This week I celebrated my one-year anniversary of librarianship. In my application essay for library school I wrote that I’d been a frequent library user for most of my life, yet had never considered working in one until recent epiphanies changed my outlook. Perhaps I thought of it like working at a movie theater—another regular haunt of mine—in that the prospect of seeing movies for free belied the much less glamorous reality of terrible hours, meager pay, and lots of cleaning. I simply never imagined myself on the other side of the reference desk or at the helm of a book cart. I didn’t lack imagination; I merely had, as Steven Johnson put it in How We Got to Now, a “slow hunch” that gestated for years and then illuminated only once the conditions were ripe.
My “plan” entering college was to become a high-school history teacher. I loved history and thought I might be a good teacher, so abracadabra: that’s what I’d do. History major, education minor, future set. But that first fall semester I took a writing class and wrote a few pieces for the school newspaper. That I could write about music, film, and essentially anything else I could conjure and get it printed in ink with my name attached to it for campus-wide distribution was a stunning revelation, and a disruptive one. This new storyline challenged the vocational narrative I’d slapped together to have something to tell people who asked at my high-school graduation party what I’d do with my life. But before winter break I’d changed majors to English (with an emphasis in journalism) and bumped history down to a minor (because you can’t have just one economically unviable field on your diploma). I never regretted the decision, nor did I forget the privilege of being able to make it at all thanks to scholarships and financial aid.
And yet, four years later, clad in a black gown I’d never wear again, holding a diploma I think I maybe know the current whereabouts of, I wondered what was next. As a newly christened liberal arts degree-holding humanities major—Oh great, another one—my skills and knowledge base were just unspecific enough to ensure that my first few jobs would have little to do with what I learned in college. But long-term planning has never been my thing. I have no idea what I’m having for lunch today, let alone where I’d like to be in five years. My strategy has been akin to what Anne Lamott describes in Traveling Mercies, how when her pastor prays for direction, “one spot of illumination always appears just beyond her feet, a circle of light into which she can step.” Life has felt more like that to me than following a line or climbing a ladder: hopping from one bright spot to the next and hoping for illumination. Hop, then hope, ad infinitum.
My post-graduation bright spot appeared after I’d spent a few months abroad and came home broke. One rent check away from having literally zero dollars, I worked as a cashier for a few months, which gave me much-needed income for the price of my soul, and then started part-time at Barnes & Noble as a bookseller. (That remains an all-time favorite job.) I would’ve stayed at Barnes & Noble indefinitely had another bright spot not appeared. A college friend of mine who’d taken a job at a university had entered its library and information science program and was telling me over and over how much I’d like it, that I should look into it. Who works in a library? I thought. But I looked into the program and realized, Oh, I would work in a library. Classes in archives (where my interests strongly laid at the time) coupled with a field that emphasized organization, books, cultural fluency, and intellectual freedom? Are you kidding me? That “circle of light” was blinding, so I leapt into it with a smile.
Confirmation came quickly. Library school, in my experience at least, was where being a nerd was nearly a prerequisite, introverts were abundant, and the male-to-female ratio was very much in my favor. (Exhibit A: Meeting my future wife in my first class.) But I was starting from 000. I’m pretty sure I was the only one in class who had never worked in a library. Lucky for me this was a built-in expectation: Because there is no bachelor’s degree in library science, everyone in some sense was starting from scratch. The learning curve was steeper for me, but that made things more fun. I wasn’t that long-time library worker grudgingly returning to school to sit through classes I could teach myself to get that expensive piece of paper that shattered the glass ceiling of professional certification and magically allowed me to earn more money; I was a guy who accidentally made a great candidate for librarianship and happened to like it too. Because I loved history most of my 36 credit hours trended toward archival work, but I also enjoyed classes on storytelling, metadata, bookbinding, and digital libraries. In this new world everything I looked at was a delicious possibility. I felt like a kid with a golden ticket bouncing around Willy Wonka’s sugary wonderland, except the edible mushrooms were finding aids and the chocolate river was the archives/cultural heritage track of my MLIS.
The river brought me past a few archival internships and volunteer gigs during school, which I parlayed into a (paid!) summer internship at a large corporate archives. But after such a wonderful opportunity, and the apex of my library school adventure, in the fall of 2013 I was back in the dark. The doldrums of unemployment followed, which I dotted with odd jobs, some freelance archiving, and intermittent despair, until I got a kinda-sorta-library-related warehouse job I was, two months later, summarily laid off from.
Things were dim. But then, another circle of light: an interview, then a second, and then a job offer. Time to hop again. I was a librarian. (Part-time, anyway. Though now I’ve started another part-time librarian position so I figure that equals one full-time job, minus health care.) Yet even after I said yes, I felt ill-equipped. I’d taken the wrong classes and banked the wrong type of internships to feel fully qualified for the position. But I’d learned a valuable lesson about hiring in my previous lives as an RA and housing coordinator: credentials do not (necessarily) a qualified candidate make. The letters after your name can get you a meeting, but they aren’t magic. You gotta hope the people in charge can work a crystal ball, and can see a résumé as a blueprint to build from and not a final product. I hopped, then I hoped.
My idea of the perfect job is a role that hits the sweet spot in the middle of the Venn diagram of one’s skills, interests, and passions. Being a librarian does that for me. I’m a reader and culture omnivore; I’m good at making complicated things understandable and enjoy seeing people succeed; and I ardently believe—personally and professionally—in what libraries do. I’m also only a year into this thing. The tectonic plates beneath the crust of the library world are grinding and shifting, and I don’t know what the occupational earthquakes will do to it. But I’ll be along for the ride, probably off in the 900s looking for my next presidential biography. Jean Edward Smith’s Grant has been whispering sweet nothings to me…