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How and Why I Became A Librarian

This post is dedicated to Virginia Jacobs, who personally asked me to contribute to the global Library Routes Project at http://libraryroutesproject.wikkii.com/wiki/Main_Page.

I enjoyed libraries as a child. It was a biweekly highlight for my mom to take me to our local public library in Pacoima, California. At the suggestion of a librarian, I placed my first (Interlibrary Loan) ILL request in my early teens — for one of the first editions of the Star Fleet Technical Manual. Usually I’d check out stacks of astronomy books.

When I was in college at UCLA in the mid to late 1980s, I was a student assistant at the University Research Library (Now Young Research Library), which we student workers called URL. I think it’s fair to say that I was completely undistinguished in my work. I worked in the circulation department and on the Graduate Reserve Service desk, so I actually didn’t see any librarians in my departments, just full time paraprofessionals. No one encouraged me to to go to library school and I thought of my experience as a job that paid the bills. I did have some fun times and I was impressed with the breadth of holdings. It seemed like nearly any curiosity could be satisfied with the materials we had available.

When I graduated with my degree in history in 1989, I made myself two promises:

  1. I would never, ever work in another library again.
  2. I would never, ever attend graduate school.

Once I left college, I did temp office work. When I’d go to job fairs, people would look at the three years I spent at URL and tell me I should be applying for library jobs. I also did a two issue stint as an assistant editor on an aerobics magazine, but I was laid off because they couldn’t afford the meager salary they paid me. I know it was meager. The publisher told me when he hired me that I had underbid everyone else.

Somehow, and I forget who suggested it to me, I started signing up with library specific temp firms.  I worked with Library Management Systems the most. While I didn’t get warm fuzzies from them, they liked me enough to find me steady work. I also owe them my first solid job out of college — acquisitions assistant at O’Melveny and Myers. I loved the library people at O’Melveny, but I wasn’t a good fit for the corporate culture. Neither were most of my library colleagues. Their library had about 70% turnover a year after I left.

It was at O’Melveny that I first embraced the idea that library work was more than just a way to pay bills. It could be interesting in its own right. This was were I met my first library mentor – Kathleen Smith. Kathleen was supportive of library staff regardless of their level or credential.

While I was at O’Melveny I met my future wife at a bus stop. We were engaged by the time I decided it was time to leave O’Melveny and she was very supportive.

My next library job was as a library assistant at Latham and Watkins in Orange County. Latham was a generous firm. I felt extremely well paid for a library assistant. I had a boss who rewarded success and punished failure with equal vigor. She demanded and usually received 110% from all of us and gave something like 130% herself. I was there for a year and a half, the longest serving of any of her previous five library assistants. Thanks to my boss, I was able to take a paralegal research class which introduced me to doing reference.

It was around this time that I decided that out of all the workplaces I had worked in since college, I’d liked libraries the best. They had the friendliest and most interesting people to work with and had varied kinds of work. Additionally, librarians could legitimately research practically anything at work. It was a license to be a generalist. I started thinking that a career in libraries would be a good thing.

I also realized that if I wanted to be more than a library assistant, I was going to have to break my second graduation promise to myself and go to grad school to get my Master’s in Library and Information Science. I also decided that I would need to leave Southern California to do it.

By this time I was married, but Louise was very supportive of a move.  I looked at various grad schools around the country. UCLA had a grad school but the thought of going back there did not appeal to me. I finally focused my attention on University of Washington in Seattle and University of Texas at Austin and wrote their grad schools for more information.

I wound up going to Austin for three reasons:

  1. Louise was from Texas and wanted to go back.
  2. UT Austin gave me a much friendlier reception than UW.
  3. It rained too much in Seattle. (Anyone who knows Juneau climate knows how hi-larious this is in retrospect.)

Although I settled on Austin, I didn’t apply right away. We figured I should work for a few years to build up savings and to qualify for in-state tuition. We wound up moving to San Antonio (80 miles from Austin), where Louise had friends and where I had landed a paraprofessional job at the University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA) that would change my life.

That job was as a government documents processing assistant at a Federal Depository Library (FDL). In 1993 UTSA was unlike many FDLs because it did not have a unified documents department. Instead, the processing (my job) was done within Technical Services and the nominal Federal Depository Coordinator was located in the Reference department where he assisted in staffing a unified reference desk. He did not have any supervisory responsibility for me. At the time, this arrangement was unique in San Antonio.

This led to a happy result. Although I was a paraprofessional, the depository librarian sought and received permission to start bringing me to meetings of the San Antonio Document Users Group. They were a group of documents librarians who met once a month. I was invited to join them because processing issues often came up at these meetings and the UTSA depository librarian was unable to speak on these issues because he had no involvement with the processing side of things.

I loved going to the meetings and developed a liking and respect for many of the librarians there, especially Kathy Amen of St. Mary’s University. She seemed really knowledgeable and determined to make sure people knew about the rich plate of government information resources available for the asking.

In addition to the monthly document users group meetings, this was about the time I joined govdoc-l, then and now the strongest and friendliest community of documents librarians you will ever come across. According to a search of the govdoc-l archives, it looks like one of my first messages was on December 20, 1993 and asked about a shipping list. My question was answered by a docs librarian in California. Whenever I had questions about items that just didn’t seem right, govdoc-l was there for me. And although it wasn’t in my job description, I read through the many reference questions and answers that were posted through the list, along with many questions about how GPO’s new internet-based system was going to work.

In the course of my work I realized that the feds collected and published data and reports on almost every facet of life. I came to realize that nearly every US fact I read in any Almanac had been lifted from tables published by the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics or some other US Government agency. I also came to realize that outside of the govdoc-l community, few people seemed to realize this.

