Alumni Librarians: Paul Jenkins ’83

Editor’s note: We invited Lawrence alumni who have gone into library work to share with us what they do and how they got there. Here’s the first in a series.

Paul Jenkins, '83My acquaintance with the Mudd library began during freshman orientation week. I thought I could just waltz in and get a work study job there. Little did I realize how fierce the competition was for these plum positions. It seemed like everyone wanted to work there. Long story short, I ended up pushing food tray carts in Downer for three years.

Having grown up a faculty brat (my father was a professor of English at Carleton College), I was already familiar with what a good academic library had to offer. I spent my teenage years educating myself about art history and folk songs in the Carleton stacks. After surviving the first few hectic weeks of Freshman year I began to spend lots of time, browsing the Ps and making mental notes to read all the classics that remained on my list.
Once I got the hang of student life and how to study efficiently I would spend a great deal of time during Finals Week in the stacks. This irked my classmates no end. While they crammed, I read Balzac. While they worked furiously to finish final papers, I learned more about Günter Grass.

Yes, this sounds pretty nerdy, I know, but rest assured that I was also on the soccer team and spent my fair share of time in the Viking Room.

As graduation neared my adviser urged me to consider graduate school in German literature. I’d majored in German and spent Fall term junior year in Munich. Part of me had never felt comfortable speaking German, however. Reading it and writing it were no problem, but my natural shyness grew even worse when I spoke “auf Deutsch.”

I considered graduate programs in German, English, and Journalism before finally settling on library science. To be honest, many of my friends seemed disappointed with my choice. My father, the professor, was delighted, though. He found librarianship very useful work and free from much of the nonsense then polluting literary analysis.

I entered “library school” at UW Madison never having worked a day in a library. I knew somehow that I wanted to be there, though. What a great place to earn a living, I remember thinking. I had no idea what librarians actually did all day, of course.

During my studies at UW I quickly realized I wanted to work in academic libraries. The notion of answering questions about snowmobile repair horrified me. I was too much of a snob to consider toiling in a public library. Academic libraries seemed vaguely nobler to me. If I am honest, I will admit that working for a college or university eased my worries about never having become a professor as my father, brother, and sister had. (Despite earning only a BA at Cornell, my mother is the smartest of us all.)

My first job was at the College of Mount St Joseph (Cincinnati OH) in 1988 as the Head of Collection Development. A noble title until I realized that I had no staff. I was a department unto myself. Working with the faculty to choose books, videos, and periodicals came naturally to me. Soon nearly everyone knew me. Within three years I had been elected President of the Faculty. I became director of the library seven years after arriving. My work with the Mount faculty inspired me to write a book for the English publisher Chandos: Faculty-Librarian Relationships. After publishing another book (Richard Dyer-Bennet: The Last Minstrel) through the University Press of Mississippi, I was chosen as Distinguished Scholar of the college in 2011. The faculty liked my work enough to nominate me for the New York Times Academic Librarian award (now called I Love My Librarian) in 2006. One day later that year I was on duty at the Reference Desk when the phone came informing me that I had won. I smiled broadly and then helped a student with yet another ERIC search.

If this reportage smacks of bragging, perhaps it’s because I still feel a bit inferior to my faculty colleagues with their Ph.D.’s. I teach classes here now (History of American Protest Music, and The Beatles: Voice of a Generation) but when my students address me as “Dr. Jenkins” I cringe. I ask them to call me “Mr. Jenkins” and feel better after a few moments.

Still, I find academic librarianship a great profession, and I am grateful to my first boss who took a chance on a newly minted MLS way back in the time when the Internet was still only an idea buzzing around the brain of Al Gore.

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