The Existential Loneliness of a Freshly Graduated Librarian

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Alright, folks. Welcome back for the THIRD installment of rants by Comics librarian Caitlin McGurk. Hope you’ve all been enjoying them so far, there’s one more to go after this, and it’s been really fun writing for The Desk Set! Thanks again ladies.

Look, I'm speaking French! Diary comic by CCS's Belgian fellow of the year, David Libens

So, even though this month is meant for blogging about my job, after the last two posts I made I thought long and hard about this one and decided: no more surface ego-stroking about my incredibly blessed career or background, let’s get more personal this time. Let’s cut to the heart of what we’re doing here. For all of you reading this who are already librarians, ever have been, or are currently in school to be, I’d love to get some feedback from you on this post.

A Question: What made you want to become a librarian? And, if you already are one, has your original answer to that question changed over time?

Everyone in the field has been asked that question at some point or another, either spoken with a twinge of scrutiny, or genuine curiosity. Now, if you’re going to answer “For the MONEY!” or “Job security!”, know that I will be quietly giggling behind my computer screen.

As most of us know, especially in more recent times, there sure isn’t a whole helluva lot of money involved in becoming a librarian. From the stories I’ve heard, and from my own experiences, most newly hired librarians are only offered part-time work, leaving them without benefits, or are put in a fairly low ranking position that requires years of job stability before any promotion is possible. Then there’s the rampant occurrence of “term”, positions for nearly every archivist job out there right now. Taunting new graduates to take an out of state position for one or two years in purgatory until their project is over, and then scooting them out the door and back into the vicious unemployed wilderness to ramble aimlessly for the hunt. The job hunt, that is. Fun at first, when you see all of these listings for things like The Oklahoma Cowboy Poetry Archive (made up) or The Wisconsin Circus World Museum Library (not made up), and dreamy thoughts flood your mind of your future as the earths quirkiest librarian ever, with a future of cataloging the Ringleader’s variety of funny hats or scraps from The Bearded Woman’s First Shave (okay, I apologize for that one). Alas, after struggling over a cover letter that so sensitively and yet professionally explains how deeply you relate to the whimsical sadness of the Oklahoma Cowpoke,  a cover letter that is–you decree–quite like poetry itself, you soon realize that you are one of hundreds of freshly graduated librarians who are applying to this job, let alone all of the unemployed and laid off librarians with years of experience under their belt. The act of selling yourself in such a limited format, and the desperation of wanting and needing a job that justifies your degree let alone pays the student loans can be crushing, I tell you. War is hell.

BUT, the phone will ring someday soon. What is that, you say? Doesn’t sound like much of a climactic resolution for that rant? You’re right. But, that’s the truth of it. If you put yourself out there long enough, I’m talking hundreds of resumes for some of us, something will happen eventually.

Diary comic by CCS first year student, Dakota McFadzean

Now let’s explore why:

For me, among my other musings on the subject, you become a librarian–and a great one at that–because it allows the sum of your experiences to cultivate into a job where you become the key to the knowledge and self growth of your fellow humans. You become a librarian because you can take anything you care about, and apply it to the profession. Something you particularly want to study for the rest of your life? Some socio-economic group that you’d particularly like to help out with healthcare, rights, or educational information? Do you want to study law but not actually become a lawyer? Do you want to spend every day of the rest of your life dressed in a costume and reading in a funny voice to the glowing faces of little kids, whose parents might not have the time to? YOU CAN DO IT, IF YOU BECOME A LIBRARIAN. Ahem, sorry for shouting. But seriously, do you realize what I’m saying here? It’s the greatest career opportunity possible, if you only listen to your heart and do what you actually want with it. A career that allows you to be entirely yourself, to take your personal knowledge and help others with it, and to meet some of the greatest people on earth along the way. If you love learning, and you want to spend the rest of your life expanding what you know, become a librarian.

But, you’ve gotta fight for it. As we all know, every year budgets get cut further and further down for library funding, especially in major cities where we’re needed the most. A few years back, Philadelphia came very close to shutting down their entire city library system. And have you SEEN that library, folks!? It’s a monument. How sad, to think that some of the leaders of our cities and country feel total disregard for the importance of preserving our cultural heritage. Disregard for remembering who we are (or were supposed to be), educating our children, providing informational help and programming to our communities and the less fortunate, and all for free.

Library Reality Show - Courtesy of The New Yorker

It’s a sad diagnosis indeed when people ask me why I became a librarian, and then insinuate that it’s an antiquated job for the old and the bitter, and that I am of a species that will be rendered extinct soon enough. Do they realize what they’re saying? Do they know that nearly everything they take advantage of in life was created or established based on some reference research that someone did in a library at some point?

It’s the digital age, they say. There will be no need for librarians soon enough, they say. Well- I say that the internet may be big, but the vast amount of documented human knowledge, history, manuscripts, ephemera, and earthly experience that can be found in libraries, archives, and museums throughout the world can kick the internet’s ass any day. It would take hundreds of years to digitize all of what the societies of the world have collected over time, let alone thousands of more librarian positions that just aren’t funded. But, who knows what the future holds. Eventually, some fine day when we’re economically stable enough and our focus is in the right place, librarians may regain their place as guardian angels of knowledge, and the essential human element needed to bring internet repositories and research proponents into full bloom.

SAVE THE LIBRARIANS.

Next week, I’ll scan some great zines and try to not be so serious. This post was brought to you by two double Americano’s from the local coffee shop in a snowy, White River Junction Vermont. Enjoy your weekend, librarian comrades!

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. bmanley
    Jan 21, 2011 @ 11:58:55

    As far as I’m concerned, librarians are the caretakers of the world, the guardians of knowledge and the defenders of freedom. I’m not throwing out superhero qualities for the hell of it; its been a dream of mine to become one, the only barrier being the cost of schooling, which I am attempting to hurdle. I completely agree with your sentiment(s) here. I feel like people take the institution for granted, and its the MOST important institution that exists, because its housed ALL of the information. I’m not anti-Internet, but the junk that exists in the digital cloud everyone raves about came from some books somewhere, and those books don’t sit on a mysterious foggy Tron-like pedestal locked in Amazon.com headquarters, but on a shelf in a library. The brilliance of that library is that even if someone doesn’t look at those books now, and they do nothing but collect mighty amounts of dust, they will still be there years from now when the whole Internet crashes, and we need to re-figure out how to build wagons or make light switches work again. And who will be there to help you find that, guarding that info this whole time? The majestic LIBRARIAN. It’s important stuff.

  2. Karen
    Jan 21, 2011 @ 13:02:57

    I love Dakota’s comic. That is awesome. The New Yorker one? Not so much! Really buys into the librarian stereotype given its ultimate incarnation by Donna Reed in the fantasy sequence of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” One of the reasons I love Megan Mullaly’s character on “Parks and Recreation” is that she offers a model of librarian as diabolical Machiavelli. That is AWESOME.

    Why did I become a librarian? I left grad school ABD but wanted to stay in academia, and a non-professional job in the library was the first option that presented itself. And that’s where I learned that librarianship involved everything I loved about academia (books, ideas, research, the hunt) and nothing I disliked (publish-or-perish, tenure battled, etc.). Librarianship allows me to take advantage of my inclination towards being a generalist, by giving me the opportunity to do research on a wide variety of topics, and it doesn’t require me to write papers on any of them.

    It’s bliss, really.

  3. Barb
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 17:42:42

    I needed a job. Seriously. Can it get any lower than getting laid of from the UNEMPLOYMENT office??? As the younger person on staff by 30 years for about 8 years I was the one with the IT skills to bring our 130 year old Carnegie into the digital age. And I immediately discovered that within 6 months I’d hit the glass ceiling, not just in my library but of the professional regionally because my BAs were not MLISs. And so, thanks to the generosity of wonderful, loving, spoiling parents, I was able to earn my MLIS. And within 6 months of achieving my degree and state certification, I became top dog in my organization. 5 1/2 years later I think I rely more heavily on my on-the-job training and hobby-learned construction skills than MLIS. Still, it is a challenging, interesting, exciting, ground breaking profession that has me working when I’m sick instead of calling in because there’s no place else that where someone can earn a living with a mind full of useless triva, unless you are Alex Tribek’s research staff; and heck, they are probably all librarians too.

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