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.

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