Ten Years In

After I wrote a draft of this post, I discovered the blog made the LIS News 10 Librarian Blogs to Read in 2010, which is a nice way to start the year. Now I suppose I’ll have to keep blogging for 2010.

It seems to be the season for reminiscing, and somehow I can’t resist. We may or may not have begun a new decade, but I’m beginning a new professional decade. I graduated from library school ten years ago this month and began my first professional library job a few days later. Since I started this job eight years ago this month, the majority of my professional career has been at Princeton. The good news, for me anyway, is that I’m fine with that. The environment here can be challenging in ways both good and bad, and it’s certainly not a warm and fuzzy place to work, but so far it’s been a place where self-direction and autonomy are supported and even necessary for any success, and where the standards of library support for teaching and learning are very high. Unsurprisingly, it’s also a place with a lot of intelligent and knowledgeable librarians, which is also good.

I’ve been trying to think about what’s changed in the profession in the ten years I’ve been a librarian, and I’m having trouble coming up with many things. This might sound silly, but for me librarianship hasn’t changed as dramatically as it has for some more senior librarians. I am unable to recall with relieved nostalgia the days of card catalogs, or DIALOG, or CD-ROMs as dominant forms of information retrieval. By the time I was a librarian the Web was booming, Google already existed, and Wikipedia wasn’t far behind. The days of librarians as authoritative controllers of access to information were already gone, and I never went through the Kubler-Ross relationship with Google and Wikipedia so many librarians did. I also came along when constant change in information technology was the norm rather than the exception, so I’ve never had to adapt to that fact. If I weren’t comfortable with constant learning and frequent change, I wouldn’t have become a librarian ten years ago.

The search for scholarly information hasn’t changed much, though, at least in the humanities. There’s more full-text online, but that was an obvious trend ten years ago. In the humanities, scholars are still reading books and chasing footnotes, despite the new media surrounding us. I read occasionally about libraries without printed books, but it’s pretty clear that no serious college or research library will be print-bookless for a long time. And as long as the DRM and preservation problems are solved, it won’t bother me a bit if we go completely digital.  For me the book is just a storage for information. If something improves on the extremely useful codex, then so much the better.

The biggest change I’ve seen is with communication, and that one will be obvious to anyone reading a blog. If nothing else, my cell phone is a lot smaller and does a lot more than it did ten years ago. It’s a lot easier to communicate with other professionals than it was ten years ago. Blogs were just taking off, but by the time I began this blog two and a half years ago, the system was entrenched and easy to use. Add in all the other social media that librarians use, and it’s clear anyone can communicate with anyone else in the style they prefer. Blogs especially have given librarians the opportunity to discuss serious issues in a thorough but informal manner, and they’ve allowed humanistic librarians like me an outlet for professional writing that was mostly missing from the previous library literature.

They’ve also given us unprecedented public insight into the profession Ten or twelve years ago I would have loved a blog or three that gave me a feel for what actual academic librarians were thinking about. reading, and doing, the issues they thought important, something that was deeper and more personal than either the scholarly literature or the approved commentary in the major library publications. I’ve tried to do that with this blog. Despite the general title, it’s usually pretty clear that I’m not speaking for all academic librarians, or posing as the voice of the profession, but instead presenting what this librarian in this job with these issues and interests thinks about. Combined with a few other blogs from other academic librarians doing various library jobs, the curious can get a much better idea of what we do than was possible when I started library school.

The blog has changed me as well. I started it as an experiment. I’d been using library blogs as a way to understand the profession a little better. I was aware of their possibilities, not just as outlets for professional communication, but for professional growth. What I wasn’t sure of was whether I’d have anything to say worth saying, or whether anybody would bother reading, both of which were essential if I was to continue. I learn a lot and think through ideas by writing this blog, but if nobody ever read I’d just write in my journal and not bother anyone. Following E.M. Forster’s line, "how do I know what I think until I see what I say," it turns out I had nascent thoughts on the profession I wasn’t aware of.

Another change for me is that I have the freedom and security to do the professional development I want rather than what is supposedly good for my career. I don’t need tenure, so if I want to write, I just write here, and if I feel like writing an article I’ll write an article. I’ve been giving more public talks and workshops the last few years, but always things I want to do or that I learn from, not because I think I need exposure or another line on the CV.  I enjoy taking on projects now that I’ll learn something from, because I have the freedom to say no if I feel like it. I don’t do things because they’ll "keep my options open." I try to do them because they’re worth doing. I have more freedom to follow my intellectual passions and professional interests than I ever thought I would have. I’ve also learned that I only enjoy or value success if I succeed on my own terms.

When i started out, the path to success everyone seemed to agree on was hierarchical and managerial. That’s how librarians supposedly advanced. Many librarians still think like this. "First you do this, then you become head of that, then you move on to become AUL of this other thing, and finally director!" I was told something like that by a professor in library school, a professor who of course followed no such path for himself. Now I know that’s not the only path to success, and certainly not the only path to professional fulfillment. Rather than aiming for some supposedly worthwhile administrative slot, I think the goal should be mastery. Instead of thinking about the future, I want to do things well in the present and see where those things lead. For all I know, the end goal will be the same, but the path is much more interesting and less predictable.

So that’s me ten years into the profession. I wanted to end with some big lessons I’ve learned, but I’m not sure I can list any that are general to other people. I’m still learning my way, and that because librarianship is an art as much as a science, the virtue to develop is phronesis, or practical wisdom, and that takes a lifetime of practice. Ten years isn’t a lot of time when there’s so much to learn.

3 thoughts on “Ten Years In

  1. Thanks for your thoughts and comments after ten years of librarian work, you have reinforced my commitment of being the best I can be, but on my own terms. I will graduate with my MLS this coming May, and I have for the last 15 years worked in the public university setting in various jobs as I first completed my undergraduate and now my graduate work. I am unsure where my new profession will take me, but I do know that I will thoughtfully consider all my options and I look forward to this new journey I am about to begin.

  2. As one of those librarians who does remember all the things that you described, I must say how pleased I am that newer members of our profession can share thoughts as you have done. I didn’t know what I wanted to “become” when I finished my MLS 40 years ago. My career path led me through the steps that you describe but not because I set out to become a director–I just kept moving to interesting jobs as I thought it was time for a change. Now that I am retired, I am grateful for the many ways that I can keep up with what people in our profession are thinking. As a public librarian, I particularly appreciate the opportunity to read posts from academic and other types of libraries. Thanks for making this exchange possible.

  3. I have been a librarian for 5 years and have from time to time followed the library world via its many bloggers. Of the many I read, or have read, I appreciate your blog specifically because of your reflective nature and careful, measured insights. It’s a delight to read as opposed to the many self-serving, and frankly, boring library blogs that populate the Web.
    Thanks for being a calm voice amongst the clatter!

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