Blogger’s Note: A moment of silence is in order for those who passed away while reading parts one and two of this series. In their memory, and as a form of deliverance to all who have survived, I offer this last post on how I became a librarian.
Library school was an onerous and desultory experience for me. I attended classes, completed projects, and studied for exams with both a lackadaisical manner and a marked resentment. I stubbornly saw my job at the federal agency library as my sole classroom laboratory, and I felt that the University of Maryland’s library science curriculum couldn’t come close to what I was learning on the job. I didn’t believe, and in fact still don’t believe, that librarianship should require a masters-level accreditation to work in the field as a professional (this is considered heretical thinking to some). On the other hand, I did enjoy the more than 2:1 ratio of female to males in the program. When you further broke down the straight to gay ratio of the male students, the opportunity for interactions with female students increased significantly. So in spite of my feelings about the overall graduate school experience, I managed to survive through the ordeal and finished in two and a half years.
It took a bit of time for me to eventually understand that I had indeed settled into an actual career. For quite a few years, especially in class and grade-conscious Washington, DC, I hesitated when people asked me what I did for a living. For so long I had worked in the lower rungs of the government’s General (“GS”) Schedule, and seemingly overnight I was in a respectable grade and occupational series. With the grace period for non-payment status on my undergraduate loans now over, being gainfully employed and earning a salary allowed me to actually become financially responsible.
My career moved along at a rapid pace My first post-graduate job was as an acquisitions librarian for the federal court system. At that time, the federal judiciary’s administrative office purchased lawbook subscriptions centrally, and I was put in charge of the renewal of book materials for both library and judge’s chambers collections. It was an intense and politically impossible job of having to continually untangle subscription problems all over the country. A main benefit for me, however, was that I developed a network of contacts long before LinkedIn was ever invented. I made professional friendships with librarians all over the federal court system, and later in my career those contacts turned out to be helpful when I eventually returned to work in the Judiciary from the Executive Branch.
From there I transferred to a law library system at a law enforcement agency where I opened a small branch library that served primarily criminal litigators. This was at about the time client-server technology allowed for differing library disciplines – cataloging, reference, serials, circulation, and acquisitions — to be unified electronically with what was to be called an “Integrated Library Systems” or “ILS.” Although my computer capabilities in the mid-1990’s were somewhere between mid-to-advanced level achievement for Solitaire, Minesweeper, and Tetris, upper management had an inkling that I might be able to help usher in the new ILS technology to a staff that heretofore was only familiar with command-line DOS-generated programs. After crashing several perfectly good office personal computers, nearly corrupting a database of MARC-loaded catalog records, and accidentally loading a 700 GB program on a network drive that almost crashed an entire litigating division’s data server, in time I began to understand the process to getting our library catalog out to the agency’s personnel. I was learning the very basics of network architecture for our library application to interface (bingo!)” to different networks within the agency. I also became adept at learning just enough Solaris Unix to be very, very dangerous. This took about four years, but we did eventually achieve our goal of integrating nearly all the library components under one system architecture.
With the ILS up and running, it was time to move on. My next and final job was to relocate to the west coast. I began to serve judges and court staff by managing two federal court libraries. I traded in whatever technology I knew to once again be on the front lines of librarianship: answering reference and research questions, helping law clerks and judges, and maintaining a library collection for the court. Or as a friend of mine said to me at the time, “transitioning from t-shirts back to sweater vests.” It was a gratifying and professionally rewarding passage, in some ways harking back to the very start of my career when I entered library school.
I chose one path in librarianship: law libraries. But there are so many other disciplines within the profession such as academic, public, technical and scientific, corporate, and medical. For a short time, I actually worked as a part-time evening reference librarian at a county public library. I have been lucky enough to meet famous litigators, a few infamous defendants, two U.S. Supreme Court justices, and finally the opportunity to work on behalf of some brilliant and talented federal trial judges. The exciting moments always out-numbered the dull ones.
Still, it was time for me to retire when I did. Although I was comfortable with the transition from hardcopy to electronic research, what I found disconcerting was the challenge to keep the library itself relevant. Libraries have always been places to which people flocked for assistance. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t interested in marketing, and that’s precisely what librarians need to do now to stay relevant– they need to market their services. As more and more law students graduate from law school and enter the legal profession, the law library is potentially a quaint anachronism of the past. Since so much of legal research can now be done online, there is a generation of young lawyers who have never actually had to crack open a lawbook prior to graduating from law school. The challenge for law librarians then is to walk an informational tightrope that bridges a bibliographic, traditional past to an electronic present and future. I looked in the mirror one day and realized that I personally had actually become the anachronism I most feared. When a traditional “bibliography” transformed instead into something called a “pathfinder,” I knew this boy needed to go sit on a beach somewhere.
And so I have done just that.
It was, however, a wonderful career. It certainly didn’t turn out to be the job in which I was paid to write the Great American Novel, but it was nonetheless something that brought me great satisfaction and joy. I worked alongside immensely talented people, and in spite of my occasional Dilbert-like portrayals of managers, I worked under some of the finest library administrators in this country. It was all a very good ride.