I'd love a post about how and why you made the transition from academic to public libraries. There seems to be a whole mythology around switching between different kinds of libraries—at least among people who are new/newer to our career—and I'd love to start dispelling it. (Jessica Olin, October 26, 2012, via email)
I’d love to start dispelling it as well, because I’m pretty sure it is a myth. But I’m not certain. I don’t think there’s any empirical evidence, and even my personal experience is unidirectional: I worked at three academic libraries, part-time, while I was in library school and for the first eight months after I graduated, and then I started working as the director of the public library in the town where I live.
In order to have any credibility as a myth-buster, it seems like I should take a job working in an academic library. And to present myself as an expert, it seems like I should then leave that job for a job at a public library and then, to buttress my bona fides, leave my new public library job for yet another academic library job. Which seems like an awful lot of bother, not least because I really like my current job.
However, if things were to stagnate or deteriorate, and I'm no longer a good fit for my current job, I'm agnostic about what I would do next. I might try to become a faculty member at a library school, especially if I somehow manage to complete my LIS Ph.D., or I might try to work at a different library—public or academic, special or vendor. For me it's more about the organization's philosophy than its superstructure. Or, daring to dream big, I would love to work with a foundation that funds libraries in setting up a YCombinator for library-related startups.
As near as I can tell, librarians who are able to traverse boundaries, either real or mythological, are the ones that have this sort of “all things are possible” attitude. They’re the ones who have a well developed sense of perspective; the ones who feel good about themselves when they make a difference in other people’s lives; the ones who seek out opportunities to work with people they admire; and the ones who feel so passionate about what they do that it doesn’t even feel like work.
I’ve written about this sort of thing previously, but I’ve neglected to cite one of the primary sources that helped to inspire me to take this kind of action myself. Around the time I handed in my last assignment in library school, Aaron Swartz published an essay called, “The Interrupt-Driven Life.” There’s a phrase he uses in the first sentence of that essay that could be the tl;dr for whatever success I’ve enjoyed in my career: “I began saying yes to all the interesting projects that came my way.”
Saying yes to interesting projects can take on a life of its own. You start by volunteering to help with a code4lib project or answering a call for DPLA participation or showing up at a meeting for a committee you don’t belong to and the next thing you know you’re on a board or directing a library or writing a column. But then, that’s what it’s all about, right? That’s why you enrolled in library school in the first place. You wanted to make a difference.
But let’s face it, you didn’t know how libraries actually functioned. You knew nothing about ALA or SLA or your statewide organizations. You had just the barest sense of OCLC, if you had any sense of it at all. You thought people afflicted with OPACs, ILS, and MARC required antibiotics (if only). So the idea that you had some vague sense that you might like working in an archive or sitting behind a desk at an academic library or leading story time was grounded in ignorance. (Well intentioned, unavoidable, nothing to be ashamed of, but ignorance nevertheless.)
The thing to do now is let it go. If you’re working in or on behalf of libraries, then you’re a librarian. And if you’re committed to your profession, if you’re saying yes to all the interesting projects that come your way (and making sure you’re frequently in position to have interesting projects come your way), then you’re developing the skills you need in order to work effectively anywhere. And if potential employers don’t realize it, you’re better off avoiding such backward thinking workplaces.
Brett Bonfield is the director of the Collingswood (NJ) Public Library and a 2012 Library Journal Mover & Shaker. He graduated from Drexel’s library school in September 2007, and taught a course there in 2011. He is one of the writers & editors at In the Library with the Lead Pipe.