Friday, August 20, 2010

Roots and Routes: How I Came to Library & Information Science

Today was orientation for the new cohort in our department, and it was absolutely a blast. The students are passionate and ready to work, and I felt fortunate to spend the day getting to know some of them. One of the presentations by LISSO (Library and Information Student Organization) included mention of The Library Routes Project. I'm glad I was there to learn about the project and to then go home and look at some of the posts, especially after spending a day with new students and with professionals who were discussing how they came to the field. I had read about it previously on Lauren in Libraryland, and was excited about the project. However, as happens so often, I got bogged down under other tasks and eventually slipped to the back of my mind.
On Library Routes, one can write about their own journey in a blog, and add that post to the large list of others. It's a great exercise for thinking critically about yourself as a professional, and is a great help to students looking to learn from the stories of those who have already started their careers. I'm still a student, but I wanted to add my voice, and so here's my story.

I had always been interested in books and the study of them, as well as a hodgepodge of other interests including art, social sciences, and history. I never allowed myself to pursue my interests fully until recently, after convincing myself that I would be unable to earn a living without a 'practical' degree. As an undergraduate, I began as an art major but a series of frustrations led me to believe that art education from my school lacked the quality I desired, so I switched to Psychology. A B.A. in Psychology is hardly worth the paper its printed on when it comes to jobs, but at the time I had hoped to work at a non-profit that dealt with violence against women.
Even though I never used my degree for anything, I learned a lot from the experience of getting it. First off, I had two assistantships that began to introduce me to the world of psychology research/teaching and all the behind-the-scenes grunt work that had to go into a lot of studies. It also introduced me to Dr. John Harvey, who taught "Loss and Trauma." Dr. Harvey is very well-known and respected in the field, but he still took time out to pay attention to me and to assure me of my potential. It was very empowering to have an instructor who cared about my work, and who was willing to write me letters of recommendation and to offer me a place as an undergrad T.A. in his class.
Prior to enrolling in Loss and Trauma, I had applied to about a dozen PhD programs in Psychology, after deciding that research into violence against women would be more to my liking than non-profit work. I applied to some very highly competitive programs and did not get in to a single one. I was so frustrated at the time, but looking back on it I was unwittingly saved from making a career choice that would have left me unfulfilled.
I graduated the following semester, and without any career in sight I left my student job driving buses and went to work as an assistant manager at a coffeehouse/bakery. I also was married, but only briefly (don't worry, we're still friends!) My then-husband was the one who coaxed me toward LIS, after having dated someone who was enrolled in the program I am currently in. He said she enjoyed the program, and you could do a lot with the degree. I enjoyed libraries and liked the idea of working in them, so I applied to the program. I remember the night I got the acceptance letter: it was after my husband and I had separated, and I came home after having drinks with friends. I pulled the letter from the mailbox and went upstairs, and as I opened the door I said to my cats, "well, here's my 13th rejection letter." I was so surprised and happy when it was an acceptance letter that I remember crying and calling my friends (and my poor ex-husband, who was sleeping).

I had started volunteering at the State Historical Society of Iowa prior to beginning the program, in the hopes of gaining some experience in the field. The staff were wonderful, and allowed me to participate in such a range of library activities (including preservation, special collections work, and some very light MARC cataloging) that I got a real sense for how broad our field is. I spent the most time in special collections, first as a volunteer and later as an employee, working with document collections to create or re-do finding aids. I left last year after finding myself so cramped for time that I was unable to work both at SHSI and drive buses (and unfortunately bus driving pays more, so I can't quit!) I was so grateful that I was able to work there though, because I met so many great people, gained special collections experience, and was exposed to some really wonderful collections that I miss a lot.
The head of the Special Collections Department, Mary Bennett, also guided me toward my thesis topic. After mentioning to her that I wanted to research library censorship in World War II, she suggested that I look at World War I since there is a collection of letters from libraries regarding censorship during this time (these are the Metcalf letters that are frequently referred to in my other posts). Her passion, and that of the other staff, for the historical society and the materials it houses reminds me why I love libraries: even though we have the same disagreements as any other workplace, at the end of the day everyone is so passionate about what they do that it overshadows everything else.
My time in SLIS has been marked by a number of setbacks (health issues, personal/financial stress, etc.), but I've found that faculty are supportive and flexible, and the other students provide a great support network. Even when I've been very ill or under a lot of stress, I feel like there are people there who are helpful and understanding without being judgmental.
It was Autumn last year that I really started to find my niche as a student and as a researcher, and felt comfortable enough with my abilities to respond to calls for papers for upcoming conferences. I also began eyeing PhD programs again, but this time in LIS. I just can't bear to leave a field made up of such a diverse group of people with such varying interests and skills, and who love their work more than any other professional group I have encountered. This year I've spoken at the LHRT research symposium at ALA Annual, which was great fun and gave me a great deal more trust in my abilities after I rocked the Q&A, and will speak at Libraries and Print Culture next month. I also defend my thesis in December, the same time as many of those PhD applications are due. I am hoping I will get to continue on to improve my skills and continue working with the people and researching the collections I love.


  1. Wow, what a journey! I really enjoyed reading this. I'm glad to know there are so many passionate, articulate, awesome people in our field. And thanks yet again for the mention!

  2. Thanks for the kind words! I loved reading your story too--I'm glad to have a fellow student sharing her journey. I'm glad there are so many awesome people in LIS too!

  3. Hey, this is awesome! I've been doing a "What I Learned in Library School" series on my blog and hadn't heard of the Routes/Roots project. I'll work on my own this week. Would you be interested in contributing to my "What I've Learned..." series? email me i you'd like to!

  4. That sounds great--I'll have to take a look at it! I'll e-mail you right now, and once I get the link to your blog I can share it with my friends in the blogosphere!