Five Years Later OR How I Became a Librarian

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

I never set out to be a librarian. I didn’t loan my books to neighborhood friends as a child, nor did I practice story time with my stuffed animals. Sure my parents read to me (possibly more than some of my siblings since I am the eldest), and yeah I read Whoa, Joey! 5,000 times as a child, but I don’t ever remember thinking I would find a permanent place among the stacks. What I do remember, or maybe I should say who I remember, is Ms. Garett—the ornery gray curly-haired woman with flabby arms and sleeveless shirts— who reigned supreme over the second-floor middle school library. If your middle school existence was anything like mine (days fraught with bad hair; a major life altering event; an obsessive teenage crush on my history teacher that recounted stories of his morbidly obese grandmother and used the term “hotter than snot” regularly; a bus ride that lasted an eternity; and fair weather friends that left cryptic notes at the corner sign post), well, then it might be notable that I remember the name of the plump old librarian. She was the shusher of rowdy teenagers and the keeper of series books. Ms. Garett, I imagine, is still part of that decaying building, entombed with the book dust that was demolished decades ago. Fast forward a few years and I’d be lying if I said I used my high school library or college library for that matter. Mostly I felt insecure searching for materials on my own. I figured my professors, and by extension the librarians, would scoff if they knew I didn’t know how to find materials on my own. I mean I was in college, I should have known better. So I fumbled along and made the best of my self-inflicted ignorance.

When I graduated from college, in 2002, I started using my public library with some regularity. But even then it was mainly for the computer access and impressive DVD collection. Then, like other single women in their mid 20s, I started thinking about my professional life, continuing education, and finding a career that would be satisfying and allow the flexibility to either provide for myself or work while I had a family. Still, librarianship wasn’t on my radar. Then, one day, I decided to move to Washington DC and attend a school that one of my undergraduate mentors had also attended. There were numerous programs that appealed to someone with a liberal arts background and I kind of just picked a program because it seemed like a good idea. Before I knew it I was enrolled in library school. In the summer of 2005, I packed three bags, boarded a plane and headed off to a new life. I vividly remember starting my program with no concept of Boolean operators, let alone LC or Dewey classification systems, cataloging, html coding, and other library lingo I was certain my peers had already mastered. What in the world was I doing? Since I didn’t own a cat, had never worked in libraries, didn’t wear hipster glasses or have pink hair, and didn’t sport an ironic tattoo, I often felt like I was masquerading through the process of earning my bona fide librarian badge. But I persevered and somehow managed to tease out an attitude of “librarianship” from the tedium of graduate school. And here I am, five years later and two months into a new job.  

Graduate school didn’t teach me how to teach. I didn’t learn about pedagogy or assessment until I started working. I took one five-week intensive management course from a professor that could barely speak English and yet I’ve had two management positions in the past five years. I didn’t learn what working in academic, special, or public libraries would entail and believe me, they are different. So what have I learned in the five years I’ve been a bona fide librarian? I’ve learned that people generally have a favorable opinion of libraries, but most folks don’t know what their library has to offer, which is kind of a paradox. This goes for everyone from undergraduates to octogenarians. Sure tax payers have a vested interest in public library programs and tuition dollars cover expensive database subscriptions, but rarely do patrons understand the extent of what information they have access to. I’ve learned librarians are constantly working to ensure intellectual freedoms are preserved; that censorship is eradicated and that lifelong learning encompasses literacy across platforms and allows individuals to not only consume information but become creators of original content.  I’ve learned that some professional stereotypes are true. I’ve learned that working in an academic library on a non-tenure track provided not only amazing leave benefits, but allowed me to engage with educated individuals on a regular basis. It also provided the consistency of expected busy times (i.e., midterms and finals). Reference questions in academic libraries are generally relegated to locating scholarly articles in certain publications and how to properly cite materials. It also involved teaching individuals how to use the catalog and how to conduct effective searches in electronic resources, but overall, the questions were more or less the same. Working in academic libraries is discipline specific. For example, as the selector for education materials I would never order something for the religious studies department, since the competent religion librarians would handle that. Additionally, I’ve learned that patrons of academic libraries are fairly predictable

Contrast this to the world of public libraries and the first difference I’ve noticed are the patrons.  First off, departments are dedicated to the different phases of life: children, teens/young adult, and adult. Similarly, I’ve learned that public library questions are different due to the broader scope of individuals served. One woman asked about finding books on humor (I recommended David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, and Nora Ephron).  Another patron came in for tax laws on annuities. An elderly man was looking for prices on used cars and didn’t want to use a computer. A college student came in for information about the history of Daoism. A sixth-grade girl asked how temperature and environment affect balloons. A woman wanted to know the crime statistics of St. Louis by neighborhood. These are just a few of the questions I’ve encountered in the last two months.  I’ve also learned that the collections of public libraries, at least the library I work at, are kind of like a popularity contest. We stock the most-current-can’t-live-without-it-best-selling books and DVDs. Which means material turnover is high and sometimes the hold list can be in the hundreds.  I’ve learned that working in a public library is 1,000 times easier having the Internet to consult when faced with tough reference questions. I’ve learned that the community is truly vested in this institution and is anxious to offer feedback. Most of all, I’ve learned, that after five years, I might finally be getting the hang of this librarian thing. But I’m still not getting a tattoo.


  1. This is a great post! Really interesting... Stereotypes? Is it the cat-lady one? We're looking at 2/4 in RIS, so I think that might be one... haha


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