Monday, May 30, 2011

My path to librarianship

People like Abby and Janssen have talked at length about how to go to library school, but I thought I'd talk briefly about why I decided to go to library school and get into working with youth in libraries.

When I was little, my mom took me to the library all the time. Not just my library, either: we probably went to every library in a 20 mile radius. More than once a week, even. Doing this became easier the older I got, since using a library card at non-system libraries became more common. But in short, I grew up utilizing the resources at the library for enjoyment reading and research for school.

At 16, I took my first job at a Major Card Retailer. It was, how to say, not my cup of tea. The hours were not good -- and during the holidays, I'd be stuck there until very late -- and the management wasn't enjoyable. I began that job in August, and when I ran across an ad for a page position at one of my local libraries in December, I applied. And interviewed. And then, I didn't get the job. The manager told me that my interview went so well, but the candidate chosen had strong references that, as someone who'd only had one job, I didn't have.

I moved on.

Fast forward to February -- a mere month and a half after my interview -- and I get a surprise phone call and job offer from that manager. She'd made the wrong choice, and she wanted me to start as soon as I could. And I did in March.

I loved the job. I put away books for two hours and did things like shifting, facing, shelf reading, and prepping date due stickers twice a week. The people who worked at the library were wonderful, and the fact so many well read people wanted to talk books really made me excited to go to work every day.

A year later, a job one step up from mine opened, and I interviewed, and I was offered the job. Rather than spending 4 hours a night on the floor, I was now spending half that time in technical services helping to process books, as well as movies and CDs (both new to the library!). I loved being in the back end of the job, learning how to make things ready for patron use.

And then I graduated high school and went to college out of state.

Leaving the job was hard, as I had worked there for over two years. It was a great place to be and gave me a spark. I knew I wanted to work with books and around people who appreciated the written word like I did. But the thing was, I always wanted to be a journalist. I loved writing, and I was good at it.

When I entered college, I was handed a great gift: a part-time work-study job at the library. My college's library served as both the college's academic library and the town's public library, so I got to work both sides of the desk, serving college students and the patrons of the small town. I got to do circulation work here, and I had periodic assignments to do a little more, such as processing books, shelf reading, and hunting down pick list items. It was a great job between newspaper deadlines, assignments, and the other demands of college.

I worked that job for four years -- and I had many opportunities to do more than simply work circulation. I took on two years as a late night assistant, working the 9-midnight shift; I took on a summer as a periodicals assistant (meaning I learned the ins and outs of microfilm and microfiche); and I had one project organizing the children's DVDs into a workable, usable manner.

But it was my sophomore year in college where it hit me that this was something I could get behind as a career. I took a class at the world renowned Newberry Library in Chicago, and I had the chance to work in their archives. I got to go up to the super secure archives at the Newberry and measure different artifacts for a new digital library they were building. Little did I know then what I was doing was creating metadata for items. Although this wasn't the most exciting job, what made me fall in love with the idea of working at the library was their reference team.

The point of the class I took was to conduct was was equivalent to a semester-long research project on a topic of choice in Chicago history. I chose to research and write about the history of the red light district, and it was a topic that was incredibly rich with opportunity. The amount of help I had in focusing the project and in finding primary sources is all of credit to the librarians at the Newberry: they helped me hone down my topic to investigate how the structure of Chicago's red light district mirrored social class structure, and I had the chance to read real blue books, along with other pieces of this racy part of history.

Immediately following my class at the Newberry, I took a summer job as a teaching assistant at a Chicago area university. I would be assisting with one section of a class on creative writing and one section of a class on Shakespeare. The classes were of middle school/early high school kids -- those in 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. I had it in my head that if journalism wouldn't pan out, I could try graduate school for English or Creative Writing, and this would be a good opportunity to get some teaching experience under my belt. I lived in a dorm room by myself that summer, a couple hours away from home, with only a couple of other people. The dorm meant to house 1000 some students was home that summer to me and about 6 other people. I had no kitchen, no air, no internet, and no social interaction. I did a LOT of reading, and I did a LOT of thinking.

