This is the first in a series of three sharing Sarah Ward’s story. Sarah and I spoke in July 2020. The air was hot, the pandemic was raging, and we both agreed we were happy to be discussing something other than COVID-19 or strategies for remote teaching and learning.
Position: Associate Professor, Outreach Librarian
Institution: Hunter College – City University of New York (CUNY)
Fun Fact: Sarah’s undergraduate degree is in theatre production and design with a minor in dance. Her first career was as a costume technician and wardrobe person in various theatre, dance, and opera companies in Chicago. Librarianship is her second career.
Sarah Ward is a librarian at Hunter College in New York City, where she works as Outreach Reference and Instruction Librarian. Prior to coming to Hunter, Sarah worked as an art librarian first at the Met, and then at the Parsons School for Design. When she responded to my call for interviewees, Sarah let me know she had a very particular story in mind that she wanted to tell. The story she shared is connected to publishing and research in art librarianship. It is a story about a project Sarah says is “…the work that I’m actually most proud of and had the most lasting impact.”
When I started working at my current job at Hunter College the library had their artwork hanging in the wall of the library, which I thought was really interesting. And nobody really knew much about it. We had folks who worked at the library had been there since the 80s and they were like, “they’ve been around since then.” So, I started poking around to find out more about this collection and it turned out that it was a fairly significant collection of prints from the 50s through the 80s by Puerto Rican artists. This was really a hot time of printmaking in Puerto Rico—part of it was Puerto Rican nationalists and rallying around the people who were fighting for Puerto Rican independence. The collection had different types of prints—linocuts and silk screens and all different kinds of stuff. They ended up digging through the archives at the college and people kept just finding things in storage rooms and under broken glass and so they would send me a picture and say, “is this part of the collection too?” And I’m like, “yes, it is,” and so I started gathering all this stuff. The research for this took about five years and I actually had two interns helping me at one point and inventorying the collection, learning about the collection. So I pieced together the whole story about this collection of art, which was not insignificant; the history of Puerto Ricans in New York is an important part of the city’s history and continues to be so. At Hunter we have the Center for Puerto Rican Studies and they have an archive in the library, so I started looking around at their collections and discovered they had some of these artists’ works. I ended up drawing enough attention to the collection that we ended up transferring the it to their library and archives for preservation and digitization and they have been keeping them ever since. They have used them in exhibitions about these different art makers and for lots of different things. So the works were supposed to be public art, and they are now being returned to the public because they’re digitizing them and making the finding aids available, which is really cool and that’s what I ultimately hoped would happen.
The way that the art got into the college was that the entire undergraduate student government, in about 1983, started using their money for things that were unsanctioned. They were going out to restaurants and renting cars and all kinds of stuff. And one of the officers went to Puerto Rico and one of the artist Lorenzo Homar’s prints was autographed and signed over to the students of Hunter College. The student officer was Puerto Rican and he went to the island, but he used this money to pay for his trip to Puerto Rico to stay at a hotel and purchased a bunch of artwork with undergraduate student government funds. I started off thinking misappropriation of funds, but then the more I looked into it and the more I thought about the time in history that it happened, I feel like this was an act of defiance and an act of representation. He would’ve been in the era of the children of the young lords and the people who were pushing for healthcare reform and the students who were occupying city college and shutting down CUNY and saying CUNY needs to be free, we need to open admissions. There was a big push in the 60s and 70s for open admissions and for Black and Puerto Rican Studies departments. I’m making wild assumptions about his family, but I assume that in his community he would have had been around other people who were fighting for these things. And so, when he got to Hunter and saw – I need to see my people represented at the college in some way – and so he purchased this artwork as a way to get it there.
So, that’s my speculation. And I know it’s like a big overreach but I do feel like it’s appropriately timed and that perhaps there was a bit of student activism there, rather than just – ‘I’m going to spend money on something that I like.’ It was a fairly well-curated collection for an undergraduate student to be able to pull together this collection of prints by major Puerto Rican artists, but also by people who trained at the workshops of those artists. So it was this nice story through history and art making. Anyway, I thought this was really interesting and also sort of embarrassing for the college, because it betrayed the fact that the college was still not adequately representing students of color who comprise the majority of the student body. They also totally overlooked this misappropriation of funding. Then there was this big crack down, and a big investigation, and legal got involved, and people in the budget office got fired, and so it was this embarrassing thing for the college, too. Anyway, I digress.
