I spent my professional life working as a university librarian – and I’m still not completely sure why I chose the field in the first place. Sometimes I think it chose me.
I got my first library job when I was 15 and lived in New Jersey. I worked at the Westfield Public Library as a page, shelving adult fiction books and pulling requested magazines and newspapers from the basement when library patrons asked for them. Later I added on putting book jackets in plastic protective covers back in Technical Services, a department I didn’t even know existed before.
When we moved to Kentucky, I got another library job at the Erlanger Public Library when I was in high school. It had a small collection housed in an old house, and I worked at the circulation desk, shelved books, and filed catalog cards, doing a little bit of everything. I may have even answered some reference questions. But I had no plans to make this a career, it was just a job. I will say, though, that one highlight was checking books out to members of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team.
In college I planned to go into teaching. I wasn’t very excited about it but it seemed like a logical choice and a good job for women at the time. I was smart and did well in school but didn’t have big ambitions for law or medicine or anything special. After my semester in Spain my junior year, I wanted to be a translator and thought about graduate school in Spanish with that as a goal. But my GRE scores in Spanish were terrible – because it was a test of literature and my focus has been language – and I knew I couldn’t get a teaching assistant job to help me pay for grad school.
I knew after student teaching in my senior year that I really did not want to be a teacher. Oh, I could do it, but I didn’t want to. One of my college friends mentioned that she was going to library school after graduation, something that had never entered my mind as a possibility, and I looked into a bit because I really didn’t know what else I might do; I was looking for ideas. I discovered that The University of Texas at Austin had a library school program that included a focus on Latin American librarianship – very specialized but in keeping with my Spanish major. And as a state resident, tuition was affordable, only $4/credit hour at the time (UT had oil wells). There were other Texas library schools but that program sold me on UT. I talked with my parents about it and they agreed to pay for my housing while I studied for my masters with me paying for food, tuition, and spending money.
When I actually started the program in the fall of 1976, I discovered that one of the Spanish professors from Vanderbilt that I had most disliked was now in charge of the Latin American Librarianship program at UT. Unbeknownst to me as an undergrad, he taught not only Spanish at Vanderbilt but also library science courses at Peabody College across the street. At UT he was able to combine his interests in one position. Since I loathed him, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be in that program after all.
I was already enrolled as a grad student, and the first semester everyone took basically the same courses to give fundamentals in cataloging, reference, management, computing science, etc., so there were no decisions to make about the Latin American focus. Of all my courses, I discovered that I really liked cataloging while most of my classmates found it to be full of obscure rules that made no sense. For me, it was finding structure and order out of bibliographic chaos, like a puzzle but with book description and subject analysis.
UT Austin had students major in both a type of library and type of library work, which I don’t think was all that common. They thought I should go into school libraries because I had a teaching certificate, which did not interest me at all. I decided to focus on academic (university) library technical services and chose my courses accordingly. I took three cataloging courses along with reference classes in Social Science and Humanities, collections, management, statistics, among others.
Once I realized that no one cared what grades I made, only what subjects I’d taken, and that I could live with getting B’s instead of killing myself for a rare A, coursework didn’t take that much time. I found it easy. So I had time for other things, including Italian. I’d learned how to learn languages at Vanderbilt and had some time on my hands in the summer, so I signed up for introductory Italian. When I ran into a conflict with a required class, I started doing independent study in Italian with my teacher and his office mate, seeing Guido for conversation and grammar and Silvia for composition and reading comprehension. At their suggestion, I took a placement test and graduated with 11 hours of Italian as well as my 36 hours of library science. Facility with languages – I knew some Portuguese as well as being fluent in Spanish – proved to be valuable in my library work.
While in school I worked part-time in the library school library, preparing a collection of materials for binding and creating cataloging information for each title. This was good practice. I added a second part-time job in the Genealogy Division of the Texas State Library during my second semester the week that “Roots” was aired on TV. Everyone suddenly wanted to walk into a library to dig up their family tree and my genealogy background meant I didn’t need a lot of training; I’d used the same library for my own research. It was great work experience, and I learned a lot about genealogy research that I was able to apply to my own work.
When you do the next thing in a string of next things, sometimes you end up in a place you hadn’t expected but fits like a glove. I don’t remember ever actively being excited about becoming a librarian. It was just what happened next. But it suited me to a T. My first professional job was at the University of Houston M.D. Anderson Library, doing some cataloging and supervising CETA trainees file catalog cards. I learned what I liked and didn’t like and wasn’t really sure that I’d learned anything useful in library school.
It was in my next job at the University of Virginia that I understood that my library school education gave me the solid basis in theory that allowed me to see patterns and adapt to new methods of accomplishing tasks. I knew what we were trying to do and could see different ways to get there. You don’t see that in your first job; it’s not until the second that patterns take shape.
I was a good librarian. I was a cataloger, then worked as a Technical Services manager supervising cataloging, acquisitions, serials, and systems. At the end of my career, I was responsible for acquisitions, serials, and binding. Although I started working in academic libraries, I moved early on into law school libraries where I found my niche. We had less staff and smaller collections, but each of us had a wider range of job responsibilities than in a general library, and work was never boring. I fell into something that was a perfect fit.