My Path to Libraries

Another Personal Reflection Post

Sometimes it amazes me that it took so long for me to figure out that I could make my living working in libraries.

My mom loves to tell the story of when I was little and I proclaimed that when I grew up I wanted to live in a library. From my earliest memories, my concept of heaven has been a giant library. I went through a phase in junior high were I tried to sketch out my ideal home and the centerpiece of the house was a multistory library (also, a huge terrarium for a pet three-toed tree sloth… I was a strange young man.) During the years I lived in Chicago, I always said that if the apocalypse came, I’d barricade myself in Harold Washington Library and protect the books.

I’ve always felt at home in a library. Some of my fondest memories from childhood are when my mom worked in the history library on the local campus and I’d get to spend time wandering around in the stacks.

During the years I spent working in theatre, a handful of my co-workers and friends left that industry to become librarians (theatre tech-to-librarian is actually a remarkably common path)—and still, it didn’t strike me right away that I could do that myself. It wasn’t until I’d left theatre and bounced around doing random office work, and had reached a point where I needed to reassess my career options, that it hit me like a bolt out of the blue—I could be a librarian!

As soon as the idea entered my mind, I knew it was right. There’s nothing about librarianship that I don’t love.

  • My whole life, I’ve found pleasure in arranging the books in my home: successful subject organization is deeply satisfying to me. I’ve long had a vision that someday I’ll find a way to lay out my shelves such that each subject flows intuitively into the next, and the last will transition perfectly back into the first… I even thought that I could devote some of my professional life to create a subject cataloging system for fiction that’s as robust as Dewey and LC are for non-fiction (this was before I learned that BISAC already does this really well).
  • I have a vision for a subject cataloging system that takes its structure from biological taxonomy. Dewey and LC are based on assigning books to categories so as to differentiate them. But I’ve always been struck by how different subjects relate to, inform, and expand on one another. I’d like to see a system of subject cataloging that better incorporates these similarities and overlaps. Whereas library cataloging traditions are based on defining the differences between things, biological taxonomy starts by recognizing the similarities of things—branches of the tree only separate when species become different enough to warrant it. The genus/species naming convention conveys information about the relationship that each species has to others implicit in the species name. I think it would be wonderful if the label of any given subject in a library carried information within it that elucidated the relationship of that subject to others, to inform a curious information seeker how books in other subjects could help to satisfy their curiosity.
  • I’ve always believed that the written record of humankind is the most important legacy we leave, and that the preservation and transmission of this legacy is amongst the most important work we have. I actually entered my MLIS program with the intent of becoming an archivist and about half of my classes were related to that goal. It was through my archives classes that I developed an interest in digital preservation and began exploring digital information environments in earnest.
  • My interest in digital preservation began my interest in digital librarianship. I also noticed a telling trend in my class work: most of my papers and essays, and my ideas and debates in classroom discussions, were formulated using public libraries as examples—my default conceptual position was to approach issues from the perspective of the public library sphere. I thought at first that it was simply because the issues facing libraries and the underlying theories of librarianship are heightened and more urgent for public libraries, that public libraries provide the best proving grounds for our ideas, the purest examples of the challenges we face. It took me some time to realize that, in fact, I default to a public library perspective because the sense of mission in public libraries appeals to me—serving that mission is something that’s very important to me. So I switched my focus from archives to public libraries as my chosen professional milieu. I realized that what I wanted most was to be a digital librarian for a public library system.
  • Since I began at the Kansas City Public Library, I’ve had quite a lot of interaction with our Director of Readers’ Services and I’ve become deeply fascinated with readers’ advisory. R.A. isn’t something that I’m particularly good at—but I find the art and science of it incredible! I love seeing the work done by librarians who have the knack for it. R.A., along with other reference and readers’ services, is one of the most direct forms of service to patrons that we offer. For someone like me, for whom service is the heart and soul of why I do this for a living, there’s something very powerful and important in these sorts of front-line library offerings.
  • As readers of this blog may have noticed, I’m rather obsessed with the idea of serendipitous discovery in digital library environments.

Basically, I have yet to encounter any aspect of library service that doesn’t interest me on some level. I see no end to the myriad aspects of librarianship that compel me. This is definitely where I belong.

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