After a few years Louise and I thought we were ready for me to go to UT Austin. I applied and started in January 1995. My original intention was to keep working at UTSA and do classes by distance, but I accepted a Graduate Assistantship that involved contact with NASA and the GA required a full courseload. So I drove 180 miles a day 3-5 times a week, depending on the semester.

UT Austin was fabulous for me. I loved almost all of my classes, did very well academically and really, really enjoyed conversations with faculty and students. It was here where I met another major library mentor, Dr. Ruth Palmquist. She always had time to talk on practically any subject and encouraged me to go wherever my curiosity took me. One of the things that interested me bloomed into a 1995 research paper “A New Dark Age?” that explored the fragility of digital documents and looked at prospects for their preservation. It was a touch dramatic, but I wrote it around my 30th birthday, when almost everything seemed dramatic.

Despite all the driving and other complications, I think I did the right thing by doing grad school on campus. I had some really good conversations in the grad lounge over a cheap dinner while waiting for a 8-10pm class.

While I was still in grad school, I accepted a place in the US Air Force’s Palace Acquire program. Palace Acquire was intended to recruit and train civilian Air Force managers in various areas, including base libraries. The Air Force paid tuition and books for my last semester and placed me in a full time job at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio where Marion (yes, Marion) Fontish was my supervisor and another major mentor for me. Much of what I know about supervision I first learned from Mrs. Fontish. When I graduated, the Air Force promoted me and sent me to the base library at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida where I got the opportunity to automate a library that was still running on brass date plates and card catalogs. At Tyndall I also did my first and only Summer Reading Program.

Yes. A children’s reading program at an Air Force Base. At the time, base libraries were more like a combined public/academic library than a special library. The library was open to servicemembers and their dependents and we saw plenty of children at Tyndall.

The Air Force was sort of like O’Melveny and Myers in that while I mostly enjoyed the people that I worked with, I wasn’t a good fit for the corporate culture. Specifically, the culture of near monthly Command inspections that focused on the physical condition of the facility while asking few questions about circulation, reference and other core library services. So I decided it was time for a change.

And what a change it was. In late summer 1998 I applied for a reference librarian position with the Alaska State Library. I was brought up for four days to interview in September 1998 and I instantly fell in love with the city of Juneau. I wrote my thank you letter on the way back to Florida and it wound up crossing with their job offer letter. On November 16, 1998 Louise and I were in a Juneau B&B with our three cats.

The training at the State Library was good and I couldn’t ask for better colleagues. I answered questions from the effects of hovercraft on salmon (not much research out there) to retrieving poems by Robert Service to building bibliographies on energy conservation. I was pretty happy in my position.

But then the long-time government documents and technical services librarian left right around my first anniversary with the library. I thought long and hard about whether to apply. The job involved the supervision of five people and I had replaced my promise “Not to work in a library” with “Never be a supervisor.” But I still remembered how I thought documents were cool back in San Antonio. In addition, the government documents position at the Alaska State Library oversaw the Alaska State Publications Program which collected, described, and preserved state publications regardless of format. It was a tangible opportunity to make a difference because if the job was done well, Alaska government would be documented effectively and if not, a good part of state history would be at risk. So I applied. Somewhat to my surprise I was offered the position despite having just finished probation in the position I was originally hired for.

I stayed in documents/tech services for the next seven years. I learned to supervise and I think I’m reasonably competent at it. Federal and state documents were still my love though. I continued reading and contributing to govdoc-l and that led to my becoming involved with the Free Government Information advocacy group. I gave sessions on government information resources whenever I could and also continued to do reference, bibliographies and more.

In 2007, the head of my section (the successor to the one who hired me) retired. I really, really liked my job in government documents/tech services. But I was also aware that despite my best efforts, government information wasn’t well understood or as appreciated as much as it could be. I also felt that there were ways we could be promoting our (non-docs) services and collections that we were not and had been resisted by previous section management. I came to feel that I had a good blend of skills in technology, supervision and marketing/promotion that would be good for the section. Additionally I could ensure that the state and federal depository programs would get the support I thought they deserved. I applied for the position and my upper management agreed. I became Head of Information Services in September 2007. It’s easiest to think of the position as equivalent to a branch manager. I’ve mostly enjoyed the position ever since, although I do sometimes yearn to be in a non-supervisory trainer role because I love sharing information and resources with people.

That’s my librarian story.


5 Responses

  1. I know librarians just hate hearing this, but I seriously miss card catalogs….

    Despite that, I really enjoyed reading your story. There is so much more available at and through libraries than most people ever realize. They are truly a national treasure.

  2. I enjoyed reading your story as well.

    I love libraries too, and my mom’s best friend as I was growing up was a librarian whose family was like an extension of ours.

    It’s funny how we make promises to ourselves that we keep and don’t keep. Mine that I kept was no matter what I do, it will NOT involve organic chem after an extremely irritating experience with the prof. The one that I didn’t keep was living in Manhattan for 2-3 years for grad school. It ended up being 9 years.

  3. CGinWI – For what it’s worth, I don’t hate hearing that people miss card catalogs. There were some really good browsing activities in a card catalog that were missed by the first few generations of electronic library catalogs. I think we’re starting to do better, but I understand if people disagree.

    One big reason that we automated the catalog at Tyndall was so that we could let patrons know what they had checked out. Before automation, we had to file check out cards by date. This made it impossible for us to tell someone what books they had out. As an Air Force Base we had a lot of patron turnover and the ability to know what they checked out was important to them and us.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your story! Ginny

  5. You’re welcome. Thanks for asking.

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