Valerie Hotchkiss (PhD ’90, Medieval Studies)

What did you study at Yale, and what is your current profession/job?

I graduated from Yale in 1990, with a PhD in Medieval Studies and I have worked in university libraries ever since.  I am currently the University Librarian at Vanderbilt, where I also hold the title of Professor of Religious Studies.

What do you like most about your current role? What do you find most challenging and/ or rewarding?

In my current role, I oversee nine libraries at Vanderbilt University. It’s a big library system with collections and services that support research, teaching, and learning for all of Vanderbilt’s students and faculty. In the course of a single day, I might work on issues as diverse as music librarianship, the skyrocketing cost of science resources, hidden special collections, digital humanities projects, and outreach programming—not to mention plumbing problems or leaking roofs! The real challenge in modern librarianship, however, is making sure that the library provides not only information, but also the skills to transform all that information into knowledge, creativity, and innovation.

How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory?

I had a job in Yale’s libraries before I went to graduate school—and the libraries at Yale are an education in and of themselves! With the interdisciplinary graduate degree in medieval studies my goal was to become a scholar-librarian in the model of Leibniz, Lessing, or Harnack. In other words, I remain a scholar, publishing books and articles in the area of medieval studies and the history of books and printing, while also working as a library administrator.  My professors at Yale were enthusiastically supportive of my career goals.

What are the main skills that you acquired as a PhD student which help make you successful in your current career?

I learned how to do serious research, how to think for myself, and how to work smarter, not harder.  I also developed a strong sense of gratitude to my teachers and to Yale for having faith in me.  My dissertation director Jaroslav Pelikan cited another skill when he sent me off into the world of university librarianship:  “Remember,”  he said, “you can conjure with a Yale PhD.” True or not, that phrase has given me a lot of confidence over the years.

Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school?

Yes, I worked in the Divinity School Library as a cataloger of 17th-century German books and pamphlets.  The knowledge of descriptive bibliography and cataloging I gained from my supportive and brilliant colleagues in the libraries at Yale has helped me not only in my work as a librarian, but also in my work as a scholar. Indeed, if every scholar knew how to catalog a book, hours and hours could be saved in research time!

What advice would you offer PhDs who are interested in your line of work?

Enjoy your studies, try to be as interdisciplinary as possible, and don’t spend all your time in the library(!).  Get out and talk to Yale alums and others who are working in areas that might interest you. Use LinkedIn to find Yale alums in places and positions that interest you and contact them for an informational interview. Few will not be eager to tell you more about what they do (and let me know if you need any help using the search capabilities of LinkedIn….)