, and while we’re still collecting things, we also put together a guide for the archive so that researchers can explore it. So, when I think about accessibility and discoverability, I’m thinking about projects like web archiving, digitization, and increasing communication and engagement with various communities that aren't just academic or solely related to Princeton.

Best advice for graduate students

We don't learn in graduate school how to cold email people, and I think that's a problem. I learned so much about how to gain experience and become a better candidate for this job by asking people who worked in professions I was interested in how they got to where they are. I found Middle Eastern Studies librarians, museum curators and special collections curators whose jobs I thought were interesting and reached out to them.

I introduced myself via email and told them how I learned about them and their work, and I explained my interests in their career path and asked them if they’d be open to chatting with me – essentially for an informational interview. I call it cold emailing because with this approach I was reaching out to people I didn't necessarily know before emailing them. And I know that in addition to not being trained on how to send these emails, cold emailing someone can be a very scary prospect for grad students. But I can say from my own experience that 95% of the time, people are very happy to answer questions about their careers and the things they love doing.

Obviously that's not going to happen every time. Some people just won’t answer, and then you move on, but for the most part, people are excited to meet with students who are interested in their career paths and to help them figure out how to follow similar paths. My mother (also a librarian) taught me to always ask, even when you don't know the person, and I think it has been really valuable advice, so I’m passing that on to whoever needs to hear it.

This interview has been edited for clarity.