Anyway, that’s the research that happened and I thought it was significant and interesting. So I reached out to the editor of Art Documentation, and she’s like, “this sounds like a great story. Please submit your article.” So I submitted it and the first reviewer comments were brutal – so painful. This had been five years of my life and I was feeling very invested in it. It was also my first solo-authored article—everything else I had done had been collaborative—so this was a thing that really meant a lot to me and so it really hurt a lot when I got these comments that were just basically that it was terrible. And the editor was so kind because she said the reviewers agree that it needs significant revisions, so I have to revise and resubmit, which was fine. I took the comments for what they were. Of course they were contradictory just like reviewer comments often are. Some people loved certain parts of it, and some people hated the same parts of it, and I didn’t know what to make of it.
It was a valuable learning experience for me of trying to draw meaning from contradictory statements and figuring out what was important to me to keep in the article and maintaining my integrity as a researcher. I think that especially as a relatively new researcher I was still thinking, “oh everybody else knows better than me so I should take what they say,” and change the things that I had done. And then I started thinking more. I was like, “no this is really important.” This is an important thing for me to include. So I went back and revised and I resubmitted and I got another round of reviewer comments, which were kinder and more constructive, but they still rejected the paper. I was like, “well what do I do now?” I didn’t give up, but I stopped and thought, “I don’t know where else to submit this because it’s about an art collection in a library, it’s part librarianship, it’s got all the things.” And so I paused for a little bit and just regrouped and started thinking. I ended up presenting at the REFORMA National Conference in 2015, which actually was a really good fit for this work because it was still not published and it was still a work in progress. I got some really great feedback from that presentation about the collection and about the work and I thought it was a really excellent place to have debuted the work.
And then out of the blue the editor emailed me and she said, “I haven’t stopped thinking about your article and I really want to publish it and I’m willing to work with you on it.” It was as if she was like, ‘I am the editor; I’m going to decide that this is a thing that I want to publish even if my reviewers disagree.’ I found her email the other day and here is what she said, “I was going through some art doc files this evening and came across your article. I feel like you were so close with it and I really would like to see it published. How would you feel about doing one more round of revisions based on the second group of reviewer’s comments and then submitting?” Because I made the choice not to revise again and resubmit. She was so kind and she went through the reviewer comments with me and said, “here are the things that I think you needed to change or to improve on or modify on this article in order for it to be publishable by Art Documentation.” I felt like that was such a valuable thing for someone who is new to all of this; to have an editor say, “I’m going to take a chance on this even though my expert reviewers have said no,” that she saw something in the work. And it probably me being so immersed in the archival research that I over told the story; there was too much information and so the importance of what happened got lost.
And it read like a narrative, it wasn’t formal, like what you would think of as a typical scholarly article, it read like a story because I was telling about the journey of this collection and my journey with this collection. So she helped me shape it in a way that it would be appropriate. And ultimately it got published and I was super proud of the way that it turned out. It was the research I was most proud of because it allowed a little bit of light to be shed on a piece of history that would have probably gotten lost or destroyed as our library was being renovated because they were just removing things from the walls and putting them in the closets, so the fact that I spoke up and said, “hey this is important” and I got other people involved who were experts and said, “hey this is important and we need to do something with this.”
Emily: One of the things that you started talking about early on as you were relaying this experience is how emotional it was for you because you had spent so much time working on this project. I would like to unpack that a little bit. Were the comments really personal and harsh?
Actually revisiting this after a while is really good because at the time it felt personal and I don’t think it was. Do you know what I mean? It felt personal because of my investment in the research, but I don’t think that they were. I think that that’s why I had such a reaction to it is that I was so invested in it I wanted everyone to love it. Knowing what I know now, and in retrospect, of course harsh comments are going to feel personal if it’s something that you really care for. It’s so funny to look back at these emails about “I found another print.” [laughs]
Emily: You got everyone onboard. It was like a treasure hunt.
Yeah. It was like a treasure hunt. That’s actually funny that you say that; that was one of the comments that somebody made in a derisive manner, “this reads like a mystery story,” and I was like, “it kind of was, so it’s okay that it read like that.” It was just funny. One of the reviewers said that it wasn’t appropriate for Art Documentation, which I disagree with. They wanted more of a connection to art libraries rather than just art and libraries. “This paper does tend to read like a newspaper article.” That’s what they said. So, it was journalistic rather than academic, which I took very harshly, but now I’m just like, yeah it really is actually and that’s fine. You know what’s funny, is I’m reading these now and they’re not that harsh but they felt really harsh at the time.
