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How I Became a Librarian

I’ve been tagged to tell you how I became a librarian, and so, as I wait for the broadcast of the Olympic opening ceremonies to start, I’m sitting here with a smile on my face as I remember the moment it first occurred to me to get into this line of work.

To be fair, the story started back in college, where I majored in English. English majors are eminently qualified to do just about anything, right? And besides, they get to earn degrees for reading and thinking about good writing. What was there to lose?

By the time I graduated, I still hadn’t figured out which part of “just about anything” I wanted to inhabit, though I was pretty sure I wanted to teach literature, so I managed to simultaneously stall and prepare myself for a possible future by going to grad school, where I got to earn another degree by reading and thinking about good writing. Not bad, right? Right. But I studied more than literature and literary theory while I was in grad school. I also studied the job of a professor of English, and I learned that I probably wasn’t cut out for that job as it exists in the real world. My personal Xanadu crumbled little by little as I watched my professors go about their lives.

I remember lying on the living room floor, stroking Toby the family dog, and talking to my mom about how I didn’t feel I’d fit well into my own future if I continued on as I was. Then, from her position near the kitchen sink and the dishes she was methodically washing, she said, “You know, you might consider being a librarian.”

Don’t laugh (too hard), but up until that day I hadn’t known that librarians needed special degrees to do what they did. Nor had I ever worked in a library, even as a shelver. Nor had I ever asked a librarian for help. The children’s librarian at the public library we’d used when I was very young had always been kind, and had saved new books about ballerinas for me whenever they arrived. But that was the extent of my interaction with librarians. (And remember, by this point I was nearly done with a masters degree.) And yet, I found myself applying to the LIS school at Milwaukee and beginning work on my degree there as soon as I’d successfully defended my masters thesis across campus. The next summer (and half-way into my degree program), I applied for part time work at a public library and an academic library, just to see what working in a library was actually like.

The one bump in the road was that public library. It’s toxic atmosphere nearly caused me to drop out of library school and cash in on the promise from the English department that they’d take me back into the Ph.D program there if I ever wanted to return. I spent sleepless nights wondering if I could just run away to New Zealand to help with the filming of the Lord of the Rings or something… anything to get out of what I was pretty sure was the worst decision of my life. Luckily for me, I’m too stubborn to quit something once I’ve invested that much time, energy, and money into it. So I decided to at least finish my degree, however miserable I was with the job and my classes. I could never have known at that point how lucky I would be just a year later, when I graduated and stumbled mostly blindly into the best job I could ever have wished for.

And here I am.

Now I want to know how Steve, Laura, Laura, and Dorothea got into library work.

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  1. Becca Becca


    Thank you for this post! I plan to read all the tagged entries that I can find. Currently, I’m JUST starting my MLS..and am torn between what I want to do with it. I initially thought that school library media was what I wanted to focus on, but now I’m considering the whole academic atmosphere. I KNOW I don’t want to stay in public library systems where I currently work part time! If you could and have time, maybe write a little about your academic library setting..what you do…pros/cons that sort of thing?


  2. Iris Iris

    Hi Becca,

    Well, I don’t know enough about other kinds of libraries to give this a fair shake. I don’t even know enough about other kinds of academic libraries to give useful information about them. (And my only experience working in a public library was certainly not typical of public libraries in general, I’m sure. It was just a really toxic working environment where everyone hated their jobs, the city, the board, and each other.) Still, I suppose I could try to talk about my library a bit. Let me think on it a little.

    Good luck with library school!

  3. HelloLinda HelloLinda

    ….”public library was certainly not typical of public libraries in general, I’m sure. It was just a really toxic working environment where everyone hated their jobs, the city, the board, and each other.” I am working in an environment that fits that description perfectly. It may not be typical but I am wondering if it is more common than we think. I started as a part-time reference librarian at a community college and loved it. Alas, I needed a full-time salary and full-time work was to be found in a public library. Its been two years. Is it possible to transition to an academic environment? I have heard that academic libraries won’t even look at public librarians. Is this true?

  4. Iris Iris

    Hi Linda,

    I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. There’s nothing like a toxic environment to make a perfectly good job feel like a prison.

    And I think you’re right. I think there are a lot of toxic environments out there, both public and academic. If you’re looking to jump to the academic side because you think there’s less of this particular kind of stress, though, I think you may be switching for the wrong reasons. There are plenty of unhealthy academic libraries. Of course, if you’re looking to switch because you prefer the mission or the yearly rhythms of academic life, then go for it!

    That said, I think it is possible to make the transition from public to academic. Like any transition, you’d have to make a case for yourself as being a good fit for the new environment, and really spell out for the search committees how you previous experience maps to (and contributes to) the new job. Don’t assume that they’ll see the connections for themselves. (But like I said, this is true for all transitions, even from one type of academic library to another.) If you manage to do that well, I don’t think you’ll be at any special disadvantage just for having worked at a public library.

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