By Martha J. Spear
Library media specialist Berkley (Mich.) High School
As a high school library media specialist, I have the good fortune to work with, and sometimes mold, young people. If I’m lucky, I discover what they do after graduation. Recently, one of my favorite students informed me that after earning her humanities degree at a tiny private college, she was pursuing a master’s degree in museum studies. Congratulating her, I jokingly said, “Watch it. That’s awfully close to a master’s in library science.” She laughed and said: “Oh, I’d never do that.” Somewhat defensively, I replied, “You could do worse.”
Long after this brief conversation, I wondered, where did we, as librarians, go wrong? Why is there such an onus on this profession that a bright, young person would choose, well, any career but that of librarianship? I think it’s sad. Librarianship has much to offer, and I think we can do better in promoting our profession. Toward that end, I present my top 10 reasons for being a librarian.
Ever-changing and renewing
The single thing I like most about being a librarian is that it is, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, a moveable feast. I’ve been employed in academic, public, and school libraries in three different states working in technical services, public services, and classrooms, and with street people, teachers, and young adults. I’ve booked psychics, mountain climbers, rock musicians, and landlords for programs. I teach, catalog, book talk, advise, troubleshoot, demonstrate, connect s-video cables, and shelve . . . in a single day. What I learned in my master’s program bears little resemblance to what I actually do in my library today. Yet the principles remain; and, through conferences, professional literature, and networking, I hold my own. If the new books don’t excite me, the new technologies do. Most importantly, I learn something new every day. Can you say that about working at McDonald’s?
Okay, so I may be stretching things a bit here. I married a librarian. (For the record, we met in a singles group; but our paths would have crossed in local library circles eventually, I’m sure.) My case may be extreme, but there is help for the lovelorn in libraries—either in the wonderfully interesting colleagues we meet (see reasons #2 and #7) or in the books and resources libraries offer.
I did not enter library school with a soaring heart. I viewed the degree less as graduate school and more as a kind of trade school. Truthfully, my library education was both. I learned the value of organization (I finally put my massive LP collection in alpha order by artist). I discovered the importance of collection development, equal access to resources, and intellectual freedom. I learned valuable skills in locating and using information that serve me to this day, whether I’m helping a patron write a paper on the Manhattan Project or figuring out the best place to buy a teakettle online.
Librarians host good conferences. I love the hustle and bustle of ALA Annual Conference. I consider my state conference to be so necessary to my mental well-being that I often pay my own way. My husband’s ties to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions have taken us to Nairobi, Tokyo, Havana, and elsewhere. What better way to see the world and recharge the professional batteries? Conferences are blessed events, and you don’t have them when you work at Wal-Mart.
Librarians may not get great pay, but we do generally receive liberal vacations. As a public librarian, I got six weeks off and as a school media specialist . . . well, you don’t want to know. In any case, these vacations have made it possible to visit Paris in April, and Beijing in September, and to spend five weeks in Scandinavia. And when I’m not away, I’ve been able to repaper my hallway, paint the family room, and put in a patio.
A job with scope
As a child, when people asked me what I wanted to be, I have to admit I never said librarian. Although I used and enjoyed libraries, it never occurred to me to actually work in one. I did say that I wanted a job with scope. I am not sure what I meant by that then, but I know what it means now. It means being a librarian. I do dozens of different things every day. It’s not a desk job and it’s anything but routine. When you work with people, changing technologies, and always-new resources, how could it be?
It pays the rent
As a librarian, I will never get rich. However, it has allowed me to live alone (without the dreaded roommate), subsist moderately well, and be employable in different markets and in changing times. I have made a living as a librarian for almost 25 years and I’m not on the street corner selling pencils yet.
Good working conditions
I’ve worked in factories where I stood on my feet for nine hours. I’ve worked in kitchens where I came home smelling of puréed peas. I was a production typist where my derrière routinely fell asleep, not to mention my brain. In a library, you’re clean, dry, warm, and working with people who are generally happy to be there.
I love librarians (also see # 9). We are intelligent, cultured, well-read people who bring a myriad of skills, backgrounds, and interests to the job. Most of my fellow librarians, myself included, have degrees and/or work experience in other areas. I backed into librarianship after realizing that a major in English and German wasn’t going to make me very employable. I know librarians who are former attorneys, truck drivers, teachers, and factory workers. This experiential, intellectual potpourri makes for an interesting mix. And librarians are readers. The conversational gambit “Read any good books lately?” is met with a din around librarians.
As librarians, we support the freedom to read. We champion the right to access information for all people, regardless of race, creed, religion, or economic disposition. Libraries are everyone’s university. These may feel like clich‚s to the converted (us librarians), but they remain truisms.
In sum, I feel very much like Evelyn Carnahan in the film The Mummy. To refresh your memory, our leading lady is in the midst of describing—and defending—what she does for a living to a roguish male. They have been drinking.
Evelyn: Look, I—I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter, Mr. O’Connell! But I am proud of what I am!
Rick O’Connell: And what is that?
Evelyn: I am . . . a librarian!
I couldn’t have said it better.
This article originally appeared in American Libraries, October 2002, p. 54–55.