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.

StoryWorth: My Hometown

I grew up in Westfield, New Jersey, a leafy quiet suburb of New York City, with total population of around 30,000. It’s a wealthy suburb and I didn’t know for many years that my parents bought a house there specifically because of the reputation of the town’s school system. My parents met in college and had high academic expectations for their children. They moved to Westfield because we would get the best possible education there.

Mom and Dad bought an older ivy-covered house after my brother was born and we moved to 525 S. Chestnut Street from Colonia Village when I was three. The 3-bedroom stuccoed house was built in the late 1920’s and had a full attic and unfinished basement – and a root cellar with a dirt floor. There was a detached garage behind the house and a child’s playhouse in the backyard. The windows leaked air and sometimes water, and downstairs had lovely archways between rooms. We had a large screened in back porch that was fully shaded and where we spent lots of time in hot weather.

When I was going into junior high, we moved to a split-level ranch house at 602 St. Mark’s Avenue, a few blocks closer to town. It was closer to schools and town and was more modern, which my mom loved. It even had a built in vacuum system and an intercom! We lived there for four years before moving to Kentucky.

Westfield was a perfect place to grow up. It was beautiful, with wide tree-lined streets with sidewalks and well-kept homes. People were educated, traveled, and involved. Most of the mothers were stay-at-home moms and most of the fathers hopped the commuter train to New York every day. Grant Elementary School was only a few blocks away and we got lots of walking in since we came home for lunch every day, then back to school. I went to Roosevelt Junior High School, one of two in the town, and had one year at Westfield High School before we moved out of state.

It was a calm place. The towns around us experienced massive racial unrest in the 1960’s and I remember sitting on the steps of the high school, watching the National Guard move out in riot-prepped vehicles to deal with rioting in nearby Newark. But Westfield was quiet and we grew up sharing schools with kids of different races and religions. It wasn’t perfect, and it was heavily white, but there was no segregation that I was aware of.

We had all sorts of things to do: piano lessons for years, singing in choirs at the Big White Presbyterian Church, and Brownie, Girl Scout, and Cub Scout troops with Mom as leader or den mother. I took ballet classes at the YWCA, looking like a pink sausage in my leotard, and even ice skating lessons when an ice rink opened while I was in junior high. My athletic brother enjoyed Little League baseball and football, with my dad as coach, and worked on cars to enter in the Pinewood Derby every year. I even think I took horseback riding in there somewhere.

Every day after school, if we didn’t have something going on, we would just “go out and play” as long as we were home in time for dinner at 6pm. No play dates, no someone watching us every minute. We played games and learned how to work together and how to lose but still play. We had lots of homework and I don’t remember my parents helping with it; it was my job to get it done and I did. We walked or rode our bikes everywhere and didn’t need to rely on parents for rides to most places.

In the summers we would go to the shore at Manasquan, but I also spent a few years going to camp. It was not my favorite thing to do – I’m not a lover of outdoor sports and activities – but I went. After 6th grade, I went to Camp El-Ja-Bar which was a YWCA camp where we lived in little cabins and did all those things I didn’t like, mostly sports, because I was so bad at them. I was also horribly homesick. But the next two summers I had a chance to go to Choir Camp at Island Heights, a seaside NJ town. We spent a week each time learning and performing music and it was wonderful. We even watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon at camp. I don’t think I made a lot of friends there, but I did learn the Brahm’s German Requiem, which was a better deal for me.

I got my first paying job other than babysitting when we lived in Westfield, becoming a library page at age 15. I shelved books, retrieved magazines and materials from the basement for people doing research, and put plastic covers on new books to help them last longer. It was a great job where someone actually paid me to spend time in the library and got me started in what became my life’s work as a professional librarian.

I loved Westfield and cherish my memories of our life there.

I Impeached the President

Okay, so not THE President as in POTUS. But still. I know a lot about the process.

My High School government teacher divided the class into members of the House and of the Senate as we studied the Constitution back in 1971 so we could propose and vote on bills appropriately. He took the role of Speaker of the House, then President Pro-Tem of the Senate, then Vice-President, then President as we worked our way through.

We hated him and were more than a little afraid of him, especially those who also played basketball or baseball with him, since he was the Coach. But what could we do? We were just kids. Wait, maybe not.

We talked amongst ourselves and found Article II, Section 4, the Impeachment Clause, and decided that that gave us a way to respond if we were smart about it. Because by taking on all those roles in our imaginary government, he was in violation of the Constitution. Maybe not high crimes, but it worked for us.

So a core group of us, including moi, since I always was an instigator and I loved research, took ourselves to the Bar Association Library in nearby Cincinnati. We knew nothing except that President Andrew Johnson had been impeached (the only one at that point) and we wanted to know how it worked.

The nice librarians sat us down at a table and brought us everything since we had no idea what legal research was about. But we learned a LOT that afternoon and came home armed with our approach. We also went to the school principal and enlisted his help to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a role that our teacher had not yet assumed. He was in.

First, the members of the House from our class assembled under the clock in the main hallway (coincidentally at a time when I was working in the office and put out a call on the intercom) to Vote to Impeach President Afterkirk. He came, too, but we told him he wasn’t a member of the class and had to Go Away. He knew something was up but not what.

The next day in class he was served with impeachment papers, drafted against the originals used against Johnson. He was surprised, to say the least, but recovered and called for a legal representative from the class to defend him at the trial.

Oh yeah, did I mention one of the things we learned was that impeachment isn’t a single thing the way it sounds now on the news when they talk about it? The House of Representatives votes to impeach, but then it goes to the Senate for a trial and vote whether or not to convict based on the charges brought.

Word of the impeachment ran wild around the school and the history classes wanted to be there for the trial, so we had a change of venue from the classroom to the auditorium to allow everyone to attend. Yes, we used correct legal language.

The Senate half of our class served as the jury for the trial. We’d learned that the oaths sworn by witnesses were different that those used in an ordinary court, and the order of witnesses was also different – the prosecution came last rather than defense. Every time the teacher challenged us, we had citations (though not in BlueBook format) for why we did what we did.

He was convicted of his crime but that wasn’t the point. We learned so much by taking on this project, far more than we ever would have had it been assigned. We learned to work together, about government and the law, and were empowered to stand up for ourselves when we knew we were right. I think he was proud of us. And we were never afraid of him again; it became my favorite class and a good foundation for college.

When Nixon and Watergate happened, and then when Clinton was impeached, I felt secretly smug that I understood the impeachment process far better than those around me. With all the talk right now about possible impeachment of Trump, I think it might be time to write to my teacher and thank him.