I’m not the only auntie who wants to share some hard-earned experience with you. Meet Jessica, a librarian who loves her job. No, I mean, really loves her job. Her passion for what libraries can mean to a community makes me want to re-think all my career choices. And I love what she has to say about the relevance of libraries in the Internet age. It’s a long interview, but trust me, her enthusiasm is contagious. I’m off to renew my library card right now.
What’s your title?
My official title is Director of Online Library Services but to most of my students I’m just considered the “librarian”!
Tell us about your career path. What did you study in school and what jobs led you to this one?
(WARNING: This is super-long and in-depth because I love to tell my career journey!)
Part 1: The Beginning
Libraries have been a HUGE part of my life! Several times a week, my mom would drive me 30 minutes, both ways, to the local library to make sure my book collection was never depleted. In my preteen and young teen years, Mom, who was also my teacher (I was homeschooled K-12) started requiring me to volunteer at our local library and while I enjoyed working with the people and handling books, I hated shelving books. Mainly because the books had to be shelved in alphabetical and numerical order; and, in my opinion that was way too much like math and I despised math. So by the time I got to my mid-teens, I become adamant that I would NEVER work at a library. This just goes to show you how much a teenager knows about life. 🙂
For about seven years, I stuck to my guns and refused to even consider a career in the library field. This didn’t mean that I disliked libraries; on the contrary, I still loved them! My mom got a job in a library and I spent several hours using libraries and library resources. As a history major at Samford University, I used the library a lot and I loved the librarians that helped me on every major project. But I was still convinced that I wasn’t suited for a career as a librarian.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t decided on any future career. I knew it would be in either academics, museums/archives, or law but I never felt settled about any specific path. By the end of my junior year in 2007, I decided that I needed a better job than my current position at Chick-Fil-A so I started looking around for a job.
I clearly remember the phone call from my mom about a part-time librarian assistant at the Southern History Department at the Birmingham Public Library. While I was still unsure about working in a library, I loved the idea of having a history related job on my resume as I was pursuing that degree. Through miraculous and serendipitous events, I got the position! I was the new Library Assistant at the Southern History Department! It was a perfect fit for a history major.
But I was still convinced that this would not be a career (have I mentioned that I am super stubborn?). However, as each day went by and I learned more about the field and how it was more than just “shelving books”, my stance began to weaken. I started to think that maybe I could do this as a career.
It was around this time that I realized that to become an actual librarian and obtain a librarian position (with the librarian pay!), I would need a Masters degree in Library & Information Studies. And what do you know? The school right down the road (University of Alabama) offered that exact degree.
I still wasn’t convinced.
I kept investigating archival graduate programs, education certification programs, law school…all kinds of educational opportunities. But nothing felt right.
Then, on a summer day in 2008, the summer before my last undergrad semester, I was working. It was a typical day. Patrons (library jargon for customers) had questions, books had to be shelved, and projects needed to be finished. But it would be a day that changed my life.
A regular patron came in but this time, he brought his seven-year-old daughter. This little girl had short brown hair and dark eyes and looked remarkably like me as a kid. The patron settled down for his research but his little girl looked bored so he asked if she could play on one of our computers.
“Of course!” I said. “Let me show you how to get on there.”
So together, I taught her how to work a computer and launch the Internet. When I showed her how to get to her favorite website (disney.com), her whole face lit up and she looked up at me and said “THANKS!” At that moment it hit me, I had just opened a whole new world to this child.
And, to this day, I heard a voice inside (not audibly but internally) say “This is what you love. This is what you need to do.” In a made-for-tv movie moment, I saw my entire life and how much of an impact librarians had made on it. From the librarians who fostered my love of reading when I was a child to the librarians who mentored me in the Southern History Department, there had never been a time that they weren’t there in my life. I had learned so much from these individuals and without even realizing it, I had developed a love for information, teaching, and service. No other career combines all three of these loves except librarianship and I knew what I had to do.
Within seconds of teaching that little girl how to use a computer and get to disney.com, I had downloaded and printed out the application to the University of Alabama.
Part 2: The Process
After deciding to pursue a Masters in Library & Information Studies at the University of Alabama, everything fell into place rather quickly. Not only was I accepted but I was offered a Graduate Assistant position. In this role, I was trained by one of the most brilliant reference librarians at the University and even helped him with research that lead to a poster session at our annual convention and a published article in an academic journals.
As a student, while I appreciated the classes and curriculum, it was the graduate assistantship and various internships that I participated in that really trained me for my future. The theoretical knowledge was nice but the practical experience was invaluable. For any future Library & Information Studies students, I urge you to get practical training in addition to your academic training.
I graduated in May 2010, probably at the worst possible time to become a librarian due to the economy. Though I already had obtained my first professional position (a real librarian not just a library assistant), it was only part-time and did not offer health insurance. However, this position did allow me to improve my reference skills and even provided me the opportunity to write a book.