The thing was, I wasn't cut out for teaching. I loved being with the kids, and quite frankly, I was a terrible disciplinarian. I liked befriending the kids more. My Shakespeare kids in particular were huge readers, and every day, we'd talk about what we were reading. These were the kids who compelled me to finally pick up Harry Potter. I read the entire series in days. Then we'd talk about it. These kids were passionate about reading, and I loved being around that energy, whether we were discussing fun reading or we were plotting out the events in Macbeth. Although I knew I wasn't cut out for teaching, I knew that kids, especially teenagers, had to be part of my future.

But the thing was, I still wanted to be a journalist. I loved the writing and the exploration and it wasn't until I went back to campus the following year, presenting my research, that I realized being a librarian meant I could not only write and share, but I could be the person who helps others discover the wealth of resources available. It was a revelation that led me to ask my college librarian to let me do an internship (which she agreed to!) and where I got to try my hand at archives and at public librarianship.

During my college internship, I got to be the person to suggest that the teen collection include Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere and John Green's Looking for Alaska. I got to interview a ton of local librarians, including Joel Shoemaker, who was incredibly active in writing about serving teens in a school library, and I got to check out the North Liberty Public Library, which was one of the forerunners in giving teens their own space in the library. I did a huge project on censorship and banned/challenged books. It was during this internship I began my first professional blog which, I regret to say, is long gone.

Here's the thing, though: I also loved the archives. Going through records, organizing them, and making them available to me really reached my journalist self. It was this passion that led me to seek out an internship the following summer with the Czech-Slovak Museum Library. I loved that internship, too. Sigh.

Although I knew this was the area I needed to be in, I had such split loyalties at the end of the internship. I needed to find a graduate school that let me explore both, and I was extremely fortunate that the University of Texas (at that time) let me double dip like crazy. But it was after that first public library class and that first archives class (along with a couple of less-than-perfect jobs in archives) that made me realize that I needed to be in a library and not the archives. But the plethora of library opportunities were limitless, and I threw a lot of energy into special libraries.

Until I took a class on YA lit. It was then I realized how important working with kids had been. It was then I remembered how much I loved talking books with kids. And it was then that I realized that was where I needed to be.

Which is funny, given that was perhaps the worst class I took at the school. But, from that terrible class came a passion for seeking out good books and talking about them. It was in that class I learned how to sell a book to readers (I believe my book talk titles included The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, Hattie Big Sky, and A Long Way Home). But between classes, I was talking with other people passionate about everything in YA.

Then, I graduated.

It was December 2008, right when everything in the world economy fell to pieces. I didn't get a job. I had been supremely lucky to interview for a few jobs prior to graduating -- including more than one that paid for me to fly out and interview -- but nothing came of those trips. I wasn't experienced enough in public libraries/reference. I didn't have the background in YA lit I needed (did I mention the class was weak?). There were people with better experience than me.

Although the seven months of unemployment I experienced were among the most depressing months of my life (and some of the times we really did worry about how we would buy groceries that week), I threw my free time into reading everything I could get my hands on. I read hundreds of YA books. I became familiar with who was who and what books were essential. And then I began my book blog to record these things. Each book made me that much stronger, and each time I wrote about books, I became that much more aware of how important it was to know my audience.

During this time, I was still applying and interviewing for jobs -- I applied to hundreds, interviewed at probably 50 or 60. Each time, though, I knew I was closer and closer to being the strongest candidate I could be. I had programming ideas, I knew how to talk to teens, and I knew the books.

In May 2009, I was offered a job as a teen librarian in Illinois, and it was then I was able to not only interact with teens, books, and research, but I was still able to write. I was blogging for me, but I was also writing to teens every day in my reader's advisory material, in my publicity, in my social media. A year and some months later, I took a job as a Youth Services Librarian, which let me expand my passion for working with young people to serving a wider swath of ages, and it's let me explore more reading and resources.

Some people fall into careers, and though I think there were definite moments of feeling like this was a field I fell into, looking into my history proves it wasn't an accident. I have been able to combine so many of my interests and talents into one area, and I have to say that there really is nothing more enjoyable for me than what sparked it: talking with teens about reading. About books. About resources they have access to.

And then, I get to write about it.

*Edit: I found a copy of my original library blog here!


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Kelly. :) And you totally inspired me to track down my internship blog. Heee.

  2. All this time we've been friends and I've never known this about you!

  3. I feel the same about falling into this career, but I was raised in libraries. Should have seen that one coming!