This post is explains a bit about how I came to become a librarian and is my contribution to the Library Routes Project.
- Age 6: Hiding in the library of my hippie experimental school in Plattsburgh, NY (waaay up-state New York, on Lake Champlain) reading books about ballet
- Age 8: In our local public library, being amazed that I could read for as long as I wanted on the soft red mat in the children’s section
- Age 15: In Wilmington, Delaware during the summer, going to the big downtown public library after my daily ballet class and reading books I had earlier squireled away (so that no one would find them)
- And, always before long car trips, my parents would take me to the library to pick out a huge pile of books, and this I remember was like taking home a treasure
At the library, books that I randomly found on shelves opened my eyes to different ways of speaking, acting, and being, and I worry that my kids are now not getting such wonderful serendipitous library opportunities that I had with their fast-paced, highly-scheduled, and pre-selected lives.
Throughout university, I always thought that the process of finding information was great fun. For four years, I was lucky to attend Barnard College, the women’s college of Columbia University in New York City, and majored in Cultural Anthropology. I was really passionate about this subject (still am), and spent a lot of time in the many university libraries tracking down articles and books. My undergraduate years saw a transition from print reference sources to online, so that by my senior year, many resources had been digitised. I spent many happy hours figuring out keyword and subject searching.
The whole idea of studying anthropology, for me, was to uncover and clearly explain the mysteries of how others lived. Later I learned that this was a colonial and hegemonic endeavour, with its roots in the European colonisation of the world, but at the time it was utterly fascinating to me. A Barnard anthropology professor influenced me to study North American Indian groups, and I was drawn to the Pacific Northwest area of the US and Canada (it was a hot day that day, and the pictures of the mountains and pine trees looked so cool…). During the summers of my junior and senior years, I lived in Alaska working with native groups there (and went back again for another summer of field work a few years later).
The plan (in my head) was that I was going to earn a PhD in anthropology, become a professor somewhere, and be the next Margaret Mead. My anthropological thinking wasn’t actually that much in the dark ages, as at Barnard I was also hugely influenced by feminism and feminist theories in the social sciences. It’s really hard not to come out of Barnard a feminist – — it was just such an amazingly positive place for young women to find their voice and politics. I was involved in a handful of left-leaning political activities from working at a rape-crisis center to working for the rights of homeless people, and this work has given me a passion for always wanting to fix things (something that serves you well in the library world, I think).
This activism led me to seek an internship in my senior year with the National Council for Research on Women (NCRW), a research center based in New York City which provides an umbrella group for university-based women’s research centres in the US and writes research reports on gender issues for policy leaders. This was a heady place to work, a place where I was exposed to ideas, people — including the brilliant and prolific trio of Mary Ellen Capek, Debra Schultz and Deborah Siegel — and institutions trying to make the world a better place for women and girls. After my second summer in Alaska, I was hired back to work for a year on a few specific projects and reports.
But the passion to be an anthropologist never went away, and I spent much of the autumn of that first year out of university applying for spots in graduate programs throughout the US. I was extremely fortunate at the time to win a fellowship from the National Science Foundation which basically paid for three years of graduate school and a healthy yearly stipend. This fellowship, and my interest in native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, led me eventually to choose the University of Washington as the place where I would earn my PhD.
But then I discovered bibliographies…
NCRW regularly received lists of new books in women’s studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Women’s Studies Librarian Office. Part of my job that year at NCRW was to process these bibliographies and note items of interest to our office. A real light bulb went off after reading one or two. I had a true epiphany. I honestly could not believe that someone was getting paid to pull these bibliographies together. It was my dream job! All of a sudden, I realised that I enjoyed the search for information far more than I enjoyed synthesising it. It was a revelation! NCRW happened to have the Peterson’s Guide to US Graduate Schools in its office, and I looked up library school programs. Again, I couldn’t believe what I was reading — actually, I didn’t understand it all, but somehow the descriptions of these programmes seemed like such a good fit. I spent a lot of time in the Hunter College Libraries (which NCRW was affiliated with) looking at all of their outdated library science books and again couldn’t believe how incredibly interesting the field sounded. Something about it just seemed right. I even wrote away to the ALA to receive information about how to become a librarian.
All of the information I carefully squireled away in a box and brought it with me to the University of Washington where I spent three years in the Department of Anthropology loving my work but secretly dreaming of being a librarian. I would sit in the main library or the special collections unit and spend more time watching the activities of the librarian than doing my work. I would also regularly stand in front of the job board at the library, trying to figure out if I was qualified for any of the positions.
In truth, I was unhappy in the anthropology programme. It was utterly unlike my undergraduate years where I happily immersed myself in the topic. Graduate school was about becoming a professional in a world where funding was tight, jobs scarce, and the entire field of anthropology had become so introspective it seemed impossible ever to utter a single true word about the human condition. I made it through my Master’s, and I am very glad I did, but one day while studying for my generals, I just put down my notes and thought ‘I’m done.’ I had had enough and walked to my advisor and essentially quit. It was this great freeing moment of my life, a walking away from responsibility that I likely never will be able to do again. I walked out of the anthropology building and straight over to the library school (the Univ. of Washington is blessed with an incredible library school…more about that later), got an application, and a few months later, secured myself a spot in the school. I was 25.
And after that, everything just fell into place.
