Member Spotlight: Caitlin Archer-Helke

Illinois Association of College & Research Libraries Forum (IACRL)

September 29, 2022

Interviewed By Kim Tipton, McHenry County College Library

A black cat adorably obscures most of Caitlin Archer-Helke's patiently smiling face

Caitlin Archer-Helke with her cat, Elvis

Caitlin Archer-Helke is currently the Acquisitions and Content Support Specialist at the national law firm Dykema, in the law library of their Chicago office, where she catalogs law materials, works with e-resources, and assists their researchers. In our interview, she describes her interesting - and at first reluctant - path through librarianship. She also shares with us some of the challenges she faced along the way that led to feelings of burnout that began to impact her health, something that a growing number of librarians are also experiencing.

Tell me about your current position at the law library. What kind of work do you do there? What do you most enjoy about the work?
My official title is acquisitions and content support specialist, which makes it sound like all I do is sling materials around—but that isn’t true. I do a LOT of material slinging, for sure, and I’m doing cataloging (albeit a very law firm-oriented version thereof!) for the first time in my life, but I also do a little bit of everything. I do a lot of e-resources work, and the problem solving that goes along with it. I fill in sometimes when the researchers need help. I’m never quite sure what I’ll get on any given day, which definitely makes everything more fun.

Tell me about your previous library work and what led you to a law library.
I kind of started out my library work running away from it. It was the family business—my maternal grandparents were both librarians and a number of my dad’s fifty or so first cousins were at one point or another librarians or LTAs as well. So never mind that I worked my way through undergrad at a public library, I was gonna be different. During my master’s in Spanish, I realized both that I couldn’t foresee spending the rest of my career teaching people how to conjugate tener and also that I was pushing my dyslexic brain way too hard with the sheer volume of historical texts I was reading. So I ended up in librarianship after all. Then I spent three years working my way through varying levels of part-time positions, including one at a public library where I was just barely under full-time. I have so many thoughts on those almost-full-time positions and their lack of ethics, but I’ll just say that I was part of the team bargaining for a first contract there, and I am really proud of what we did together.

Right after I began my first full-time job at a Hispanic Serving Institute on the South Side of Chicago, I discovered that I was essentially replacing five full-time librarians. I started off as the liaison librarian to all the humanities, all the social sciences, the education department, and all the visual and performing arts. I loved the students there so much. They’re amazing people, and I think that so many of them have the potential to change the world. But the understaffing meant I couldn’t give them what they deserved, and we had little institutional support. Over my last semester there, I was interim director and librarian; I had only a part-time librarian for help. By that point, I’d turned in so many fifteen and sixteen hour days, and it was breaking me. I needed a change before I stroked out.

I can’t say I expected anything when I applied for my current position, but here I am now. I really enjoy learning this other angle of librarianship, and everyone, from the administrative assistants to the paralegals and the attorneys, has been so lovely. I miss my kiddos but hey I’m way less likely to have a stroke now, so maybe I can find ways to work with them from beyond school confines.

How does your previous work as an academic librarian inform your current work in the law library?
You know, the most incredible thing is just how much the work is the work is the work! It was almost startling when I first began. I use the skills I honed in reference to try to troubleshoot database issues. I’ve done a surprising amount of interlibrary loan work, which is often kind of hunting for a needle in a haystack–one of the attorneys might need some particular section from like five different editions of a particular book, and I’ve got to see if anyone has those editions, and then start asking for scans of that particular section. I used to do a lot of antique law hunting for my history folks, and it definitely comes in handy here.

Can you discuss your participation in professional association activities?
When I was at SXU, I was involved in CARLI committees, which were both fun and interesting. I don’t publish as much in librarianship as I probably ought—most of my publications are actually reviews for a local Chicago publication—but I’m really excited to say that I have a chapter in the forthcoming Library Juice Press book, Serving Hispanic, Latine, and Latinx Students in Academic Libraries, on collection development. I actually geared it specifically toward people who, like me in my academic library days, are operating more or less alone, on shoestring budgets.

And, now that I’m no longer skating on the verge of a stroke all the time, I’m part of a group of people working to get REFORMA Midwest back up and running. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to provide both companionship and resources for other folks for many years to come. (And yeah I totally said companionship. I was so, so lonely at my last job.)

Do you have a librarianship philosophy?
Totally! I think a lot of my philosophy draws from the postcolonial theorists Aníbal Quijano and Walter Mingolo and their discussions of race, power, and hegemonic knowledge production, which is what happens when you come to librarianship after studying colonial Latin American and medieval and Siglo de Oro Iberian literature through a postcolonial lens. I try to work with stakeholder input, so it’s not just me, the Librarian, imposing my whims upon my populace. I need their input to be able to serve them.

I’ve always believed that information access is a human right, and that it should be both
accurate and engaging. That works a little differently in a law library—I can’t say most of those books are terribly engaging—but it comes to the forefront when, for instance, I’m cataloging. How are our attorneys or paralegals going to look for something? I need to make sure it’s findable that way, not just according to the great rules of cataloging.

Librarianship is experiencing an increase in work-related burnout due to factors like the current political climate, staffing issues, the pandemic, and more. Pieces like this article on burnout from ILA Reporter remind us that it happens to all of us. Have you ever experienced burnout working as a librarian? What was it like and how did you cope?
I guess it’s probably kind of clear by now, but my God I burned out so badly in my last position. It was hard enough when we had a full-time librarian and a director, but it was impossible with only me. I also had never had any real desire to become a director: I’d always been labor, and had served as an officer in two different unions. I tried to advocate for my people, and I think I did—God knows they deserved it—but that took a toll on me, too. When every meeting feels like a battle, it’s incredibly draining.

I’m not sure I handled the burnout, either. I had panic attacks before I went to work. I cried myself to sleep. I basically stopped sleeping, for that matter, and the whole situation was worsened by family care needs: my mother had four major surgeries in a twelve-month span, and while each one has made quality of life better, it was a lot.

When I realized just how high my blood pressure had gotten, I knew I absolutely couldn’t do it anymore. I desperately needed a change. And, of course, now that I’m the acquisitions and content support specialist, I’m able to breathe enough to once again get more involved in the profession.

Let’s end on a fun, random note. Do you enjoy live music? What was your favorite concert and why?
I love it! My mom is actually a classical musician, and I’ve literally been going to concerts all my life. It’s so hard to pick a favorite! For instance, I really enjoy the University of Chicago’s Folk Festival concerts, which always start late, are always piped in with Great Highland Bagpipes (I love all bagpipes), and which always have people dancing in the aisles. But I think I’ll call out three concerts in particular.

  1. The Chicago Symphony, under Ricardo Muti, at Krannert Center during my grad school years: I had never seen Muti live in concert, and I got the glorious, massive Chicago Sound while seeing the warmth with which he worked with the musicians, many of whom, at the time, were among my mom’s generation of performers.
  2. Then there was Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera, the last thing I saw before COVID shut the world down. It was magnificent—dark and bleak in full Tchaikovsky fashion—and I thought that the production and the performers and the musicians were absolutely brilliant.
  3. And, finally, going back to grad school: a Lyric Theater production of Offenbach’s gleeful, hilarious Orpheus in the Underworld. The student products were always amazing—really good, really avant-garde, willing to try things that might not float elsewhere. I laughed so hard I was sobbing and wheezing and the elderly couple in front of me was so mad because they were scandalized that anyone could make Orpheus into a comedy. I have no idea if they’d ever heard of Offenbach before, since he always wrote comedy, but their reactions made it even funnier.
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