Unavoidable Librarian

The path I tread to my current position is not one I expected to take, nor is it one, likely, my employers expected of their new Head of Special Collections and Digital Initiatives.  I wouldn't go so far as to say said path was circuitous, or even really that severely angled, but it certainly wasn't (and may still not be) traditional.  It's in my nature to be suspicious of my own success, so I might have thought that going from English degree to working in a digital library to trying out (and quickly dropping out of) library school to getting my Master of Historic Preservation degree would be a sure way to prevent success.  I didn't actively try to sabotage my career, but I figured I was setting myself up for disappointment by following my heart rather than the surfeit counter arguments of librarianship and, in general, getting-a-good-academic-jobship.  It seems, though, I was mistaken.

From English Lit to Digital Hit

My paternal grandmother was a librarian and when I began working in a public library, which I did for the majority of my high school and junior college careers, I was told such a path was genetically unavoidable, that I would eventually be a librarian in some capacity or another, most likely in the public sector, offering reference to patrons or maybe running adult services and putting on movie nights.  On route to college I put a pin in that idea and pursued an English degree - a rash decision, I know, but I figured it would give me all the basis I needed for a career as a librarian.  Books and stories and the odd film, right?  Catalog them, shelve them, check them out.  That's what librarians did, and I, as an unavoidable librarian, would oblige.

As an English major I studied everything, eschewing the paths offered me by the department (film studies, medieval studies, critical studies, queer studies etc.) and bounced from Victorian literature to Chaucer to Barthes and then on over to Carl Barks and Donald Duck.  This was against the advice of my advisors, who stressed that specialization would help me in graduate school.  What did they, know?  I was going to be a librarian - obviously - thus I needed to have a broad footing in a variety of literary these-and-those.  In fact, my mentor at the time, one of the last good medievalists (who owned more Simpsons memorabilia than anyone rightly should), was convinced of my proficiency in the criticism and tried in vain to cajole me into an English masters program.  I was flattered, but librarianship suited me better.

After graduating with my B.A. in English I settled into job-hunting, assuming I'd find something proper for a librarian-to-be in the large college town to which I'd anchored myself.  The public library, though large and well-funded, was never looking for new blood. The local jail was more than willing to hire a "librarian" with only a bachelors degree, but I had more than a few doubts.  It was a long-shot application to my very own university that proved successful.  Three months after graduating from college I was a salaried employee in the digital library center of my alma mater.  Now all I needed was my MLS (or MSIS, or MLIS, or MALS etc.) and I'd be a proper librarian, able to do all the things librarians do.  As it turns out, I really had no idea what things librarians (or even libraries) actually did.  In fact, I knew so little that I was instructed by my new boss to quickly forget the little I did know and just "immerse myself in it all, okay?"  I nearly drowned that first year, but I'm glad I stuck it out.

The job I'd nabbed (no doubt due to my obsessive tie-waggling and reserved swagger) was as the institutional repository coordinator and general METS-hacker for a burgeoning digital library program.  Was I qualified to vet and assemble the research of an entire university?  Goodness no!  But I was prepared for the technological challenges, as I had done what I was instructed to do by my mentor (forget what little I knew, immerse self), and apply the skills I'd acquired through life simply by being born in the 1980s and having a computer-loving graphic artist father.  As a coordinator I ingested thousands of PDFs into the digital library's content management system, professionally begged faculty for white papers of their research, and became obsessed with something called Open Access.  Before I knew it I was giving poster presentations and sitting at tables with tenure-track librarians, going toe-to-toe on digital management issues and arguing about whether an institutional repository should contain historical materials as well as papers on plant pathology.  I was, for all intents and purposes, a librarian, though I was never really regarded as one.  Something was missing, something to put after my name on e-mail signatures.

