"Let us not be ashamed to speak what we shame not to think."
-Michel de Montaigne

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Why I Became a Librarian: Notes from the Rose Main Reading Room

During a recent presentation given by one of my library school colleagues, I was shocked to learned that something like 0.5% of the population determine that they want to enter the library profession before or during college. Most graduate students entering library school do so after having explored or worked in another industry or profession. I mean, I was one of those people. And while I knew that the numbers would be scarce (after all how many kids say 'I wanna be a librarian when I grow up?'), I never imagined they would be *that* scarce.

When I tell people that I'm getting my Master's degree to be a librarian, two questions generally arise: 1) why, and 2) you need a Master's degree to do that? This used to make me wince because I knew that behind those responses was a perplexed person who assumed I was somehow wasting my talent in becoming an information professional because they had absolutely no clue what a librarian actually does. It was like they were basically saying to me: "You want to get a Master's degree so you can check out books for people?!"

Yes, checking out books is sometimes a part of librarianship (and there's nothing wrong with that, you snobs), but that's not the whole story. The childhood stereotype of some four-eyed curmudgeon with an aversion to noise is not the face of modern librarianship. I think part of the problem stems from poor national campaigning and image-shaping by professional organizations within the LIS community. Let me clarify a point: I think organizations such as the ALA have done a fabulous job in national campaigns to discuss the societal impact and value of libraries as institutions. But by comparison they've done a lackluster job of illustrating what information professionals do within that context, especially when compared with the national image-shaping & recruitment campaigns for other professional organizations such as a the American Nursing Association.

My colleague's presentation made me think about why I'd entered this profession, particularly as a minority. Why did I choose to become a librarian in the wide world of options before me? To answer this question, I'd like to share a portion of a reflective essay I completed for my capstone course which discusses what initially drew me to the profession:

"In the fall of 2002 I was a freshman college student renting a room in a squalid apartment in the Southside Bronx while attending SUNY Purchase. I’d left my native Georgia and sojourned to New York carrying dreams of big city life and a career in medicine. And in the spirit of nearly every New York City story, I learned quickly that my fantasies of that great and terrible place were merely preconceived notions derived from the movies, pop culture, and impressionistic observations from previous trips. What I encountered was far beyond my means and capabilities as an inexperienced eighteen year old girl, and by the end of my freshman year of college—I was on the Dean’s list, and essentially homeless. It was during this time of personal and financial turmoil that I took comfort in the New York Public Library, one of the few places in the city that was free and open to the public; and under the frescoed ceiling of the Rose Main Reading room, the seeds of my future profession were planted deep inside of my subconscious.

The New York Public Library represented a kind of refuge for me. When I wasn’t in class, I spent whole days studying or writing poems at one of the long tables in the main reading room, fingering the spines of gilded books in the stacks, or examining the portraits of long-dead aristocrats from New England in the adjoining gallery. On one of these extended visits to the NYPL, I wandered down a hallway of glass-walled rooms where the special collections were housed. From the corridor I watched as white-gloved researchers handled delicate pieces of paper with the same attention and tender care of a mother bathing her infant. At the time I had no concept at all of special collections, the research role of primary records, or the qualifications needed to access such things. But that day made a lasting impression on my young mind: I wanted to be one of those people on the other side of the glass. I didn’t know immediately that I wanted to be a librarian necessarily, but I did know that I wanted to work somewhere like the NYPL—a place where beauty, history, and knowledge was accessible to anyone irrespective of education or socioeconomic status. A place that took seriously its explicit role in the creation and continuum of knowledge and service to a greater societal good."

I share that excerpt only to demonstrate a point. I don't think that one testimony is enough to shift the perception of librarianship, but perhaps several thousand testimonies could? Perhaps if library professionals--and their subsequent organizations--made a concerted effort to share their stories, and spur a national dialogue on how they are touching the lives of individuals in ways that are comparably value-added and intimate as other professions, we will see greater library school enrollment, a better societal understanding of the profession, and political shifts in the understanding of libraries and librarianship as fundamental to the cultural and intellectual growth and sustainability of our nation.

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