Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Long and Winding Road to Librarianship, by Natalie DeJonghe

Once upon a time, in a land far away, I was a high school English teacher. At the ripe old age of 22 I was convinced I had my life plan all worked out. Teach long enough to work off my fellowship, get my MA and then my PhD in literature, teach college, and live happily ever after in academia. I really enjoyed teaching and was lucky enough to have student taught in a school with a great staff and administration, so this plan seemed completely feasible.

I like to think I was a fairly decent teacher and that I did some good in the world. But that wasn’t the whole story. There was a teacher in my department that I did not get along with; we will call her Ms. PITA. She had a tendency to run students out of her class which left her with classes of 11 or 12 students while other teachers were handling classes of 35. I was not subtle about the fact that I thought this was complete and utter crap that placed an underserved burden on me and my colleagues. My colleagues told me they appreciated my willingness to say things no one else would. My principal, on the other hand, told me I wasn’t a team player. Five years of repeatedly being told I wasn’t a team player and that I had a bad attitude. Five years of listening to that while absolutely nothing was done about the fact that Ms. PITA wasn’t pulling her weight and was bullying kids out of her classes. So I left.

I moved back home and through a series of very fortunate events I ended up in librarianship. I was excited for a fresh start in a new career. Only this time, I was determined to be more of a team player. And what my principal had taught me was that being a team player meant keeping my mouth shut and my head down. So that’s what I did. I went to work, I did my job, I didn’t volunteer for things and I didn’t want to be involved. I was my own little island of librarianship. So I had a great new career plan, go to work: answer reference questions, get my MLIS, and spend the rest of my days as a librarian. 

There was, however, one small snag in my plan. One of the problems currently plaguing librarianship is that there are a whole lot of librarians and not a whole lot of full-time positions. With many libraries receiving less funding, full-time positions are decreasing in favor of having multiple part-time staff. This was the situation in my library. We had five reference librarians, one full-time and four part-time. Our full-time librarian was a middle aged guy who had no intention of leaving anytime soon so my chance of advancement was zero.

After I got the degree,I started looking for full-time jobs and was very fortunate to come across the position I now have. When I first started, I referred to myself as a “sort of” librarian. My job involves doing a lot of training for library staff and deals exclusively with e-books. I have zero contact with print books in my job and work in an office building instead of a library. I had my degree and I worked with libraries but didn’t really feel like I was a librarian and, to a certain extent, I felt like I was trespassing when trying to find my place in the field. But to be honest, this didn’t bother me a great deal at first because I was happy being my own little island.

This has changed for the better over the last two years as I inadvertently became less and less of an island, mainly through the influence of my boss and Twitter. I’ve met a lot of people, many not working in traditional library positions, and became involved in a number of projects and committees. After five years of being in the field, I finally feel like I’m a legitimate part of it. I think this is something that many people in the field struggle with, especially those coming to librarianship as a second career.

There is no short and simple checklist of what makes a librarian. No one size fits all job description or clearly marked path from start to finish. These are not bad things but they are things that can make it difficult for people to feel like they have a place where they belong in the field. It’s important to remember that just because your job doesn’t look like someone else’s idea of what librarianship is, doesn’t mean you don’t belong. 

Natalie DeJonghe is the e-book trainer/coordinator for the eRead Illinois project where she enjoys smooshing her education and librarianship backgrounds together in all manner of entertaining ways. She tweets as @InkyLibrarian.

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