Two Semesters of Library School and Out

It hit me like a ton of paperbacks:  though I felt like a librarian, I wasn't one - technically - and needed a piece of paper to say I was.  What's more, I'd been told to forget everything I knew about libraries and librarians, but I realized I'd forgotten about getting that all-important MLS, the one bit of tradition I need not eschew.  Naturally, wanting to progress in life and work, I applied and was accepted to a library science program at a neighboring university.  The program was entirely online, so I was able to continue being a para-librarian, though at that point I'd made a tangential move to another position in the digital library center, taking over more technical operations like optical character recognition, audiovisual ingest, and even more METS-hacking.  I threw myself at library school, once again signing up for a wide variety of courses: database management, information organization, user experience etc; once again ignoring specialization (this time without naysayers).  I rather enjoyed that first semester, creating relational databases (with some help from a programmer friend or two), designing exhibits, learning all about copyright law (seriously, I enjoy that).  I went into my second semester as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as any type-A personality would.  My enthusiasm was soon flattened by something I least expected: tradition.  It became necessary to take cataloging classes (something that has never been of much interest), a necessity with which I coped.  But this minor frustration was compounded by a truth I began digesting: I was working in a cutting-edge digital library center at a major public university, I was doing daily the things posited as "neat" and "new" by my professors and fellow students, and I'd been doing them with only my own wits and those of my talented coworkers.  Another ton of paperbacks fell on me and I realized that I was stuck between a tradition I'd been told to forget, and a reality no one would validate without the paperwork of that tradition.  So I quit library school and buried myself in work.

The Inversion

As persons often do, I spurned my former love in favor of something new and interesting, something I'd theretofore never experienced.  In this case, after dropping out of library school, I enrolled at a program at my own university to study historic preservation - of buildings, not books.  I continued my work at the digital library center, wrote an encyclopedia article on optical character recognition, oversaw the overdue transition from DVD backup to digital tape, and even began taking on digital projects of my own.  

My schooling in historic preservation couldn't have been more divergent from that of library school and my day-to-day work: site visits to historic buildings, as-built drawings, hammering things, field schools in Idaho, all the rough-and-tumble things one would expect from a graduate program steeped in traditional building skills and architectural history.  I quickly fell head-over-heels in love with the hands-on productivity of my new graduate program and the psychic recuperation afforded me by being able to hold - in my hands - the tangible result of my labor.  This love began to seep into my work as I sought out digitization projects related to historic preservation.  I discovered a relatively hidden cache of historic preservation manuscripts and capstone projects in our architecture and fine arts library and took them on as my own little quest.  While I'd found a small niche, some bit of crossover between working in an academic library and my newfound academic pursuit, I'd finally begun to doubt whether I had a future in libraries.  This was not a doubt that necessarily saddened me - it actually emboldened me in many ways, gave me the guilt-free confidence necessary to show up at city offices and volunteer my time in an urban planning department, and go to historic preservation conferences as a future preserver of the built environment.  It's then, when I started introducing myself as a preservationist instead of a librarian (or library professional), that I'd psychically diverged from my destiny and all but abandoned it.


As you might expect, gleaning from the heading of this section's title and its obvious connotations, introducing myself as a preservationist did not last.  This is not to say I didn't try, or that I don't still think of myself as learned about and aware of historic preservation issues:  I just came to yet another realization that I was, am, and will always be a librarian.  

Around the time I began my thesis I started to encounter the hurdles set up by both my life as a library professional and the academic requirements of thinking like a preservationist.  My first thesis proposal was a mess, my committee insisting that it seemed more like a grant for a digitization project than a true historic preservation thought experiment.  This mess was no doubt influenced by the work I'd been doing at the digital library center.  Admittedly, it was effectively a grant proposal, a form of writing with which I was most comfortable:  write a narrative, state goals, outline deliverables - this was the work of a library professional.  But my committee had to set me straight, get me to think like a preservationist, or, rather, a student preservationist.  Naturally I succumbed to frustration and demanded that the preservation department was going about "it" all wrong, that a preservationist isn't an experimenter of thought, but a deliverer of concrete results (pun intended).  This, in my defense, was something I'd learned in a dozen field exercises, practica, and one excellent hands-on field school in Idaho.  But, at the very end of my student career, the people that insisted I work like a preservationist were telling me I had to think and act like an academic, that the results weren't important, that I need simply expunge an idea from my brain and trap it on paper.  Part of me was appalled, but most of me was just tired.  So I fixated on something of interest, imagined a hypothetical case study rooted in some academic assumptions, and wrote until I'd reached a respectable page count.  I was - and still am - proud of my thesis and the possibilities for future projects within, but my pride was - and still is - tempered by bitterness, mostly from my disappointment in the reality of the historic preservation program.  I admit my expectations were probably flawed, that I assumed I'd be Indiana Jones instead of Marcus Brody, but ultimately I failed to be honest with myself, that I simply couldn't avoid something at which I was really quite good: being a librarian.

