StoryWorth: Why Did You Become a Librarian?

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.

My Life is So Different Now

Three years ago this week I made the decision to retire from Yale and move to Texas to live with and care for my dad. I don’t regret the decision but my life is so totally different; sometimes I feel disconnected, because there is no one here who has any connection to the professional life I led for so many years. Married people, people with children, usually have at least someone who has shared those experiences with them. I don’t even have my cat anymore.

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Yale Law Library Reading Room

I worked on college campuses for almost 40 years and there is an energy there that keeps things hopping. I started working in general university libraries right after getting my M.L.S. and moved to law school libraries three years later, never looking back. My career was in Technical Services, which started out as cataloging and evolved into management of all of the specialties under the Tech Services banner: acquisitions, serials, binding, cataloging, electronic resources, integrated library systems. I worked long hours at challenging work – You want a book from Singapore that was published today? And you want it when?  Okay, let me see what I can do. I lived in Virginia, in Maine, in Boston, and Connecticut, sometimes moving without knowing anyone else in the state. Moving was hard but I did it – and by myself.

My organizations allowed me time to be active in my profession, going to national and specialty conference such as the Innovative Users Group for users of the system I worked with for almost 30 years. Of course, that meant working late and on weekends to get my regular work accomplished, but it was a good trade off for keeping my brain stretched and making wonderful contacts across the country and around the world.  I spent five years on the IUG Steering Committee, including being education chair for a national conference, followed immediately by three years on the Executive Board of the American Association of Law Libraries. And three years later, I was education chair for the AALL conference, too. Exhilarating, challenging, hard, creative, fun.

I loved working out the bibliographic puzzles that went with my job. Figuring out what happened to serial publications that stopped coming or morphed into other titles without warning. Finding books requested by colleagues and faculty that came with incomplete or wrong titles. Resolving systems problems. Dreaming up new ways to explain old things to staff.

Ah, staff. I hated supervising. That was the only really hard thing about my job to me. I want to work in a collegial relationship with people who act like adults and pull their weight. Supervising people, and especially those in a tough union shop, made that difficult at times. And it was exhausting. I do not miss that one bit, though I do miss some of the people. Okay, not many of them, but some.

12108756_10208073611423764_1885628941810349569_n (1)I thoughtfully planned my departure from Yale, working to transition tasks and responsibilites to new people and writing endless documentation to explain how to do it. One week after I retired from Yale, I got in the car with the cat and my sister-in-law and drove to Texas. There was no time to process or grieve because new things were coming. I almost never hear from the people I worked with and it’s as though who I was and what I did there doesn’t matter to anyone except me. I’m forgotten and left behind. Which is appropriate; I don’t want them mourning me, either, but people I thought were friends apparently were just passing in the hallways instead. And that’s hard.

So I have a new life now. Instead of being an experienced, senior person, I’m a youngster in a retirement community. I work part-time as a church secretary, making bulletins, writing documentation, maintaining the website. I sing in the choir, play Mah Jongg, and have friends. I’m also primary caregiver for my 90 year old father, who is increasingly fragile and forgetful. Never having had children, I have one now in many ways, and it’s difficult. It’s hard to know how to take time away when I have to be at the church at 8:00 a.m. six days a week, plus care for my dad. I don’t regret being here but I haven’t adjusted.

I miss my friends and am grateful to Facebook, with all its problems, for helping me stay in touch with people who knew me in my other life. I miss my cat, who died last May. I need a hug.

A Week or So in the Life

Have you missed me?  I seem to be spending more time living my life and chatting in short little spurts on Twitter and Facebook instead of posting here.  Let’s see if I can catch up.

I’ve been busy with work, learning new responsibilities since on 11/1 my job changes.  My best work friend is retiring at the end of November and her unit and mine are being merged into a single Acquisitions & Continuing Resources department, with me in charge. I’ll miss her like crazy because we’re good friends and I enjoy her company, knowledge, and wisdom.  We’ve been backups for each other these last 3 years and it will be hard to fly solo, but it’s also an opportunity to rethink job responsibilities and descriptions, and workflow.

I’m off to Chicago on Tuesday for a few days visit with my best friend and then a committee meeting over Halloween weekend to select the programs for next year’s annual meeting.  I’m in charge of it all so am feeling a bit stressed that we don’t make any false moves. But we will and it will all be okay. Trust me, though, I’ll be happier next Monday when the decisions are behind us and I’m home again.

Tessi went to the vet on Friday, much to her dismay, to get her claws clipped and have her anal glands checked. She’s had problems there before and I’d noticed she was licking her butt more than usual.  It seems that the glands were fine but she had some hard crystals in there that were irritating. Now she has a small shaved bit and short claws.  So far she hasn’t retaliated by throwing up but I’m sure she’s biding her time.  I’d better warn the cat sitter.