They didn’t like the informality with which I wrote it. Because it was a personal journey story, I wrote it from the first-person perspective. It felt very silted for me to say, “the researcher blah, blah, blah” because it’s me; I was doing the work. The reviewer’s said it needed to be formalized and to remove my presence from the article, which I utterly disagreed with. I was like, “I can’t remove myself from this because I am involved in it.” They didn’t like the personal narrative style. They all thought that it filled a gap in the literature, which was nice to hear. A lot of it was stylistic that they didn’t like, which I think felt more personal because it was my voice and so they were criticizing my voice essentially. Here’s one: “this article isn’t engaging enough. It’s not an engaging story and reads like a mystery.” [laughs]
Emily: When I hear people say that their work is rejected or made to be revised based on voice and style, especially if it’s not performing academic tone, that to me reeks of elitism and privilege. That is my personal reaction to those comments, and especially since you say it’s about your personal experience. It’s a phenomenological approach. It sounds like you were able to get it published, but that was only because you had a champion in the editor. Do you feel like you were still able to have your voice and your tone?
Yes. Because as I’m looking through these notes the first round of reviews was three reviewers, and that reviewer number two was the one who, of course, you focus on the ones that hurt your feelings the most, so that one is the one I focused on. And I’m looking at reviewer three’s comments and theirs were super constructive and helpful, and I actually incorporated a lot of their comments into the article eventually because they said “the style is not what we usually see in this journal but it’s appropriate for the unfolding of the story” and I was like, “okay validation.” Somebody saw the reason why I wrote this thing. And then they also gave me suggestions like, “can you connect it to this historical context to me?” Or “can you connect it to these other types of things? This is a singular event but it’s not unique; there’s other things that have happened that you can connect to this.” They gave me some very good suggestions for other sources to look into, which I ultimately did. So it’s funny to look at this now and think how I only focused on that one really negative review and this one was really helpful. It really was that the editor ended up seeing promise and taking a chance on me. And again, the second round of reviewer’s comments were better, more helpful, less harsh but still wanted substantial revisions, that I didn’t think would take the article in a direction that I wanted it to go, and so I started looking for somewhere else to publish it. So I don’t know that they were as personal as I took them, but that second reviewer really hurt my feelings. And that’s silly now that I think about it.
And the funny thing is I’ve written my share of these academically-toned articles; I’ve written plenty of research studies with other people in this academic voice and I felt like an art library journal would be a place for it, there would be a little bit more freedom to have a narrative. And I had read Art Documentation–not everything is hard-core social science-y research-y, they include other kinds of stuff as well.
Emily: Do you think that if you hadn’t heard from the editor you would have continued to pursue this?
I don’t know. That’s a very good question because I see now that I tried another journal and they also said out of scope for the journal, like they were interested in the story but they said it’s not really in their scope. I just didn’t know where else I could publish it. I feel like in library science literature research librarians who are publishing things like that, we often think, “well wouldn’t it be great to publish outside the discipline?” But then you get into –I also am not a historian and so I would feel really outside my realm in a history journal or in an art history journal because it’s not my field. I know enough to guide students in research in those areas, but I’m not an art historian and I would feel like it would get torn to pieces if I tried to publish it somewhere else. And so I felt stuck because I didn’t know where else it would fit because it’s at that intersection of art and history and libraries so where else do you put it?
I was so disappointed because I had worked for so long on this and it was so important to me I think I ultimately – presenting at REFORMA really helped me see the value in the research for the impact that it had rather than for my tenure portfolio– and that was eye-opening to me. When I got into academia I was so idealistic at the beginning that I thought I don’t want to just publish for other librarians, I want to have my work have an impact and most of what I published isn’t read by anybody but librarians. Fine. Whatever. But this I felt like it was important enough culturally and historically that I was glad, even if it couldn’t be published, that it had made a difference in preserving a bit of cultural heritage that was important to New York. I feel like at least at the very least the collection and the representation of these artists was not taken care of. And like it’s in the hands of people who will care for it such their library archives are something that they do so much great work with Puerto Rican history and featuring like Puerto Rican lives in New York and stuff like that. Anyway, it’s a good thing that it happened even if it never got published.