Alumni Profiles Series: Jeremy Allen Smith

 February 26, 2014

Jeremy Smith

Tell us about yourself:
Jeremy Allen Smith. PhD, Musicology, 2008
MA, Theology and the Arts,  Regent University, 2003
BMus, Music Theory and Composition, University of South Carolina Honors College, 2000
Current city: Oberlin, OH
Current Job: Special Collections Librarian and Curator of the James and Susan Neumann Jazz Collection, Oberlin College Conservatory Library

What professional or career plans did you have in mind as you were completing your graduate degree?
I went to graduate school because I wanted to be involved in knowledge production and dissemination. Beyond that I didn’t have a specific career plan. I basically came to Duke trying to be as open as I could to different career options. Part of that was because of the diversity of interests I had. Another part of it was pragmatic. I was at Duke from ’03 to the end of ’08, and during that time I saw a lot of smart and talented people completing their degrees but not getting jobs. I was determined that was not going to be me.

So along the way I tried to be pretty intentional about exploring other paths. I tried some freelance editorial work for two book projects to see if I was any good at that work and, if so, if I might be interested in university press jobs in the future. Also, during my dissertation research, I did a lot of work in archives (dissertation title:“Sound, Mediation, and Meaning in Miles Davis’s A Tribute to Jack Johnson). Through that experience I was really awakened to the value of archives and the potential for that path as a career option.

What has your career path looked like since you graduated?
When I was nearing the end of the PhD I applied to jobs as broadly as I could. I applied to postdocs, faculty jobs, university press positions, and a few library jobs. The position that opened up was a position at the special collections library at Duke [now the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library]. They were starting a jazz archive, and they posted a two-year position for a jazz archivist to help get things off the ground. I feel like, from a library skills perspective, they had no business hiring me because I had no formal library training. One of the great things was that they really just needed someone who was a subject area expert and who was willing to learn the technical library skills along the way. It was a great opportunity because I could spend a couple of years developing some new skills, and I didn’t have to relocate. If nothing else it was two years to stay in academia and get a break from dissertation research.

Although it was advertised as a two-year position, it turned out there was funding for three years. During that time I realized I was good at the work, I enjoyed it, and I was developing some nice skills and work experiences. That’s how it kind of opened up. Since the Duke position was not a permanent job, I was actively applying to other positions the whole time I was at Duke. It was toward the end of my third year that the position I have now [at Oberlin] was advertised.

Tell us more about your current job. What is your favorite thing about what you do? What has been the most surprising thing about it?
The most surprising thing about library work is just how much I enjoy it.  If I could have written a job description it would be the one I have now because it allows me to blend teaching and research with the library-specific skills I’ve developed. Library work also consistently allows me to be a part of a team. It is really rewarding for me not to be working in isolation – I work with students and other patrons daily, and I work with a variety of library staff on some of the various projects I’m a part of. It’s rewarding to help people do better research, better scholarship. Oberlin was looking for someone who could oversee the whole of their music-related special collections which extend far beyond jazz. Library work compels me to explore areas of music history that otherwise I wouldn’t explore. If a patron comes in and asks about string instrument construction and repair, I get to learn about it. Or if they’re curious about the role of bass viols in American Protestant worship in the 19th century, I get to explore that. But this also lets me maintain my primary focus and interest in jazz, since several of our core holdings are jazz-related. Were I not in a position with this breadth of responsibilities I would not be motivated to think about the diversity of musical topics that I do. I love exploring the breadth of music, and this is a position that really requires that I do that.There is also something different every week if not every day. Sometimes I’m doing collection development work, talking with potential donors. Sometimes I’m traveling to coordinate the moves of collections. Sometimes I’m representing Oberlin at conferences. I work with patrons and faculty members on individual research projects, and I also prepare one-off lectures on library research skills and semester-long courses related to jazz history and research. I have a team of eight or nine students working with me and some days I’m directly supervising their work, or doing inventory work. It’s as diverse as I want it to be.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
It felt like for a number of years all I was doing was applying for jobs – any job that seemed remotely reasonable. When you apply for jobs in academia, you have to do a certain amount of research and invest in the job, even if you’re just sending out an initial letter.  Could I live in this city? Would I want these people as colleagues?  What is the institutional history of this department/position?  I had gone through this process hundreds of times, and I had application fatigue. Every new time I was applying I was a little less motivated. When I was in the midst of that a faculty member at Duke said the best thing you can do is apply for every fellowship or opportunity and then, as much as its possible, intentionally forget you applied [this was something he heard the composer John Cage say]. Apply, let it go, and that way if you’re contacted it’s this happy surprise. I’m not sure I ever succeeded at that approach, but it was still good advice…

Do you have any interesting projects or professional plans in the works?
In the immediate future, I’m working with some folks on a series of events drawing upon a large collection of photographs and personal papers of the jazz bassist Milt Hinton that Oberlin has just received.  For the fall semester, we’re planning a museum exhibit, a series of lectures and concerts, and a course that I’ll be teaching, all of which utilize that collection. One of the great things about this job is that I have the chance to design and teach a course every year or two. All of the thought that goes into that work keeps me on my toes. It lets me keep the research for the purpose of teaching rather sharp.  There is also space in my work to continue the publication side of things, and I’m starting to get the itch to return to that in some capacity. There is no expectation, but if I want to work toward publications, there can be time for it. So there are a couple of article-length pieces that I’d like to start working on soon.  If I can do something like that every 4-5 years, I can stay pretty satisfied on the research side of things.

Any advice you’d like to share with current graduate students at Duke?
The best advice I could give would be to think broadly about career-related ways to pursue the things that interest you. It’s a fair assumption that the goal of getting a PhD is a tenure-track job, but not everyone wants that, and not everyone who wants it can get it. So it’s important to think broadly and creatively about ways you can do fulfilling things that might not be a traditional faculty position. I would also say, as much as it’s possible, just enjoy graduate school for what it is. It’s a chance to read widely and think deeply, and to do that while surrounded by incredibly smart people in a context where you have a very flexible schedule. Once you’re out of grad school, much if not all of that is gone. So as much as I was working on professional development while at Duke, probably the best moments for me were when I was in non-utilitarian mode – just enjoying the experience for what it was.

What is one of your favorite memories of Duke?
My favorite memory is a general one: just the realization that while I was at Duke I had the rare privilege of taking courses with, or hearing lectures by, some of the smartest people and most creative thinkers on the planet.  I had a sense of that while I was at Duke, but in retrospect it’s become even more valuable to me.


Anna Kivlan
Anna Kivlan, Ph.D.

Recent Ph.D. Graduate