Why Do I Want to Be a Librarian, Anyway?: Part I

Vocational Disappointment & Promise

When I graduated high school in 1997 I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life.

I was going to enthusiastically say “F-you” to everybody in Jefferson County, MO, and make myself into a wealthy and respected engineer and producer of popular music. By my 10th school reunion I’d be well moneyed, established in my career, and by my 20th school reunion I’d have platinum records, Grammy’s, AMA’s, and who knows, maybe even an Oscar! I was going to show them all and really make something of myself. Revenge through success!

Well, (ahem) that didn’t happen. By the end of 2000 I had flamed out in the music business, featuring being fired by Matchbox 20 for ruining a surprise party for Moon Zappa (true story). And my emergency backup career plan of being a freelance remote audio guy for TV (just like my daddy was!) also came to an ignominious halt when the AOL/Time-Warner merger went through and Turner’s crewing services (owned by Time-Warner before the merger) stopped calling me with work.

All told, it was for the best. Revenge is rarely a good foundation for success, and I was a terrible audio engineer. My failures were earned as much as they were thrust upon me.

By mid-2001, I’d decided to go back to school and move back to my parents’ house. By autumn 2002, I’d enrolled as a freshman at Jefferson College in Hillsboro, MO. I had taken to the academic study of religion and found a spiritual home with the Episcopal Church. In December 2004 I moved to Maplewood, MO, and in January 2005 began classes at Webster University to finish out my Religious Studies degree. By 2006, I was aspiring to enter seminary for the Episcopal Church and two years into their formal discernment process.

As part of that process I was told by the local bishop that I must spend a year in talk therapy. I had spent much of my life a state of untreated and unresolved depression (see the revenge plot, above) and he wanted to make sure he was putting his money on the right horse. When I went to the university’s student health department inquiring about beginning this therapy, the individual I talked to decided that it would be best to send me to the therapist who happened to be an ex-Catholic priest (birds of a feather, ya know?). This ex-priest was not defrocked for any misconduct, but left the position willingly due to some political and organizational issues in the church from which he felt he needed to extricate himself. Over the next several months we met and had an overall productive period after which I was much better off – even though a lot of days he talked more than I did. He had some things he needed to work out.

While we were meeting he would sometimes ask me why I wanted to be a priest. I don’t recall, now, the answers I gave him, but each time his response would be that a social worker does all the same things I’d mentioned. Why did I want to be a priest and not a social worker? I was never able to answer that question. It is not surprising, then, that after a year of talk therapy when I met with the bishop again he said that he still wasn’t comfortable sending to me to seminary, and that I could try again in five years’ time.

The Episcopal Bishop of Missouri is a very smart man. Within two years of that meeting I had ceased going to church altogether, and within four years had become an avowed atheist. Needless to say, I have not met with the man since.

I began working in Webster University’s Emerson Library as a student assistant in the summer of 2005, where I performed the usual stacks maintenance and circulation desk duties typical of student assistants at a university library. At the time, it became apparent to my employers that perhaps the circulation desk was not the best use of my talents. Basically, I was far too task oriented and far too little interested in patron service. Luckily, though, I found a niche assisting with interlibrary loan and document delivery. So much so that I tended to consider it my job even though there was a librarian and usually one or two other student assistants to do the same work I was doing. However, I was happy there and my employers liked me enough to keep me around.

I worked there until March of 2007 when my final work-study award ran out of money. It was in the previous February that I had my “come back in five years” meeting with the bishop. One of the reasons that the final meeting with the bishop was not devastating was that I knew going into that meeting that no matter what he said – and I had a feeling it was going to be negative – that I could make a nice career in libraries. I, for the first time in that discernment process, had a Plan B. I even announced this to the bishop at the top of the meeting which probably made everything a lot easier for both of us. I had realized in the preceding weeks that not only did I enjoy my work in ILL, but that the whole library environment seemed to fit me like a glove. I have always been a bit fussy with my books and CDs and here was a place where that was a virtue and not an annoying fixation. And on a grander level, I took great pride in assisting the education of students around the world by seeing that they and their professors got the materials they needed. It felt good for me to work there. It felt right. So, when it turned out that Jesus’ call was a wrong number I knew I had a soft place to land.

Since that time I have worked contiguously in the library field with no gaps in my employment. I had sufficient notice of the end of my work-study award to find job as a clerk in the St. Louis County Library system where I worked for 18 months until I was hired for my first full-time library job as an ILL assistant at the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL). I performed that job for two years until I was promoted, in a way, to supervisor of consortium lending in August of 2010 – a position I’ve held since. In the Fall of 2011 I began course work for my Library and Information Science Master’s degree through the University of Missouri, which I completed in May 2015.

About half-way through the degree program (2013, I was a half-time student) I remembered my old therapist’s question and realized that if I was going to be successful in this field that surely was the correct one for me that I’d have to have a good answer for it, this time. Sure, obviously, completing my degree would open up professional opportunities for me that I would not have otherwise had. That is a reason to go to library school, but it does not answer the bigger existential question of “Why librarianship?”

To truly answer this question I must ask a series of other questions. What do I have to give the field? What skills and values do I possess that make me a desirable librarian? What features of the field do I care about and wish to advocate for?

For these answers, and more, see my next post…

One thought on “Why Do I Want to Be a Librarian, Anyway?: Part I

  1. Dear Jeff,

    I think we have many similarities in our journeys into librarianship. For me, it was a way to stay in education but get out of the classroom.

    Oh, I just found out that I’m a year older than you 😛


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