Headlong into the Old Question
I didn’t grow up going to libraries. My family lived in an unincorporated part of the county, and if we had a county library in the 1980’s when I was a boy, it was unknown to me. There certainly weren’t any that I ever saw or heard about. The two closest municipalities both had public libraries, but they charged for non-residents to use them and my parents either never thought to purchase a membership, or didn’t think we’d get our money’s worth.
It’s not like there was no reading going on in my house. My mother read every night before bed, as did me and my sister. I made frequent use of the book order fliers that we’d get periodically throughout the school year, too. Plus, in elementary and middle school there were also periodic class trips to the library and I have fond memories of Mrs. Buxton reading us stories and teaching us how to use the card catalogs.
On the other hand, I don’t know why my high school even bothered with a library. I have few memories of ever going there, and they made no effort to keep the library open before or after school for students to use for study time. And as a teenager, when I tried to use the public library I was only ever treated as a bothersome interloper by the old ladies who worked there, since I was not a city resident.
So, I have no nostalgic ideal of the library as the place where the books live, as a temple of knowledge, etc. I have no ideal of the the nice lady librarian who just loved books being ever present to offer reading suggestions and answering all manner of questions. I love to read, but can’t spend hours doing it. If I can read for twenty minutes at a time I’ve done really well for myself. I love to learn, especially self-education. I like being able to learn what I want, when I want, and at what depth I want. I also, perhaps in contradiction, love school. I thrive in a classroom setting. However, it is a struggle to do prescribed independent study in the way online learning requires, but we do what we must for our dreams. None of this makes me a librarian, nor does the precise order that I keep my CDs, DVDs, and books (even though I label and shelve my books according to LCC and you can find my home library at this location). These things make me organized, but not a librarian.
What then, makes me a librarian? I think it starts with that feeling I got while scanning and sending articles at Webster University. That feeling that has continued through my time at St. Louis County Library and UMSL. People desire information. This is the information age, of course, and frequently they need assistance in locating that information. When I was working ILL in my early days at UMSL and the St. Louis Zoo would request an article from us I felt a great source of pride that I was able to assist them in their work. That particular institution does wonderful work in animal conservation around the world and I was able to help, in my own small way, in that work. That made me feel good. It helped someone else. And it just might help save a species from extinction. In other words, I saved the world!
Okay, I didn’t save the world, and probably not any animal species, either, but the work I’ve done is important and valuable. It is the only truly valuable work I have ever done. Every day in my current position it is my responsibility to ensure that faculty, staff, and students get the materials they need to achieve their personal and professional goals. Even if that goal is to read escapist romance novels, it is my job to see that they get what they want. That is important. That is valuable. The library is no longer the storehouse of knowledge, and it hasn’t been since the first time a library computer was connected to the internet. Since that time the library has become the access point to knowledge instead of the place where it lives. Access is the very purpose of a library.
Who Am I Now?
Something has changed in me in the last six years since I took on the consortium lending duties for UMSL. In this work I also became a de facto assistant circulation supervisor and in my more direct dealings with patrons in person, over the phone, or via email, I have gone from the strictly task oriented cog that I was in all of my other jobs before to a person who really enjoys serving the public. I am now a service oriented worker who also happens to very easily get caught in the minutiae of particular tasks. I have become both.
Last winter, my library converted to a single service desk where Reference and Access Services work side-by-side, and are now technically the same department. Now, I find myself sharing the desk with a student assistant and a reference librarian for several hours a week. What that means is that I’m now doing some reference work, now, when before I would have directed patrons to the desk across the hall. Here, again, I’m growing in my service skills and dedication. I am happy not only to check out books and answer basic questions for my patrons, but get into their research questions with them. I am a fully trained librarian, after all, and need to practice my reference skills, even if that is not my position, here. I’m teaching patrons how to use our discovery tool, and sometimes taking them into the stacks to instruct them on the library’s layout and how to read a LCC number.
In a lot of ways I have become what has traditionally been thought of as a librarian. I certainly would be considered a librarian by the general public, and I refer to myself as such when talking to civilians about what I do for a living. But librarianship has changed significantly over the last generation, and it continues to evolve. Probably, it will always be evolving for the rest of its history. For most of the history of libraries the role of the librarian has been fairly straightforward: select materials for use, and organize them so they may be easily discovered.
That remains true, but now in academic libraries there is a lot more to it. Cataloging isn’t just cataloging, anymore. One has to think in terms of metadata. One has to be sufficiently schooled in computer programming to work with the WebPAC’s and discovery tools, etc. There’s a lot more negotiating with vendors and understanding of copyright and licensing agreements. The traditional reference librarian is much less about directing patrons to information than about teaching research methods and information literacy. I can’t get past a telephone interview for a reference librarian, regardless of my experience, because I have no formal teaching experience, and no way to get it.
So, what do I have to offer the profession, besides experience and enthusiasm? Aside from the obvious professional opportunities created by getting my MA in Library and Information Science, I attended school to acquire more knowledge and better skills in providing that information to my community and my future communities.
My values and personality insist that I have a job in which I serve more than myself and do more than make money for someone else. Since my mid-twenties I have known that I must work for the betterment of my community as well as myself. My career must reflect those values. Preferably, my career would be the venue in which I work for the betterment of my community. Currently, my community is the faculty, staff, and students of UMSL, its sister campuses in the University of Missouri system, and all the patrons of the MOBIUS consortium’s member libraries. That’s no small community. My duty is to see that every member of my community is provided with the desired materials from which they may retrieve their desired information.
Yes, libraries are in a constant state of flux, and we must examine our role in the world continuously, but people will always need information and they will always need assistance in organization, discernment, assessment, and access to that information. Why do I want to be a librarian? Because, I want to be my community’s information concierge to attend their needs. I want to be there to hold the hand of a student who needs help in writing her first paper, the Ph. D. candidate looking for those last citations for her dissertation, and that person who hands that patron the book they’ve been waiting for for weeks. That’s why I want to be a librarian; for the betterment of others and my community.