Charissa Jefferson, Labor Economics Librarian: Q&A
Bio: Charissa Jefferson
In October 2020, Princeton University Library (PUL) welcomed Charissa Jefferson as the new Labor Economics Librarian and liaison to the Industrial Relations Section, a subdivision of the Department of Economics, founded in 1922. She is the first woman of color to hold this position as library liaison which was first occupied in 1928. Prior to joining Princeton, Jefferson was Associate Business and Data Librarian at California State University Northridge. Before this, she served as Research Librarian at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica. Charissa holds an M.A. in Cultural Studies from Claremont Graduate University and an M.L.S. from the University of North Texas. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies from California State University, Long Beach.
What is labor economics?
Labor economics is an interdisciplinary field of study and research that seeks to understand people who work, people who are unemployed looking for work, people who are capable of working, and the inequalities in their situations. Labor economists explore issues with fair wages, such as the disproportionate rate of pay between men and women. They also look at unions and support for workers’ rights. The field also encompasses the diversity of occupations and examines the roles that people play in the workforce, and the possibilities available for people to change their occupations. Education around workforce development — starting in one field and moving to another field — is also part of labor economics.
Is there a specific sector of this field that you are drawn to?
As an educator, I’m really interested in the intersection between labor and education — the workforce development, career preparation, continuing education, learning on the job, professional development and training, including opportunities for advancement within one’s job, and the availability of labor mobility in various fields. I was excited about taking this position because it includes exploring education in that way, as a measure.
Who do you see this collection serving?
The people that I am primarily responsible to are graduate students and faculty affiliated with the Industrial Relations Section, but there are other students studying policy in the School of Public and International Affairs and in other social sciences that are doing research on people in the workplace. As long as somebody has a question that is related to labor economics in some way — about work, pay, preparation for work, or experiences in the field— they would pull me into their research process. It will also mean working with other librarians. For example, if the Gender and Sexuality Studies Librarian receives a question from a student about women’s experiences in the workplace or gender pay gaps, then we would work together to help that student find information needed.
Do you see your position relating to people beyond the social sciences?
This is primarily a social sciences position, but there is also this area of looking at entrepreneurship too, like how people invent themselves in the field or innovations in work like automation and technological advances. It can even look at physiological or psychological aspects of work. Because it looks at people’s experiences in their work life and all aspects of those dimensions examining that quality, this subject area can go through a spectrum of scientific, humanistic, or technological disciplines.
Could you speak to your background as it relates to this role?
I actually started in arts and humanities. My passion when I decided to become a librarian was in music and ethnomusicology, and I am really passionate about people. When I decided I wanted to become a librarian, it was because I really wanted to work with research and researchers. I also am a researcher, so I wanted to be around that academic stimulation.
When I got my first job out of library school, it was in line with music archives, and then I had a turn of events where I had an opportunity to be an economics, business, and finance librarian in a corporate setting. I learned on the job by getting tons of questions asked of me that I didn’t know how to answer and just figuring it out — learning by doing, showing up, and staying curious.
I was a business and data librarian for seven years in my previous position. I saw this [Princeton] position was open, and I realized everything I had done with data in my previous role was with labor economics data. About five years ago I started collaborating with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis that has evolved into several projects related to lesson planning for librarians teaching with economic data and a focus on helping undergraduate students to better understand and work with real-world data related to the labor force from unemployment to wage gaps. I wanted to bring that interest in economic data literacy to a stronger research institution where I could work with students who are passionate about making big changes in this world.
Could you talk about some of your research experience?
My research is about data literacy, which is understanding the data that people are looking at when confronted by a table, a data visualization, or a set of numbers, or what to do when they need some data and are feeling intimidated. Some of my research, which was recently published in the special issue on data in the Journal of Business and Finance Librarianship guest edited by Bobrary Bordelon, was about other business and economics librarians’ approaches to teaching with data. I did a qualitative study, interviewing 10 business and economics librarians about their practices. The larger goal of my research is to find best practices for teaching with data in library instruction that will help the professional community of social sciences subject specialists.
What does it mean to be the first woman of color to hold this position since its creation in the 1920s?
This is a unique position as it is the only Industrial Relations Section that has a librarian dedicated solely to its program. The importance of having a librarian in such an important area of study just shows the significance of this role, its collection, and the caliber of research and teaching from this remarkable institution. In my preparation for this role, I read Lawrence Damian Robinson’s book “Princeton University’s Industrial Relations Section in Historical Perspective: 1922-2015.” When I learned of the legacies of those who have occupied and supported this role and realized that I look and have a very different background than everybody that preceded me, I started to think to myself, “Why me?”
I identify as multi-racial — my father is Black and white, and my mom is Jewish – and I grew up being a bridge between different groups of people and feeling a little bit outcast at times. But I feel like my life experience, and the way that I see the world, is a way to include people who are often overlooked in collections and data acquisition.
What goals do you have for your first year at PUL?
I’m looking at it as what I can accomplish realistically during the first year remotely, and then broad goals for the first year in-person. Right now, I really want to get to know everybody. Being a new employee during a time when you can’t interact [in-person], I don’t feel connected in this surreality of virtual work. My goal is to do what I can to try and forge some connections to meet with colleagues, graduate students, and the faculty. I also want to get a better understanding of the collection, to be able to get into the Library on a semi-regular basis so I can browse the stacks. I want to better understand where labor economics might interject itself across disciplines since it shows up in various call numbers.
Wherever possible, I plan to learn as much as I can about working economic data and building the collection from Bobray Bordelon who has worked at PUL for almost 28 years as the Economics and Finance Librarian and is the head of Data and Statistical Services. Bobray has often served as acting Labor Economics Librarian during its vacancies and holds rich institutional knowledge and history of this role. As I begin to interact with students, I aim to explore avenues that I may continue Linda Oppenheim’s legacy of meaningfully teaching about relevant labor market data by imparting a deeper understanding of their accessibility and optimal use.
There is also one cool thing that the liaison has done pretty consistently since 1984, which I will continue during my first year in this role. There is a publication that the Librarian has participated in called Selected References, otherwise known as Noteworthy Books in Industrial Relations and Labor Economics. It is an annotated bibliography that the Librarian creates by perusing the recent publications in the field. This is something that is very unique to this role, and is an opportunity not only for me as the Librarian but also to contribute my thoughts of what I think is worthy to the faculty and to make informed decisions about the collection. It is also a body of work that other libraries can utilize for making purchasing decisions for their own collections. I am proud to follow in the legacies of other librarians who have disseminated knowledge and made significant contributions to this timely and relevant field. We are in an era where our collective experiences regarding participating in the labor force and changes in labor markets have primed us to consider inequities and their effects. I am excited to be at Princeton University Library as researchers are on the forefront of exploring these trajectories.
Published on January 20, 2021
Interview by: Brandon Johnson, Library Communications Specialist
Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications