People tend to be surprised when I tell them how many former theater people end up going into libraries as a second career. But it’s true—I know several former costumers and stage managers, even a sound guy and a dramaturg or two, who left theater to pursue new careers as librarians or archivists. I estimate fully one third of my class in my Masters of Library and Information Science program were former theater people.
(Interestingly, I don’t personally know any actors, designers, or directors who left theater for libraries. None of the creative side, just us backstage folk.)
Thing is, theaters and libraries are a natural fit.
Libraries and theater are both dedicated to the importance of stories
Telling stories, sharing stories, preserving stories—we believe that stories are essentially important to the health and well-being of ourselves and our communities. Stories are how we grow and learn. They’re how we build empathy and identity. They’re how we push ourselves and how we center ourselves. They’re how we learn who we are and transform who we are.
Stories make the world better. That’s the driving conviction of both theater work and library work.
Libraries and theaters have a strong sense of mission
No one gets into theater or library work just to have a job. We’re called to it. There’s a sense of mission in both professions—a sincere belief that our work makes our communities better. That we’re working for a greater good. That we’re serving a need bigger than ourselves.
Especially for theater techies: the people who work backstage never stand in the spotlight or get any fame for our efforts. We work to serve the show, to give the audience the best possible experience, and to make the actors look good. We don’t do it for ourselves.
Likewise librarians: we may become well-recognized by our patrons but the work isn’t glamorous. Our work isn’t about us—we’re all about what you need, what you’re looking for. There’s a selflessness to the work that’s deeply satisfying for those of us drawn to service.
Libraries and theater are part of the local culture
Unlike many other nonprofit organizations, libraries and theaters are part of the local cultural fabric. They become part of a community’s sense of identity. They’re more than just local businesses.
Librarians and theater people are quirky
The professor of my Intro to Library Science class liked to say that librarians are “all a little off-of-center.” Meaning: we tend to be quirky, unique, eccentric. We’re not the kind of people who seek out run-of-the-mill, 9-to-5 corporate jobs.
Theater people are rather a lot off-of-center and definitely not run-of-the-mill, 9-to-5 corporate. So we fit into library culture pretty well.
Librarians and theater people tend to be very curious
Libraries and theater tend to attract people who are intensely curious about the world and about people. We like exploring ideas, human nature, big issues. We like helping people find ways to learn and navigate the world. We like to provide entertainment—both as an avenue of learning and exploration, and as a necessary break from it.
I’m the kind of person who knows a fair amount about a wide variety of subjects. I’m not a deep expert in many, but I can converse intelligently about almost anything. And if I don’t know much about something, I’m curious enough to want to ask questions.
In many of the jobs I’ve had over the years, this marked me as different from most of my coworkers. But in theater and in libraries, I’m typical. Libraries and theater appeal to people who love to learn as much as we can about… well, just about everything we can. Both theater people and librarians tend to be pretty well read and pretty well educated.
Librarians and theater people understand the importance of research
Libraries are dedicated to the work of helping people find information. We’re information professionals and research is a huge part of our jobs.
Theater involves lots of research: you need to get the details right—sets, costumes, language, look and feel—in order to make it believable. Theater people spend a lot of time in libraries. This is especially true of dramaturgs and costumers.
Librarian and theater people are incredibly dedicated
Librarians and theater people share a similar work ethic.
Theater is known for hard work, long hours, days on end without a break, and low pay. No one does it for the money, we do it for the love of the work. We do it because we’re passionate about the art. Because we’re called to it.
Librarians have the same drive for our work. The pay is better, the work more regular and less grueling, but no one gets into libraries to get rich. We do this work because we’re driven to serve. Because we’re called to it.
I felt at home when I did theater for living. I knew I belonged there. When it was time for me to move on, I spent several years drifting through more conventional office jobs, with a variety of nonprofit companies, and while that work was fine and I liked many of my coworkers, it never felt like anything other than a job, a way to pay my bills.
Libraries feel like home. I belong here. The same way theater felt.
And I know I’m not the only theater person-turned-librarian who feels this way.