But, I needed health insurance. And since I didn’t want to leave Alabama to pursue out-of-state jobs (what can I say, I had just met the love of my life and didn’t want to leave my family!), my options were limited. So I did the next best thing. I got a full-time job at EBSCO Headquarters.
If you don’t know, EBSCO is a huge business that works in publishing, real estate, and, of course, library databases. I got to work on a library product called A-to-Z which was a journal subscription service that helped librarians manage their subscriptions in one spot. In this position, I learned the electronic components of my field. While I wasn’t working in the library field, I was learning critical information about the creation of weblinks/websites, html issues, electronic journals, and the function of library databases. While the work could be monotonous, I learned a lot and it taught me things I wouldn’t have learned in a library.
But just because it was a good job, didn’t meant I wanted to stay there forever. I still greatly desired a librarian position, especially after I got engaged in July 2010. My fiancé was living and working in Montgomery at the Hyundai plant so I focused my job search in the Montgomery/Auburn area.
You know the saying, beggars can’t be choosers? Well, that is the gospel truth and I couldn’t be so I was willing to apply for any library related jobs, even non-librarian positions.
In April 2011, I ran across a job ad for a library assistant a university in the Montgomery area. As an impulse, I applied. The library director contacted me and asked me to come in for an interview. I was just happy to get an interview at a library so I eagerly agreed.
In the interview the library director did mention that she was wary of hiring an individual who had a Masters since they would leave the paraprofessional position when a professional librarian position opened up. I tried to convince her but a few days after the interview she called and said that they had gone another direction due to my “over-qualification.” I was super bummed even though she asked if she could keep my application on file. I halfheartedly said “sure” but was convinced I would never hear from her again.
After that, I just gave up. I wasn’t depressed or anything, I just became convinced that it wouldn’t happen for me. I decided to focus on wedding plans and working hard at EBSCO; then after the wedding worry about the job hunt.
In November 2011, one month before my wedding, I got an email from a Montgomery area code. Curious, I answered it. To my amazement, it was the library director from that spring. After the customary greetings were exchanged, she asked if I had had any progress in my job search. I laughed and said no.
“Well,” she said, “would you be interested in my position?”
“What?!” I said. “Are you serious???”
She was retiring in Spring 2012 and had never stopped thinking about me, and thought I would be perfect for the position.
That conversation started a process that spanned four months but by April 2012, I was the full-time Library Director. It was an amazing feeling to be in charge of an academic library and guide it to greatness.
Two years later, I would have another opportunity in the same institution to take on all the electronic/online/distant library services.
This entire process and career journey has been amazing to me. I love what I do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Can you tell us what a typical day is like? And how does the Dewey Decimal System fit in?
<laugh> I had to laugh at “typical day” because for me it really just depends on the needs that the students or faculty have that day.
But typically, I start my day at 7 am and end at 4 pm. During that time, I answer many questions from the entire academic community, work on projects, post content for my classes, etc. It really depends on what comes to me that day!
But I’ll try to sketch out a typical day.
First, I log into the toll-free number hotline to receive any calls from students with technical/library/homework/etc. issues.
Second, I log into to our virtual reference chat services. It is a lot like Google Chat or the old-school Instant Messenger (without the emo song lyrics as away messages!). We are usually pretty busy on chat as students like to send a quick message instead of calling or emailing. At the same time, I check our submitted questions section to see if anyone has submitted questions overnight while we were offline.
Third, I check our email to answer any questions that were submitted through email.
After all of that is finished, I focus on the classes in which I am embedded. These classes are the gen. ed. classes and the intro and/or research classes for a specific major. In these classes, I can email the students and post content that will help them use the library, do research, and be successful in their assignments.
Then I start working on the projects on my docket. That can range from website development, curriculum building, or any other thing that effects the library
During this time, I’m fielding phone calls, chats, and emails. Each time I get a question from a student, faculty member or staff, I log it into our statistical record system so I can run a report at the end of the month.
The Dewey Decimal System does not fit into my day at all, actually. In fact, my institution doesn’t use the Dewey Decimal System. Most academic librarians use the Library of Congress cataloging system as it provides a more structured and systematic way of organizing collections. Now that I think about it, I haven’t used DDS since I was a pre-teen volunteer at the local public library. That’s kinda crazy to think about.
Who were your role models when you were considering your career?
Definitely Lori Northrup who was the reference department chair at Samford University’s library. She was and is very patient and gives practical guidance to anyone interested in this field.
Is there something you wish someone had told you before you went into this field? First, I’m going to share what someone DID tell me before I went into this field and that is TO NETWORK. Volunteer with professional organizations, go to librarian conventions, work on committees, all of this is VITAL to becoming recognized in the field. Thousands of applicants will be applying for one position; if you have networked and put your name out there, your chances do improve.
