Thursday, June 28, 2012

30th Year Reflections/4: Carpe diem

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” — Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Divine Comedy
Entering library school was not as grim as Dante’s passage through the gate of Hell. But it had its moments. Even before I made my first foray into Walter Library (home of the University of Minnesota library school) challenges came my way. The closest place to take the admission examination (in this case the Miller Analogies Test) was at Northern Michigan University, near the shores of Lake Superior in Marquette. The exam was scheduled for a Wednesday morning, three days before my wedding in the suburbs of Chicago. This meant packing for a week and an early morning drive of a couple hours in order to get to the campus in time for the test. Exuberant after the ordeal—I did very well and became an instant fan of the MAT—I headed south towards the Windy City.
My car, however, had other ideas and broke down in the parking lot of the Frozen Tundra, aka Lambeau Field in Green Bay. A fan hub was cracked, there was no hope of immediate repair, but the car was still drivable, albeit at a slower speed. Absent engine cooling from the fan I jammed a can of car wax between the hood and latch, tied down the hood, and created a primitive air scoop that I hoped would keep the engine cool enough and running into Illinois. I crawled south at forty miles an hour, my eye on the temperature gauge. But the fan hub (and its attendant belt) did more than cool the engine; it also recharged the battery. My battery was dying. By 10:30 that night, nearly invisible to others and with dimming lights, honked at by annoyed motorists, I gave up the fight and eased onto the shoulder of an exit ramp in Milwaukee. A call from a phone booth at a nearby fast food restaurant to my fiancée and future father-in-law brought rescue a few hours later. By 3am my car was towed and parked in front of the home of family friends in a Milwaukee suburb (we woke them up in the process). A few hours later, by dawn’s early light, we arrived at my future in-laws and settled down for a few hours sleep before wedding preparations and its inviolate schedule dictated otherwise.
Two other events from early in my graduate studies are useful to recall here. One was a meeting with the general advisor for incoming students to the library school. Standing before her desk I handed over the required paperwork for review. After a short inspection of the various forms she looked at me, looked back at the papers, and back to me saying in her wonderfully evocative English accent: “You shouldn’t have any problems here. You’re the first one in forty to get everything correct.” I left her office grinning ear to ear thankful for my upbringing, good genes, and strong undergraduate education. I would do well here; of that I was certain. (I was less certain, given my advisor’s comments, how my classmates would fare.)
The second episode occurred before my first class, one of the core courses required of all new students. On entering the building in which my class was scheduled, and descending a flight of stairs, I was confronted by a large sign on the wall that read “Mortuary Science.” Surely I was in the right place. But I was momentarily confused. What was I getting into: something along the lines of a “dead poets society?” Or something more? Dante’s verse, following the one quoted above, (and discovered long after the event) provided meaning to the mortuary sign in the context of my pursuit of a library degree: “These words in sombre colour I beheld | Written upon the summit of a gate; | Whence I: "Their sense is, Master, hard to me!" | And he to me, as one experienced: | "Here all suspicion needs must be abandoned, | All cowardice must needs be here extinct.” Abandon suspicion, extinguish cowardice, persevere, take risks, explore unknowns, be true to yourself. Surely these are good words and even better thoughts to consider when starting on a pilgrimage.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

30th Year Reflections/3: New Blood and Old

“Recruiting ‘new blood’ younger staff with different skills and attitudes will be essential if libraries are to survive, not simply as physical entities, but as facilitators of the changes in scholarly communication as the end user becomes the judge and the jury of access to information.” — Colin Steele, former University Librarian, Australian National University
I did not enter college thinking I would be a librarian. I came thinking of a being a math major and a possible career in astronomy or astrophysics. That dream was quickly shattered, not that it made a huge difference to me; I viewed college as a time of exploration and so if numbers and equations didn’t provide the kind of variability and challenge I was looking for I would look somewhere else. Thinking that nothing could be more variable than human behavior, I settled on a history degree. I felt right at home and in the course of four years was rewarded with close friendships that have lasted to this day and an intellectual rigor that was bracing, enjoyable, and rewarding. The proof for my decision came in my senior year, during a year-long seminar on the theme of revolution. The Iranian revolution was happening before our eyes and we took it up as a focus of study. I’m still convinced that our small band of history majors probably knew more about what was happening in Iran than 99% of the United States population. We were so knowledgeable that we arrived at a point where we were predicting what was going to happen next in Iran. It was a heady—and at the same moment intimidating—time.
Not that my knowledge of the Iranian revolution helped me find a job after graduation. Should I teach? Go on to graduate school? Both options meant more school. I didn’t know what to do with a history degree so decided to work in a couple of settings in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with the added benefit that this gave me a lot of quiet time to think, read, and contemplate next steps. I stumbled upon a contemplative method that in the end proved fruitful: I thought about all the people I had met during my college days and asked a simple question—would I like to do what they do? One person kept coming to mind: a reference librarian who had been singularly helpful in getting me into some of the great libraries of the metropolis as I worked through my own research and writing as an undergraduate. And so, the next time I happened to see her (having made a brief escape from the north woods) I asked what it took to become a librarian. Her answer, aided by a quick retrieval of the American Library Association Yearbook—and a trace of excitement (she was a very good reference librarian)—was for me to consider applying to one of the accredited programs listed on the pages in front of me. I made a copy of those pages, applied to two schools, took the requisite examination, and was accepted.
How many times have I thought of that dear reference librarian and the immense help and guidance she offered? Many times, particularly when asked by an undergraduate the same basic question: what does it take to be a librarian and to do what I do? I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve helped a student answer that question but I know, at least since in my current post, that the question comes up at least annually, if not more. It is one of the joys in my career that I’ve helped bring a number of people into the professional fold. At the same time, I wonder how frank and honest I’ve been with each of those students, how excited I’ve been in the moment (as was the case when I asked the question over three decades ago). I’d like to think that what I’ve shared has been realistic and enthusiastic, warts and all. And I’d like to think that I’ve been a mentor to at least a few as they have taken their first tentative steps in the workplace, as I was mentored by that reference librarian and others I met along the way. It is a good thing to be a mentor; I need to look for more opportunities to share what I’ve learned, to help guide others.

