Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Letter from a New Librarian, by Charlie Bennett

A librarian friend and I had a running gag a few years ago related to presentations we gave at conferences. This was back when I was a Library Technical Associate at Georgia Tech with no faculty status at all. My friend and I would outline but not write out our presentations so the headings were just speaking prompts. A regular prompt was “Who am I?” to signify the introduction but when rehearsing these presentations with each other we would perform that question as an existential demand of the audience: “WHO AM I? WHY AM I HERE? WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?” I’m sure you had to be there for it to be really funny. [Editor’s Note: Nah. It got a chuckle from me when I first read it.] As funny as it was to us then, I never thought that I’d come to a point where I wouldn’t be able to answer those questions. I wish someone had told me that I would have to work for those answers.

I became a librarian in 2011, almost immediately after finishing my MLIS. I was lucky; I leveraged my LTA experience, my programming initiatives in the learning commons, and perhaps all those presentations, into a librarian position at Georgia Tech. I didn’t even change offices. My boss said “This is great, we’re glad you’re part of the team, and you should take the next year to understand the job.” I laughed because I thought it was a joke.

It’s not a joke. I’m two years in as an academic librarian and I still don’t know who I am, why I’m here, or what they want from me. I might not even be clear on who I meant when I wrote “they” in the last line.

But here’s the thing I realized: I don’t know the answer to those three questions because no one knows the answer. Like a university professor, or like an artist, my job has lofty ideals and very few constraints. The mission of this library is perfectly elastic: support the teaching, researching, and learning of the university. Try defining those three gerunds in a way that reduces your options.

As the Undergraduate Programming & Engagement Librarian, my job responsibilities in the past two years have included producing a weekly radio show, running a carnival-style welcome event inside the Library for freshmen, attending a class on Herman Melville, teaching a class on the high-school-to-college transition, assembling whiteboards and studio tables for a design class in the library commons, and assembling a quarter-scale plywood model of a whale skeleton (for the Melville class).

These activities were all part of my job because the job could be anything, and I kept seeking a specific role. Who am I? Why am I here? I’m an educator; I’m here to teach. I’m an academic; I’m here to explore. I’m a communicator; I’m here to share information. I’m a manager; I’m here to make other people’s missions go smoothly. I’m a librarian; I’m here to be confused by the changes in my profession and by most people’s unshakeable belief that my job is mostly concerned with the Dewey Decimal system and the vanilla smell of old books.

So I sought. I said yes to everything cool. Then I had to say yes to everything in my job description. That’s what you’re supposed to do, I know, but now I’m feeling screwed. Over-scheduled, fragmented, and devoted to projects that I never had to start, I’m out of time and energy and good vibes. I’ve put all my responsibilities and projects on a flipchart and I won’t put a new one up until I cross two off.

Photo by author.

When this semester is over, before I write any of next year’s items on the flipchart, I’m going to do a professional development exercise for myself. I’m going to sit down at a clean desk on a day without meetings, and I’m going to read my job description very carefully, and I’m going to write out the answers to three questions: who am I? Why am I here? What do they want from me?

I might know the answers by then.

Charlie Bennett is an academic librarian at the Georgia Tech Library, a co-host on Lost in the Stacks on WREK Atlanta and on Consilience with Pete & Charlie, and a little bit overwhelmed.

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