Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Melinda Schroeder, "I never wanted to be a librarian."

Schroeder's piece is an engaging account of her time in library school, and her struggle, during the late 1960s and very early 1970s, to find her place in the professional world. It is funny, candid and a bit depressing for this confused, aspiring librarian. Judging from the spot illustrations, typeface, etc., it seems to have been originally published as a zine or at least in an "underground" publication of some sort. In tone and content, though, it could easily be a blog post from yesterday (minus a few phrases about consciousness-raising sessions and so on). The more things change, the more they stay the same. As a collection of anecdotes, this piece resists the kind of critical attention we have been giving to other, more scholarly articles. It does, however, touch on many of the issues we've been discussing- feminization, professionalization, librarians as "failures" in other fields. It also highlights the importance of primary sources in determining the motives of historical actors. Schroeder's peregrinations as a librarian can be partly blamed on poor working environments, moronic administrators, political and economic forces, and a host of other fairly obvious factors. Without her personal account, however, we might never guess how much her relationships with boyfriends influenced her professional life (and yes, of course, those relationships in turn were shaped as well by social norms and expectations, as Schroeder points out). The point is, without the equivalent of a private diary, it is extremely difficult to pin down the motivations for the actions of individuals. It seems to me that without finding writing of this level of intimacy, arguments such as those engendered (!) by Dee Garrison's "Apostles of Culture" will never be truly resolved. Question for consideration: being brutally honest, how many of us in the SLIS program feel as though they have "failed" in a previous profession or occupation? What does this say about the vitality of libraries if they are province of also-rans and academic second-raters? We all live lives of quiet desperation, but exactly how demoralized are librarians (if at all)? Does it need to be this way (if it is)?

12 comments:

Nancy S. said...

I wonder the same thing-why do librarians tend to be people who have failed in other professions or people who have failed to find a profession that is personally enjoyable? And what does this do to the profession as a whole? We see Schroeder in her article jumping from career to career trying to escape clerical hell before becoming a librarian. Then, once earning a MLS she continues to change jobs w/i the library profession. It seems as though changing jobs trying to find career bliss is part of her character. Is this like many librarians and does this characteristic harm the profession? Personally I think librarianship needs more bull-headed people who are willing to stick with a position and make it better, otherwise, librarianship is bound to continue as it is now (a stereotypical career for weak women). Another question to ask is: why are librarians typically attracted to the career later in life as a second (or third...) profession rather than as optimistic, naive youngsters excited to enter the workforce?

Kelly said...

I'm kind of an in-between age for a SLIS student -- not one of the people who entered the department right out of undergrad, but not someone who returned to school after several years of doing something else. After I got my BA I wasn't sure what to do with myself, so I went overseas to teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL) for a year and figure out a long-term career plan. I don't feel that I failed as a teacher, but I had never considered becoming a librarian until I was working as a teacher.

I had heard from a couple of college friends that they were looking into library school. The more I thought about it the more I felt that being a librarian would let me do many of the things about EFL teaching that I liked (meeting lots of different people, helping them to learn about a wide variety of topics, recommending reading material) while avoiding some of the things I didn't like (having to be "on" all the time, selling extra lessons and study materials). I hope that librarianship really is a good job for people who like to know a little bit about everything, because that's just the kind of job I want!

Brendan said...

I second what Kelly said. I never considered becoming a librarian until after I had already become a teacher. I think this type of conclusion stretches across all disciplines. Many people have a hard time knowing exactly what they want to do, but they all know what they definitely don't want to do, usually because they've tried things and didn't like them.

Laura Elizabeth said...

After reading Nancy S' response to the original post and to her questions regarding why library work is often a second career choice for many. After an hour of searching, I found an article that discussed just that. The name of the article is "Make your own luck: a study of people changing career into librarianship" by Claire Deeming from Emerald magazine on Madison's E-Journal list. Here is a little bit of what she found:


"The broad answer to the question of “why do people change career to become professional librarians” cannot be formulated as a list of reasons for choosing librarianship. Rather, respondents were affected by factors which led to them needing or wanting to make a career change, and found that librarianship offered a suitable solution. These factors were both internal to the individuals, and external in that they related to the balance of life as a whole. The respondents in this study became librarians because they found, either by chance or design, that this option best met their overall life requirements."

AND

"The conclusion that can be drawn from these results is that the career changers studied were, in the main, operating according to the principles of the “learning society”. They were, indeed, committed to learning throughout life, and recognised the need to learn in order to survive (National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, 1997). They are likely to be people who will continue to thrive and make the best of their careers, whatever the prevailing economic climate."

Eileen H. said...

I, too, am one of those who came to librarianship after a stint in teaching. I would second much of what Kelly said about seeing librarianship as a way to do much of what she was doing when teaching. I also liked the quote from Laura's post: "They were, indeed, committed to learning throughout life, and recognised the need to learn in order to survive." I feel strongly that I fit into that characterization.

