Alumni Profiles Series: Paul Allen Sommerfeld
Paul Allen Sommerfeld received his Ph.D. in Musicology in 2017 and completed an M.S. in Library Science from Catholic University of America in 2019. He works as a music librarian and historian for the Music Division of the Library of Congress, while continuing to publish his research in film music.
What drew you to a library career?
In my third or fourth year at Duke, I needed some summer funding because I didn't get a summer research fellowship. A friend of mine suggested working in Ford Library at Fuqua Business School, because they liked having graduate students. In that position, there was a good balance between the library work and being able to work on my dissertation. I found that I really liked it; I liked helping patrons. Afterwards, I started working in Duke’s Music Library. That was when I realized this was the kind of career that I wanted because I'd already been a little on the fence about academia and pursuing a professorial tenure-track job. In my last year at Duke, I had an internship at the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. That internship provided me with the experience to be a full-time librarian. But what really drew me to a library career was a combination of needing money and finding work that I actually enjoyed and was good at.
Tell me about your current job.
I research the collections in the Library of Congress’ Music Division to help researchers by creating guides and other resources for navigating our materials, answering questions, and then researching the collections myself. My main area of emphasis is dealing with our film music collections; my major project right now is a bibliography of all Disney scores at the Library of Congress. These materials are unpublished for pretty much every Disney production between 1933 and 1978. My other big project is a digital collection of all of our silent film music material. So that involves locating many materials, assessing them, and aggregating them. It’s a really interesting combination of bibliographic work and academic research, because we have to figure out what an item is and what's interesting about it. The bulk of my job is research and helping people research our collections.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
I enjoy that every day is different. But probably my favorite thing is just the sheer amount of stuff that I get to work with every day: the manuscripts, the letters, the incredibly rare and interesting things. And there's so much there, that I'm learning something new every day. I didn't realize we had this, or I just discovered that we have this, and nobody's touched it in over fifty years, and we didn't even realize we necessarily had it. I learn something new every day and I get to work with incredibly interesting things. It's a really stimulating environment; a special place.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice about library jobs I received was from my supervisor at the Rubenstein, Meghan Lyon. She told me the first step is to get a job. It might not be your favorite library job, it might not be the place where you're going to spend the next year or two, but get a job because you need experience and you have to pay your bills. In so doing, try and get a job that allows you to spend something like 10 hours doing other things, like volunteering at the kind of institution where you eventually want to be. In my first library job, my hours were such that I could volunteer at the Hirshhorn Library in D.C., which is part of the Smithsonian system. That experience is a big reason why I got the job I have now, because I was able to get some federal library experience and to better understand the library ecosystem.
Do you have any advice for current graduate students interested in exploring careers in a library or, more generally, outside academia?
Getting a job in a library is not a backup plan. It is just as competitive, if not more so, than an academic or tenure-track job. That's something I really discovered after deciding I wanted a library job, especially to get a full-time librarian job. It's incredibly difficult and can often require getting yet another degree, a Master of Library Science. In general, I would advise graduate students to think about skill sets, and how you can communicate your skills. Learn how to apply your skills in multiple ways. Especially if you're in the beginning or middle of your program, think about what other kinds of jobs could you be interested in. Many of the librarians I worked with at Duke were incredible supporters and mentors. Laura Williams, Meghan Lyon, Amy Brennan, Naomi Nelson, and the library system at Duke overall were immensely helpful in shaping my career trajectory.
Liz Crisenbery, Ph.D.
Recent Ph.D. graduate, Musicology
Liz Crisenbery defended her dissertation in spring 2020 while working as an administrative intern for The Graduate School. Her musicological work examines masculine identities of fascist composers and reception of their operas during the height of Italian fascism, exploring the intersection of music, gender, and politics. She is invested in career diversity and is currently exploring paths outside academia.