Library school itself was a mixed bag, but on reflection something which strongly influences today my attitude as a librarian. On the negative side, it was populated mostly with faculty who had not changed their curricula for several years and who had not ever (or very long ago) actually worked in a library. Their lack of ability to see the change around them is something I see in many librarians today, and my attitude towards that is still one of incredulousness and amazement. But, on the positive side, the administration of the school were aware of larger social trends, and in the vacuum created by the departure of the long-standing head, filled the spot with a creative, forward-looking director and several younger, more technology-oriented faculty members. I was the student representative chosen to be on the search committee for the new director, and that process of describing and selecting the perfect person to run an ‘information school’ (what the school was at the time was renamed) still in many ways is a road map for my own professional attainment.
Early on in library school, I had a definite knack for technology, surprising for me as before then I might had described myself as a Luddite. But the winds of change at the library school, coupled with a few technology-oriented faculty there, and the larger technology-rich university and Seattle area (Microsoft and dot-com boom, anyone?) environment swept me up. Through the incredible uni computer science department, I soon learned how to make web pages, and do computer programming, usability testing and technical writing.
I also found that I was a good reference librarian, and quickly had a few overlapping part-time jobs at a time with the university library, including a coveted one-year internship with the Suzzallo & Allen Libraries — where I got to meet the wondrous Nancy Huling, head of the reference department — two years in the collection development department – under the aegis of the graceful Linda Di Biase — one year at the information desk, and, perhaps luckiest of all, one year running the brand new Grants and Funding Information Service.
I actually disliked library school — it was a bore after the three intense years of the anthropology Master’s, but my on-the-job experiences more than compensated for the tediousness of the courses. Somehow, the plan was to combine reference and technology, though I wasn’t sure exactly at the time, how it would happen.
And then I took a short workshop on setting up computer local area networks…
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and long-time resident of the Seattle area, had (and continues to have) a strong philanthropic bent (inherited likely from his mother’s lifelong work with charities). The Microsoft Foundation during the years I was in library school provided some seed money to begin to explore putting computers, hooked up to the Internet, in public libraries in impoverished areas of the United States (of which, sadly, there are many). The effort in its infancy was run out of an office in downtown Seattle where they experimented with the best ways of configuring and networking PCs to be sent out to libraries. They were a few very technology-minded librarians, and they invited students from the library school for a two-day workshop in setting up LANs. I went, thinking that it might be something interesting to know about, and lo and behold, a few months afterwards they contacted me about starting a job there! Asked what area I wanted to focus my energy on — technology, writing, and training were the options, I believe — I said technology.
Working for what very soon became the Library Program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was a heady experience. The program ramped up very quickly, with new hires (many fresh out of library school) each month. It was a noble effort, a bit like being in the Peace Corps. My role after about a year evolved to manage the department that designed the PCs that went out to libraries. We had a partnership with Gateway Computers, and based on their latest hardware, we would design a prototype that they would mass produce and send to the libraries (accompanied with our documentation — and later, our trainers visited the libraries to do the set up and basic training). I became an expert in making computers from scratch!
From the Gates Foundation, I was recruited to the IT Department of the King County Library System (one of the biggest systems in the US, serving the greater Seattle metro area) to run their ILS (then Dynix). Under the inspiring leadership of Jed Moffitt, I got to help oversee a lot of cutting-edge technology projects (they recently won the Library Journal Library of the Year 2011 award). I also began really to understand there the meaning of good customer service, as my role was often to help fix those tiny but horrible problems that plague staff and their use of technology. Until very recently, I haven’t had to the chance to work in such an innovative and experimental place.
While working at KCLS, I met my future husband and we decided to travel in Europe for a bit, so sadly I said goodbye to Seattle and lived in Germany and Spain for almost a year. Those were fantastic months, where I did little else but get certified to teach English as a Second Language and work on my German and Spanish. At the end of that year of travel, we moved to San Diego to help with a family illness. During that time, I worked part-time (as I had had my first baby) as a reference librarian for the UC San Diego Libraries and the City of Carlsbad Library, again with three hugely influential managers, Tammy Dearie at UCSD and Callie Ahrens and Glynn Birdwell at the Carlsbad Library.
Again, these were very formative times, as I got to immerse myself in the workings of academic and public library enquiry desks, and especially because it was my first experience participating in virtual chat reference, a format I have come passionately to believe is the future of library reference services.
Three years later, my husband had a great career opportunity in Boulder, Colorado, so we were off again! There I had my second baby and was fantastically lucky to work from home, continuing my chat reference work for UCSD (no one had to know I wasn’t actually in California!) and becoming the librarian for the PhD program in Education for Jones International University, a 100% online university based in Denver. These two jobs really finessed my reference skills as well as my ability to deal with users in completely virtual environments — something surprising difficult but immensely rewarding to make connections with folks who were feeling a bit lost in their online studies.
All along, however, my husband I knew we wanted to move to England (where he’s from) and raise our kids there. So even before we moved to Colorado, we were scheming how to make that happen. We knew we had to move before the autumn of 2010, when my first son would be entering Reception, so that was our deadline. Luckily, we were both able to take our jobs with us (again, no one had to know that I wasn’t in the Denver area), and we felt thoroughly modern as we took our online careers with us across the Atlantic. We soon settled quite quickly into living in Cambridge.
My work at the online university was very good — it was quite fun to work with students from around the world from the comfort of my home. But the learning opportunities there had begun to dry up, as I was a contractor and not closely involved with the development of their library services. As I knew we’d be in Cambridge for at least the next 20 years, I decided to see if any positions in the libraries at the University of Cambridge might be suitable. As luck would have it, about three months after arriving the UK, I found a perfect match, and I do mean perfect. My work as the User Experience Librarian for Information & Library Services at the Cambridge Judge Business School is the perfect match for my past experiences and is a wonderfully experimental place to work under the visionary leadership of Andy Priestner.
What a long-winded spiel for what is basically a short story: I have found the perfect profession for myself.