Friday, January 15, 2010

So I say to myself, how did I get here?

I recently heard of a project called Library Routes that's asking librarians to document how they became librarians: what led them to the profession, what path they've taken, et cetera. I realized that this is a story I haven't shared here, so I thought I'd post it.

The story begins with my library heroes. When I teach the ODL "How to Think Like a Librarian" class, the icebreaker exercise includes this question. I have two. The first is my mom. She was an elementary school librarian for more than 20 years, working in public and private schools, doing storytimes, felt boards, puppet plays, bibliographic instruction... the whole package. My first experiences in libraries were summer days spent helping her. I shelf-read, processed withdrawals, sorted cards (yes, actual cards) and even inventoried A/V equipment. All for the princely sum of a can of Coke with my lunch that day. My mother was dedicated to her student patrons. She would tell me stories about their lives and how it felt to see them light up when she found the book they wanted.

My second library hero was Michael Printz. If you know his name, it's probably because of the ALA award, but I knew Mike personally. He was the librarian at my high school. He was the one who taught all of the freshman English classes how to do basic reference. It was Mike who put the Oxford English Dictionary in my hands for the first time. He was a close friend of the author Gary Paulsen, and he loaned me an ARC of Hatchet so that I could read it before it was published. He was an extraordinary librarian, with great passion and compassion for his students. Later, I learned that his heroism had another level. As an out gay man working in a Kansas high school, he endured criticism and abuse that I can't imagine. But he never let anything distract him from the real goal, connecting young people with great books.

Because of these two, I am that rare librarian who never wanted to be anything else. If you had asked me in second grade what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said without hesitation, "a librarian." At the time, that really meant that I wanted to work at a job where I got to read as much as I wanted. But by the time I encountered Mike, I understood that being a librarian meant helping people, answering questions, and knowing a little bit about a lot of things. These were all things that I wanted very much to do, so my path was set. When I took the ASVAB test, it told me I should be a cartographer or an archivist. Based on that, I arranged for an independent study: a 9-week internship with the head archivist of the Kansas State Historical Society. I saw amazing things in their collection, including ledgers from the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad, private Super 8 film footage spanning decades of life in Lawrence, bound newspaper volumes that predated statehood, and much more. Mike's passion for oral history had led him to put in a video editing lab at the library, so my final project was a video of all the things I'd seen and done there. I still have it in my own archive.

When it came time to choose a college, it seemed logical to me to major in English. I was going to need a Masters to be a librarian, so I should just take the path of least resistance and get a Bachelor's that wouldn't be difficult for me. That led to the big detour in my library route. My advisor suggested that I get a teaching certification so I had "something to fall back on" while I was waiting to go to graduate school. This was not good advice. Believe me when I tell you that the worst possible teacher is the one who doesn't want to be there.

For three years after college, in Tribune, KS and then in Polo, MO, I taught high school and middle school English. By then I'd had more than enough. Looking back, I learned valuable things about myself and about teaching that have served me well, but I still can't help but wonder what might have happened if I'd gone a different direction.

I gained my MLIS at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota. When Kim and I were looking at library schools, we realized that we were newlyweds and we could go anywhere we wanted. Returning to my northern roots (Mom grew up in Fargo, Dad in East Grand Forks, and my grandmother still lived in Chaska) seemed like a great idea to me. Of course, two years in, we had our first child and realized we were ten hours from the nearest grandparent! My library school track led me toward teen services, based on my love of YA lit (Mike again) and my teaching experience. It was then that I discovered something really scary. Most of my classmates were already working in libraries. They were associates, circ clerks and others who already had library jobs. I didn't get my first paycheck from a library until after I graduated. I worked one shift as a sub for reference in the Dakota County Libraries, where my colleagues learned that I'd been working as a secretary for three years. The secretary in the Director's office was going on maternity leave, so I interviewed (on September 11, 2001) and got the job. From there, I began looking for jobs back in Grandparent Territory, and eventually I landed work in Tulsa.

For my first five years with TCCL, I was the Business Reference Librarian at my current location. Not exactly the best fit for someone with all that teen-oriented experience, but I've always prided myself on having knowledge a mile wide and at least an inch or two deep, so it worked out well for me, and eventually I was given responsibility for teen services, and I couldn't be happier.

So, that's my "library route". If you've managed to read this far, I'm glad you're still here. Thanks and happy reading!

No comments: