Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Wednesday- the inevitable origin story

(For this Wednesday's edition of Library Day in the Life, I thought I'd change things up a bit and share what lead me along the path of librarianship in the first place. The original inspiration for this post is actually my admissions essay to library school, which I've adapted here. Enjoy!)

Bitten by a radioactive bookworm, mild-mannered Tom Bruno is transformed into THE LIBRARIAN! With the amazing abilities to shelf books and shush patrons, he champions First Amendment rights for all patrons and battles against the evil forces of budget cut, copyright lobbyists, and whatever malevolent entity keeps on jamming the public photocopier...

It all began with the bookmobile.

As my hometown was too small to afford a public library of its own and my elementary school library's collection was woefully narrow in scope, the weekly arrival of the community bookmobile was something akin to a religious experience for me - a kid who grew up in a "one bookshelf" home. I remember the wonder and amazement I felt at being surrounded by books and the joy at being able to borrow whatever I pleased as I browsed through the titles. Although that bookmobile couldn't have had more than a few hundred monographs crammed onto its shelves, at the time it seemed like the sum total of the world's knowledge. I never left without as many books as I could carry!

My first library job was a student assistant position at the Dewey Library at M.I.T., where I had begun my undergraduate education. You see, I was convinced that I was going to be an astronaut, but after flunking both my freshman physics and calculus classes mightily I began to doubt whether or not I had the right stuff for such a stellar career choice. It was at this point, when I picked up the Dewey job, that my love for libraries was rekindled. During a difficult period of time when I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to be, the library became an intellectual haven for me, as well as a place to work (I was fortunate enough to pick up a full-time staff position just as I requested a leave of absence from my studies). Had I been a little smarter, I might have put two and two together considered librarianship as a possible career path then and there, but at the time when a colleague did mention the idea I simply laughed at him.

The last of his kind, the infant Tom Bruno is sent in a rocket from the planet Melvil just moments before its destruction. Crash landing on Earth, he is raised in anonymity by a farmer and his wife until the fateful day when he is summoned by the Library of Congress to fulfill his destiny. He is... SUPERLIBRARIAN!

Fast forward a few years later, when I decided to transfer to Boston University in order to complete my Bachelor's degree in Ancient Greek and Latin. By this time I'd traded in my dreams of working for NASA for getting a Ph.D. in the humanities, but as luck would have it, librarianship had other plans for me. With my undergraduate studies coming to an end and my continued graduate studies still a question mark, no sooner was I looking for a "real" job than the temp agency I had signed up with called to let me know there was an immediate long-term opening at the Harvard Medical School library, in the interlibrary loan office.

I ended up working at the Countway Library of Medicine in the office of Interlibrary Loan and Document Delivery, and once more a whole new aspect of library operations opened up to me. This time not only did I have a keener appreciation and better understanding of academic libraries, but I also found a mentor in the form of my supervisor. A recent graduate of Simmons College herself, she saw in me the love of librarianship and not only potential but enthusiasm for library science, and did her best to nurture it.

It was at the Countway that I first began to tackle problems of policy and procedure as an employee trusted with the authority to optimize my own day-to-day workflow and to “own” my job in a way that I hadn’t before. This was a monumental change for me – no longer content simply to do what was expected of me, I wanted to know why we did things the way we did in the ILL office and the library as a whole. Feeling like I had a personal interest in the well-being of the Countway, I didn't hesitate to raise my voice and make my opinions known when decisions were made that had an effect on what I thought our library's mission was. Sometimes I found myself in direct conflict with the decisions that were made, but never did I let that deter me from ensuring that my patrons received the best possible service and assistance in obtaining the information they sought.

After watching his parents gunned down by a crazed ILS vendor, young Tom Bruno donned the cowl of the DARK LIBRARY KNIGHT, dedicating his life to protecting innocent library patrons from arbitrary renewal limits and unreasonable overdue fees...

I left the Countway in 2003 to take advantage of a rare opportunity - a cataloging job had opened up in the Modern Greek Division at Widener Library, on the Harvard main campus in Cambridge. Unlike the bulk of the Harvard College Library's cataloging work, which is done now in the vast Technical Processing Office, materials in the Greek alphabet were handled by the Modern Greek Librarian and two assistants. This meant that instead of doing one job over and over again in a high-volume setting, I would be doing a little bit of everything in the cataloger's job description - acquisitions, provisional cataloging, serials holdings, and the like.

Again another vista opened up. For years I had been learning about the external mechanics of how a library worked; now I was privy to the innermost workings, the basic classification and organization of knowledge and library materials. Everything I learned on this job made me want to learn more, and I therefore finally screwed up my courage and took the plunge, applying to the MLS program at Simmons College and starting my classes in the Summer of 2004. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from library school, especially I'd already been working in libraries for almost ten years, but I found myself pleasantly surprised by the experience. My professors were inspiring and the course material challenging in a much more personal way than my undergraduate teachers and classes had been - with only one or two exceptions everything I did at Simmons was relevant to my education as a library professional. I have particular fond memories of Ernie DiMattia's Management course and Sid Berger's History of the Book, where I had a chance to cast my own type in hot lead!

In the meantime I had also begun working at the Widener Circulation Desk on the weekends, a definite change of pace from cataloging and a return to the “front line” service orientation that I began with, all those years ago. Once more I was answering reference questions along with checking out materials to patrons, only now my answers are informed by years of experience at all of the diverse positions I have held as a library assistant at both Harvard and M.I.T.. The Circ Desk gig lead to a full-time position as supervisor of one of Widener's reading rooms, where I was working until a series of staff vacancies put me in the perfect position to take over as the Head of Resource Sharing, my current position. I had finished my MLS by this point and was in the middle of my first professional job search when I got the call-- the rest, as they say, is history.

Hot-shot fighter pilot and NASA astronaut Tom Bruno stumbles upon a dying alien who gives him a ring of immense power, limited only by the confines of the Dewey Decimal System. In brightest day, in darkest night, no overdue books shall escape my sight!

Needless to say, I've come a long way from the bookmobile. Although the road to professional librarianship was quite long for me, I wouldn't change it for the world. In one of my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, Captain Picard, who is on his deathbed, is given a chance by the omnipotent trickster Q to reverse a foolish decision he'd made in his youth. Picard learns however that if not for that mistake, he would not have become the person he was. As much as I may occasionally feel the same way as the Captain Picard did about my own missteps, I realize that my identity as a librarian has been informed by every seemingly wrong move I've made along the way.

Instead of bemoaning these detours, I should be thankful for them... for taken as a whole, they represent my origin story - how I got from being a kid who staked out the weekly arrival of his county bookmobile to becoming a professional librarian working at one of the largest research libraries in the world.

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