Weight loss has slowed down to a stop and to be quite honest, I don’t really care that much.  Except I do.  I’ve decided that my goal isn’t a point on the scale, it’s being able to fit into size 16 petite pants.  I’m having a terrible time finding pants to fit because I’m really an 18p right now and petite departments usually only go up to a 16.  Sure, I can get some online but I really want to be able to try them on in a store instead of paying for stuff I have to return because it doesn’t fit.

But it doesn’t really matter to me when that happens.  After losing 126 lbs, it’s hard to get excited about another 15-20.  Picking up the exercise pace will obviously help but I’ve been sick for 2 weeks and have been having continuing back problems that my doctor thinks are connected to that heavy apron of excess skin hanging in the front.  My balance is off.  At least the pool workouts are easier on everything than the ones “on land” as my trainer calls them.

Did you know that you can create 8×10 photo collages at Walgreens?  I’m sure you can do it other places, too, but I know it works there.  I uploaded some digital photos to have prints made, and discovered there was an option for photo collage.  You can select up to 20 photos (though I’d definitely recommend no more than 8-9 if you want to actually see them) and the system arranges them for you.  You can shuffle the images, add more, remove some, select the color background and width of the lines separating the photos, etc.  Price is $3.99 each.  I’m not sure if you can create them on the spot; I did this from home and picked up at the store.  They’ll make fun presents for the family and one of them will go into my new office.  Check it out!

Being In the Zone

I spent last weekend evaluating 179 program proposals submitted for our annual meeting next summer.  We can only pick 63 of them, so we need to make wise choices, and that means reading each with care, assessing the topic, speakers, description, learning outcomes, level, time length, competency area, whether the topic was recently done, does the program overlap with others proposed, etc., etc., etc.

I’ve done this twice before, once as a member of the committee and last year as I shadowed last year’s chair, so I have experience in working through this whole thing.  But it takes uninterrupted time, focus, concentration – and being In The Zone.  I finally got there this weekend, as I made my second pass through.

The table was completely cleared of everything except my Big Notebook, lists of program rankings, final programs from the last 2 conferences, my pens and markers, and the laptop on the chair next to me for quick reference (doing “find” searches through the lists to make it easier to locate duplication).  On, and No email, no surfing, no TV.  My iTouch was hooked up to speakers, softly playing a mellow playlist on an endless loop, and the kitchen was nearby for water bottle replenishment.

Instead of feeling overwhelmed and scattered, I was focused and purposeful.  I’d prepared by reading all of the proposals once already, dotting the pages with colorful post-its with notes and reminders.  This time I could really concentrate and had a context in which to see them all.

I don’t get in this zone very often with work; things are too fragmented with information and questions coming from every direction at once.  But when I can get into it, my mind is crystal clear and I’m extremely productive – and happy.

I need to find ways to build this into the office routine, especially with my friend’s retirement.  I’ll have more to do than ever and it would be easy to just be fragmented. I need my space to be tidy, interruptions at a minimum, soft music to help block out outside sounds and help me concentrate, and enough time to accomplish the task at hand, or at least in whatever time I allot for it on a given day.  Things to ponder.

September Progress Report

I saw my lapband surgeon and my primary care doctor this week, covering a lot of bases. They were both pleased with my weight loss (121 lbs in 18 months), which has slowed down a lot lately. But I’m still losing an average of 1 lb/week while feeling very normal; that counts a lot.

I’ve been having problems with my back and my right knee, which limits what I can do for exercise (tho I’m still doing what I can with my trainer and on my own).  One reason for the back issues is probably the apron of belly skin left from losing weight. It’s just not elastic enough to come back to a normal shape.  I got a referral to a plastic surgeon to talk about options, see what they advise and what their rules are, etc. I hadn’t thought I’d actually do this but am seeing now that it makes sense. In any case, the surgeons aren’t likely to do anything until I’ve been at my goal weight for a year.

Which led to the “what is my goal weight?” discussion, really for the first time. I had a ballpark number but have been having some reservations about it as the pounds fell off.  My brain hasn’t caught up with the loss, which is actually normal since it usually takes approximately one year for every 25 lbs for reality to take hold.

Much to my relief, my primary care doctor advised that my goal be 165-170 lbs and that she’d be very happy for me to be at a BMI of 30.  (It’s already dropped from 54.9 to 33.2 so 30 isn’t that far away.)  I’d been afraid she would want me out of the obese & overweight categories and down to 130, a weight I haven’t seen since junior high and don’t think I could maintain.  Dr. W. is practical and stressed that a healthy BMI for ME doesn’t have to match what a chart says.

FYI: don’t worry if you don’t hear from me very often over the next weeks.  I am program chair for my professional association’s annual conference next summer and we’re gearing up to review 200 proposals, evaluate and rate, and finally select programs.  I’m also learning the ins/outs of the new responsibilities I take over on Nov. 1 (the day after we finalize the programs).  So I’m likely to be slow on the blogging front, but I’ll check in when I can!