Now, what I wish someone had told me before I went into this field: don’t get discouraged. Some patrons are just going to complain about everything. There will be services that you cannot improve due to lack of budget/staffing/interest/etc. People won’t show up for your workshops or programs that you have planned and sweated over. Technology will often mess up your search engines/catalogs and confuse patrons. Don’t get discouraged. This happens to each librarian at every library. Just help the next patron to the best of your ability and keep plugging along.
Can you estimate the male-to-female ratio in your classes?
In my classes it was overwhelmingly female and the profession is a female-dominated field.
What is the best thing about your job?
Helping people learn new things and discover skills that they didn’t know they had. That is hands-down the best thing about this job.
I also like the web-development and content management side of the job but the best thing is definitely helping patrons.
What’s the suckiest part of your job?
When you strip away all of the services, resources, books, databases, etc., at its core, librarianship is a customer service job. And any time you have customers (or in our case, patrons), you are dealing with humans and human nature. Sometimes those humans can display an unpleasant nature so that can be a challenge.
Budget cuts and staffing shortages are also a burden for all libraries (and other industries, of course)
What stresses you out about your job and how do you deal with it?
I stress out about not being able to reach a student and help them. Whether it’s a lack of knowledge, communication issues, or other distractions, if a student does not grasp a concept that I am trying to teach them via our reference services, I become very stressed out that I am not living up to the high expectations that I place on myself.
I deal with this by taking my own advice and trying hard to not become discouraged. I do that by looking at transcripts and emails where I have been successful and a student has learned.
If all that fails, I turn on my Spotify and listen to my Christmas music playlist!
What do libraries mean to a community? In the Internet age, are they still relevant?
There are three groups of libraries: public, special, and academic (I work in an academic library). All three serve specific needs to their communities in different ways.
Special libraries are usually found in a specialized location; legal firms will have law libraries, art museums will have art libraries, hospitals will have medical libraries…all of these provide specialized training for individuals that would otherwise not have access to the special materials.
Academic libraries serve the academic community: students, researchers, faculty members, and others who benefit from the academic environment. In these institutions, you probably won’t find a lot of reading material that you want to take with you to the beach but you will find expensive databases, rows of print periodicals that NO ONE else subscribes to, and you will also find something else: a place for students and researchers. Academic libraries provide individual and group study places; they often provide AV material and smart boards that the students would otherwise not have access to.
Public libraries are the cornerstone of our communities whether people realize it or not. While people aren’t necessarily checking out piles of books like they used to, people are utilizing the public libraries as a meeting room, as a tech center, as a community event area. Each group of libraries (special, academic, and public) are vital to a community, in ways so many people don’t realize.
The question if libraries will be relevant in the Internet Age is one that makes me laugh because in so many ways, the Internet has ensured our continued survival but it comes with a condition: we must evolve. Libraries can no longer just be rows of books and some video tapes; and librarians aren’t just “shushers” who wear their hair in a bun. Libraries must have AV equipment, tech services, e-books, and other resources that their users need. Librarians must teach workshops on resume development, interview skills, and computer usage. And the encouraging thing that I see is that this is exactly what is happening. Each spring, at our annual convention, I hear more and more stories of public libraries hosting job and personal development workshops with standing room only attendance. I hear about the academic library that hosts study cram-jam during exam week and have coffee/doughnuts/energy drinks available for students.
And another thing about being relevant in the Internet Age, especially when it comes to academic librarians. We are not trying to fight Google or anything like that. In fact, we utilize Google and other websites to assist us in helping our students. Academic librarians have become vital in this Internet Age because we teach information literacy and critical thinking skills. This is actually becoming the bedrock of every library on every academic campus. When students do not know how to access, review, and evaluate information, they will struggle in their academics. It is up to academic librarians to teach this very tricky and complex subject.
Libraries are no longer a shrine for books, but instead a dynamic force that feeds off of the wonders of the Internet Age.
The last library catalog cards were recently printed, since libraries use computer catalogs and online search engines their collections. Are you sad or excited to see them go?
I can honestly say I never used a card catalog. They were around when I was a kid (early 90s) but I would just browse the shelves and pull whatever book looked good. By the time, I needed to find books I was using the computerized catalog to locate them. So I don’t feel a certain way about them.
Now that I recall, I was the one responsible for throwing away the old card catalog drawer at my first full-time academic librarian job. So…whoops.
Where can you go with your career from here?
I hope to go continue progressing in my field. I would love to be a Dean of Library Services at a large research university.
Or I could kinda divert my path and get into instructional technology and develop library-based training materials for classes.
Any advice for young women interested this career?
Even though this is a female-dominated career, sexism does exist. When people hear that you are a librarian, they will automatically cast you as a vixen or an old maid. While that doesn’t offend me, it does induce eye rolls from me.
Overall, female librarians in administrative roles (like I am in) face the same struggles that women in other fields face. We try to avoid being “bossy” so assertiveness is a struggle, male subordinates can challenge our authority, and, of course, the work-life balance is tightrope like in other professions.
My advice is don’t be a jerk but don’t let people walk over you and don’t overcommit yourself (and that advice can go to both sexes! 🙂