In reading over the other posts, I also began to think about how this trend of moving from one job to another is not necessarily exclusive to librarians. I think unlike in the past where people tended to enter a career and stay in it for their entire adult lives, it is more common now for people to move from job to job and even career to career. I am sure many different factors could be used to explain this trend.

Sharon Stoneback said...

I have to agree with Eileen. I've had a number of careers or jobs before coming to SLIS, one of which involved some career counseling of recent college grads in the early '90's. One of the first things I told many of them is that the idea of "one career for life" is more and more uncommon for people. I don't think librarians are alone now in having a number of postions both before and perhaps after coming to librarianship. That is the nature of the job market these days, as well as a recognition of "life-long learning" which can influence career changing. I prefer to see moving from one career to another as a success rather than a failure.

megan bacon said...

one of the points of this reading that I found most interesting is the idea that this Melinda appeared to be this single, flakey, move around a lot type of woman. I feel she really exemplified this idea of mousey, spinster, unable to do a man's job kind of woman. As far as the feminization of libraries I find it upsetting. I work in the fields of the Arts a Male dominated world and I thought it might be nice to get a little peace so I've wandered into SLIS only to find the roles now reversed. I can't help but wonder will there ever be a day when we are truly equals and democracy is a practice not idealized notion?

Kristin said...

I think part of the reason librarianship is often a second career is its lack of prestige. When discussing potential careers, librarian doesn’t appear in the usual line up of doctor, lawyer, actor, teacher, etc. With so many choices, it’s easy to overlook the less visible careers. I think this is well illustrated by the first couple of sentences of Schroeder’s piece: “I never wanted to be a librarian when I grew up. It never even occurred to me.”

Bethany said...

First of all, as a disclaimer, I am but a fledging senior english/journalism major, not a SLIS student, so these are obviously, going to be my observations/thoughts, rather than a personal account (but on that note, I did want to say that I really agree with Soren's comment about the personal narrative- to me, it seems the key to uncovering the answers to all these questions, at the very least, it's a fresh perspective). So, my observation, is that library professionals seem to be a largely unique profession in being disseminators of a just a huge variety of information, something I also see journalists handling (for a limited comparison) - they are assigned to understand a wide variety of information in order to write informed articles about it. But, something we see in the journalism world is a specialization- papers often recruit journalists or columnists individals with , for example, a science background to write science peices, given that that is their forte (this is NOT a blanket example, of course). Perhaps the reason why many librarians change course, is that they see a certain kind of specialization they can bring to a field that encompasses SO many areas of variation.

Therefore, I think it is the NATURE of the profession, rather than any failure on the part of librarians to find or direction in life, that might help answer this question. Librarianship encompasses huge variety of areas, so maybe there is a trend to bring a certain skill or previous specialization in those areas, and the field is the better for it. Hopefully (!) that was reasonable clear, just something I wanted to throw out there..

Lia said...

Bethany brings up some interesting points about librarianship with which I would agree. I was an English major with two ideas: teach English in another country or go into publishing. Neither really panned out and since I had worked in some capacity on and off in libraries since my undergrad years (about 4 years ago), I felt that was the direction I should go in. Like Schroeder, I never planned on being a librarian when I grew up. Like what Bethany said, part of the lure of librarianship was that it encompassed so many things. One can get an MLS and not be a librarian. That appealed to me. The aspect of specialization is not always as needed depending upon what kind of library one decides to work in. If it is public, there is little need to specialize (even for youth services -- in some larger systems, librarians need only transfer into open youth services positions from adult, usually with some experience but sometimes none at all), if academic, then it is a lot like the journalism world as Bethany described it. So there is both the aspects of specialization AND generalization that draw people into the field.
One more thing: I liked Soren's point about getting a firsthand narrative about a person's experience and how it showed just the ways the personal lives and social norms affected librarian's professional lives. We find so few of these in library literature. I do wonder what Schroeder ended up doing over these last two decades?

Alycia said...

I feel like the one of the main reasons why I wanted to become a librarian was so that I could learn as wide and as random a variety of things as possible, I guess to somehow be a lifelong student. I felt that librarianship would somehow not bore me. I think our profession is different from others where you are "learning" things (like teaching, journalism, etc.) in that there is less of an end product that librarians can create and show off when their work is done. They must often live vicariously through helping others. I think this impacts how we are percieved, and what sort of people would be willing to help others to learn and vicariously appreciate just being there to help, often without credit within an end product, or often without knowing the full scope of what this other person's end product may even be. I think it's a sort of a selfless profession, so perhaps this is where some of the problems lie as well?

Nancy S. said...

Kristi Jacobson makes a good point when she suggests that the reason people do not consider a career in librarianship has to do w/ its lack of prestige and I propose its invisibility. Most Americans don't use libraries, most college campuses to not brag (or even have) about LIS programs, etc. Therefore it makes sense that people would enter the career later once they were made aware of the possible career path. I wonder if universities pushed LIS programs more if librarianship would become a popular (and even prestigious) career.