Blogger’s Note: I started this posting assuming that it would be one single post about how I became a librarian. But it is apparently a longer story than I had anticipated. You’d think I’d know my own life better than I apparently do! A continuation will be written at a later date.
When I graduated from library school in the mid 1980’s, the librarians at my job all took me out to lunch to celebrate. They gave me a few gag gifts, among them a certificate listing the many privileges to which I was now entitled as a result of my new professional status. That certificate is unfortunately long-lost, but I do vividly recall one of the best lines from it:
It shall forever be remarked by those who meet you for the first time and learn what you do for a living: “Oh, you must like books.”
Indeed I do like books. But that is decidedly not why I became a librarian.
I went away to college with the intention of majoring in broadcasting with a minor in journalism. Determined to someday become the next Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, or Dan Rather, I initially I did very well. I got A’s and B’s in all of my classes and occasionally did the news on the college radio station.
By the end of my second year, however, I began to get cold feet about the field into which I was ostensibly heading. I distinctly remember a professor, himself a former broadcaster who had escaped to the relative comforts of academia, devoting an entire class lecture on the pitfalls of what a life in broadcasting is like. He spoke of a notable lack of job security, very little in the way of benefits, and — especially in the early years — an absolute necessity that one reside in many different cities for short 1-2 year periods to build a resume. I recall walking out of that class with a tremendous feeling of doubt and insecurity about my own abilities. I really wasn’t much of a risk taker.
You have to love epiphanies; they do present themselves sometimes just when you need them. One arrived that very evening when I visited the library for my standard weeknight ritual: lay out books and papers on a table in front of me, and then proceed to completely ignore them for two hours. As I sat there, not engaging in anything that even closely resembled academic study, for the first time I began watching with utter fascination the reference librarian sitting at a desk in the reading area. He was busy working away on what I chose to believe was the Great American Novel. When someone walked up to him to ask for assistance, he would set his personal work aside to assist them. I watched as he would get up to point out and explain different bibliographic resources, followed by returning to his desk in short order to resume working on his novel. That he had a job offering him such freedom, along with a steady paycheck that had benefits, was definitely a light bulb moment for me. I too wanted a job in which I could sit and write a novel.
Of course, it was only a handful of years later when I belatedly realized that this man was no more writing the Great American Novel that evening than I was earnestly concentrating on my studies. He was more than likely working on a bibliography or subject guide that was assigned to him by his boss. But in my naive, 20-year-old world-view, reference librarians had no bosses. They instead got to sit at a desk, occasionally answer questions from students, and then proceeded to spend the rest of their shift happily writing fiction, poetry, or whatever their creative hearts desired.
It should probably be noted here that certainly by the time I was a college student, nor as I grew into a mature adult, has your humble blogger ever shown any aptitude for fiction or poetry writing. My prior attempts at it were prima facie examples. A rather notorious effort made in a junior high creative writing class became a permanent blemish on what was already an unremarkable public school academic record. I had thought it to be, well, creative, when I conceived a short story figure who had an uncanny resemblance to the “Get Smart” character of Maxwell Smart. My endeavor was rewarded with a lecture from my teacher, followed by a note home to my parents, on the evils of plagiarism. Circumstances in the matter quickly became even more delicate when my mom and dad actually read the story. They were appalled to discover that I made the bumbling protagonist Jewish. “This is why we spent money sending you to Sunday School and Hebrew School? So that you can mock your own faith?” I learned at a very formative age that it would be an uphill climb to become the next Philip Roth.
Having long abandoned any thought of being a writer, and now moving away from being a broadcast journalist, I sat in that Midwestern college library with a seed planted about perhaps being the next Melville Dewey or Daniel Boorstin.
Before that could happen though, there were more ridiculous notions of mine that I still had to experience. In due course, I changed my major. I had earned enough credits in journalism to retain it as a minor, but I quickly jettisoned the broadcasting curriculum. Prior to registering for the following fall semester’s classes, I spent at least half of my summer vacation thinking hard about exactly what my college interests were. Beer, marijuana, and trying to meet girls were at the very top of my desires. So I decided to follow what was at least at that time a well-traveled academic path to insure that I could maintain those interests: I switched my major to political science. Poly-Sci offered what I thought was a respectable cover while at the same time allowing me to matriculate as normal. You might say Zonker Harris was a bit of a hero of mine, except in my case I did continue to attend classes. It never occurred to me that once in political science I was going to be queried by so many people about whether I would be attending law school after graduation. I was only thinking about the immediate moment.
However, that night sitting in the library and watching the reference librarian made a big impression on me. I saw something that I found appealing and interesting, and I filed it away using whatever brain cells were still in use. I was still at least two more adventures from discovering my professional calling, but I was actually grateful to have a glimmer of a possible life beyond college.
And as professors probably still say today, we’ll pick up on this again at another time….