Friday, June 15, 2012

30th Year Reflections/2: Mapping the Way

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” William Wordsworth
Before I launch too far into these reflections I thought it best to give you some sense of how these future postings might come into being. I have already mentioned that this seems a good time in my career to engage in such an exercise. It also seems to me a good way to energize a flagging blog and breathe new life into a technology that has not yet passed us by. In some ways this will be a project involving memory, faulty though it may be, and will come to me in somewhat chronological order. But I will not let chronology solely dictate these reflections. If something erupts on the professional landscape that seems worth my time, I’ll direct my gaze and commentary in that direction. I may also use certain professional tenets, for example the “Library Bill of Rights” or Ranganathan’s “Five Laws” as a scaffold on which to build my thoughts. Everything, in short, that comes across my radar that relates to the profession—my profession—of librarianship will be considered.
The posts will also have certain limits, all related to some aspect of length or time. Each post will appear weekly (unless something extraordinary happens along the way), and scheduled to appear on Thursday. The individual posts will be confined to the equivalent of one page (Times New Roman, 12 point), somewhere around 600-700 words. For the past year I’ve been writing a similar weekly missive for family and close friends, more personal in nature, restricted (for the most part) to two pages. I have found this a good discipline both in terms of focusing my thoughts and writing on a small number of topics, and for the contemplative nature such centered writing provides in the course of a week. I intend to write these reflections for about a year, as a way to celebrate my three decades as a librarian. October 2011 marked the beginning of my 30th year; I aim to keep writing these reflections until the end of my 31st year, in October 2013.
These, then, are my goals; this is the task I have set. And I want to emphasize the celebratory nature of these posts, even before they are written. I am glad to be a librarian; I have no regrets. It is, to borrow from the religious world of my father (and also my second son) my “calling.” This is the profession I was meant for, that I was created for. At the same time, celebratory though they may be, I hope that my analytical eye is not dimmed. As a contemplative exercise I desire to think deeply and critically about the work that has claimed me all these years. And while this is not an exercise in news gathering or reporting I find the guidelines offered by Jim Lehrer (what he referred to as "MacNeil/Lehrer journalism") helpful:
  • Do nothing I cannot defend.
  • Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
  • Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
  • Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.
  • Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
  • Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
  • Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.
  • Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions.
  • No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
  • And finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Reflections after 30 Years, Post 1: It's not all about the money, but...

“The librarian of today, and it will be true still more of the librarians of tomorrow, are not fiery dragons interposed between the people and the books. They are useful public servants, who manage libraries in the interest of the public... Many still think that a great reader, or a writer of books, will make an excellent librarian. This is pure fallacy.” — Sir William Osler, 1917
Thirty years ago this October I entered the library profession. Over the course of those thirty years I have held five positions, four of them in an academic setting: instruction/reference librarian, library director, medical librarian, director of archives, and curator of special collections and rare books. The path I mapped out for myself at the beginning of my career was altered a bit along the way. But for the most part I ended up where I hoped I would end up: in a large academic research library. My initial career map thirty years ago did not get down to specific job titles or duties so it is still a bit of a surprise to me (and maybe to others as well) that I ended up where I am, in the world of archives and special collections as a curator of special collections and rare books. The question I’m facing at the moment is: will I stay here?
I don’t think it is an inappropriate question to ask, although some of my colleagues and friends might be surprised that I’m asking it. After all, they would point out, I just stepped into an endowed curatorship two years ago, and for an amazing collection (the world’s largest gathering of material related to Sherlock Holmes). My job is secure; I have the equivalent of academic tenure. Life is good. Or is it?
I won’t answer that last question (or the one before it) at present. Instead I would like to “set the table” as it were for what I believe may end up being an extended series of personal reflections on the library profession. The time for such a reflection is perfect (for me if for no one else): by my reckoning I am about two-thirds of the way through my career; I have worked for thirty years and anticipate retiring after another fourteen to sixteen years of labor. Some might wish me to retire earlier and I would do so were it to my economic advantage. But at the present no such advantage exists. My economic liabilities are modest in number if not in size and the current health care and insurance systems offer no incentives for me to think about leaving the workforce any time soon.
Economic considerations were never at the heart of my decision to enter the profession. We told ourselves that we were entering the profession not to get rich but to provide for the public good. It was, in some ways, a lamentable fairy-tale. So let me make this my first observation on my chosen career as I begin these series of reflections: I was rarely paid what I was worth. And at some times I was barely paid a living wage. It was true at the beginning; it continues to be true today. A very famous research library, in one of my first interviews for a professional position, dangled a very low salary in front of my eyes with two self-justifications: 1) having the name of their library on my résumé would, in the future, open doors and translate into imminently higher salaries in later positions; 2) the low salary was compensated for, in some ways, by the lower rents charged to library employees who lived in library-owned apartments (should I choose to live in such an apartment, were I hired). I ended up being the runner-up for the position I had applied for and in some respects I was lucky; a short time later an impoverished and struggling school hired me—and paid me more than the world-renowned library would have. But I still wonder if the name of the library on my vita would have really translated into something down the road. I’ll never know the answer to that question. But I think I have a hint.