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.