Libraries and Learning
May 30, 2019
As the year finishes and the library becomes quiet, I find myself thinking about how I became a librarian.
It wasn’t a well-planned career move. When I was in college I fell in love with a major that let me read big fat novels for credit. As I neared graduation, I bristled when my mother suggested, “why don’t you go to library school?” As a child of the Great Depression she had a practical bent, and she knew my chosen major wouldn’t be able to support me in a long-term relationship. “Something to fall back on,” she added, which only made it worse. I loved being in libraries, I even worked in one, but it was the life of the mind that swept me off my feet. The kind of work I imagined librarians did – safe, boring, routine – nope, not for me. I had dreams.
I followed my love to graduate school where things changed. My beloved turned cruel and abusive. I was an ignoramus among the French critics who were big that year, and public displays of affection for literature were met with rolled eyes. How embarrassing. What are you even doing here? Within a semester I realized there would be endless arguments about money and daily reminders I couldn’t possibly measure up. I dried my eyes and walked across campus to what was then called the School of Library Science, (renamed the School of Library and Information Science by the time I gradiuated, to my dismay), signed some documents to make the divorce official, and retraced my steps to tell my previous advisor it was over.
He closed his office door and poured me a glass of sherry. (Seriously. He kept a decanter of sherry in a cabinet for emergencies.) Leaning forward on his tweed elbows, he told me solemnly, “working in a library isn’t like working in a library.” Warning me I was signing up for a life of drudgery, pushing book carts around the stacks like the nameless women pushing laundry carts he passed in hotel hallways when he traveled to exotic locations to deliver important papers about those snooty theorists who hadn’t even tried to make friends with me.
I sometimes like to imagine traveling back in time to give him an education (or maybe a punch in the nose – or both). He believed a well-stocked library was his due because his work mattered. The women whose imagination and labor and belief in the public good who created those libraries for him – their work had no value at all.
To be fair, I didn’t really know what librarians did or cared about, either. I just knew that as soon as I walked through the doors of the library school I felt a sense of relief. Showing off? Not required. Nobody would ever pause when referring to Derrida to say “you have read Derrida, haven’t you?” knowing perfectly well I hadn’t, a standard hazing ritual. The halls didn’t reek of desperation masked by too much intellectual cologne. (It didn’t occur to me until years later my previous advisor was as scared as his students, desperate to hold a failing program together with big words and civilized beverages.)
My relief soon turned into something else. Librarians, it turned out, were all about ideas. They talked about social justice and intellectual freedom and information ethics. They made things for people, not just for themselves. They could be deeply serious, yet poke fun at their own image. Best of all, librarians were allowed to knit together interdisciplinary knowledge, freely making the kind of connections I loved as an undergraduate. My previous graduate program would not have approved. Knitting was not for serious scholars.
You might notice a gender theme, here. Knitting. Buns. Mindless clerical work. That’s not an accident. My previous advisor assumed library work was beneath my potential (as did I, when my mother suggested it). It was women’s work, so of course it couldn’t be interesting or valuable. Taking care of other people was for suckers.
Back when I was infatuated with my major but had a side gig to pay tuition, my boss ran the university’s music library, and she made things work without bragging about it. She fielded imperious demands from male faculty who would later crash into her office, distraught, looking for tea and sympathy – literally. My former advisor served sherry and lectured, my librarian boss plugged in the kettle and listened. When the men finished pouring out their woes and left, she’d roll her eyes and we’d laugh. These guys. So self-important. So needy.
My former advisor was building walls of prestige, trying to protect his program and his reputation. My boss in the library was opening the doors and building community.
As a child of the depression and the oldest of nine children, my mother never had a chance to finish high school. Her father had died and there were mouths to feed. You could say “what a shame, she never had a chance to finish her education,” and that true, but it wasn’t a shame. She never finished her education because she never stopped going to the library. My father, a busy professor at a research university, admitted she was the educated one. No joke. She knew the date and the context of every major historical event. She could tell you the meaning of Latin phrases and the names of every tree and flower we’d see in the woods. She could have told us how to spell it, whatever it was, but she always made us look it up ourselves. I’m not sure if she knew what librarians actually did, but she knew how important libraries were to her when, at sixteen, she had to had to find a job and a way to keep learning on her own.
So now I’m a librarian.