Flapping About

Seven years I spent in a digital library center working at being a librarian, dropping out of library school,  and then becoming disillusioned by being a preservationist.  I finished my thesis, got my diploma in the mail (in a cardboard tube I've yet to empty), and decided I'd had enough of my college town.  To boot I'd more or less hit a wall at the digital library center:  I couldn't advance without someone else leaving and a new position being created, and I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to stay even if I could.  I began sending resumes to a variety of places, still with some notion of being a sort-of-preservationist.  I was, after all, not going to let my new degree go to waste.  I applied to positions at municipal archives, academic libraries, non-profit preservation groups and so forth - even to a prominent comic book publisher who was looking for a librarian (a dream job if there ever was one).  There was no rhyme or reason to my array.  I figured I would be just as satisfied being a preservationist as I would a librarian, so long as I could marry the two professions, combine them into a niche (hopefully one theretofore unconsidered).  I collected quite a few rejections, but not from whom I expected.  

My assumptions were that given my Master of Historic Preservation degree and myriad field work credits, I'd be a shoe-in for some preservation job or another; and that since I didn't have the All-Important-MLS, I'd be overlooked by academic libraries.  The dozen or so applications I sent to various preservation organizations, non-profits and federal bodies alike flatly rejected me.  I never had a single phone interview, nor did I so much as receive a personalized e-mail.  How was this possible?  I had the Master of Historic Preservation degree, I went to field schools, I volunteered at a planning office, and I was gainfully employed at an academic institution - what more could I have done to attract the attention of a even a modest non-profit?  As it turns out, so much more.

As I was receiving "no" after "no" from preservation jobs I was actually being selected for phone and video interviews with academic libraries and municipal archives.  This I did not expect, since, after all, I wasn't technically a librarian.  A few phone interviews even turned into second phone interviews, or highly-laggy Skypings.  I was, needless to say, flummoxed.  I'd done everything I was supposed to do to unchain myself from my librarian destiny and become a preservationist (even if I was disillusioned by my graduate program I still had the degree, right? I could still carve my niche, right?), yet I was being summoned by librarianship, the profession for which I was never traditionally trained, but which I'd been doing in practice for seven years.  

So, there it was, clear as day:  I'd had everything all wrong - yet again, and I really had only myself to blame.  After doing a little 21st century snooping to see who had snagged the preservation jobs for which I'd been unable to even interview, I discovered that the winning individuals had been doing actual preservation work for a decade or more, and - here's the kicker - only one in a dozen had a Master of Historic Preservation degree (or some flavor thereof).  Sure, I'd been to a few field schools and worked on a few neighborhood surveys, but all under the umbrella of a degree program - I'd never tousled with a city council over preservation easements; I'd never lobbied at a state congressional meeting; I'd never even chained myself to an old house in danger of being razed.  What I had been doing, though, was helping to run a prolific digitization shop; managing microfilm conversion projects; writing audiovisual digitization procedures; presenting posters; and doing a dozen other real-world library things.  One would think, after all the pinballing I'd done from career idea to career idea and so on, that I would have figured out (or even been flat-out told) that today, librarians aren't always Librarians.  In fact, my main mentor in all things digital doesn't have her library degree, and she's a tenure-track faculty librarian.  Amidst my near-decade of bellyaching, I'd completely forgotten about the reality of librarianship, that among all academic professions it is perhaps the one most subject to rapid change, and I'd been at the very heart of that change, in a digital library center, for seven years.  Yet I was so fixated on the old ideals of Librarianship, the ones clinging to my helices thanks to my grandmother, that I couldn't compute all that had been going on around me.


I'm now a proper librarian - in the contemporary sense of the word.  I'm on a tenure track and doing so many different things on a daily basis that my grandmother wouldn't even recognize what I do as librarianship.  This assumption is probably a good thing - I could not imagine myself in an academic library sixty years ago, and the things around which I'm wrapping my head are simply exciting: enhanced mapping, audiovisual curation, exhibit creation, and yes, even some niche historic preservation librarianship.

While it may be true that I was destined to be a librarian, I didn't quite grasp it until two things occurred: I realized that I knew nothing about modern libraries and I'd struck off against the profession.  By doing the former I was able to fully absorb the necessity for change in libraries and librarianship; by doing the latter, I was able to gain perspective, something many professionals lack from within their own realms.  Assembling these two lessons and their morals, I was able to accept my librarianness without actually succumbing to it.  Now I'm doing precisely what a modern academic librarian should be doing, simultaneously qualified and unprepared for the wonky road ahead.

Leonore would be oddly proud, I'm sure.

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