Alumni Librarians: Jennifer Chamberlain, ’96

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 another in a series.

JC with students in reference section smallThe Roundabout Road from the Mudd or How I Accidentally Became a Librarian

by Jennifer Chamberlain, ’96 (center)

To me, the Seeley G. has always been more than a concrete fortress beckoning to procrastinating Lawrentians. From 1992-1996, it was my second home as an unexceptional English major with disparate interests and a remarkable capacity for getting side-tracked. Armed with a steaming cup of coffee from the Grill (this is commonly referred to as the pre-latte era) and a steeled resolve to hit the books, I spent many hours tackling my homework and papers with an inefficient, yet well-intentioned outlook. I adored the research process, but hated writing papers. I could spend countless hours refining a topic or following an obscure research lead only to find myself pulling out my hair in the final hours before a paper was due trying to synthesize a mountain of citations. Professor Spurgin could likely attest to the fact that my works cited pages always read a lot better than the paper itself.

The Mudd is also the place I spent a fair number of hours studying (ok, shamelessly flirting) with my then-friend and now-husband of 14 years. Who knew that sixteen years post-graduation, I’d sit on the other side of the reference desk helping college students tackle their research projects (while watching them shamelessly flirt with fellow students)? Never underestimate the power of romance in the library.

I graduated from Lawrence in 1996 with a B.A. in English and Certification in Secondary Education ready to tackle a low paying internship as a museum educator at the Illinois State Museum. After a series of jobs in museums morphed into a semi-career in nonprofit fundraising, I found myself unhappy with the direction my professional life was taking. I was an educator that didn’t want to teach in a K-12 school and an English major without the yearning to pursue an MA (all that paper writing). I distinctly remember the day a mentor asked me my career goals. Struggling to appear like a gal with a plan, I quickly revealed a subconscious desire to become a librarian. My mentor laughed, and there’s no motivator quite like laughter. Problem was I didn’t have the first clue how people became librarians. I didn’t know anyone who worked as a librarian. As a kid, the librarians at my public library seemed a mystifying other-worldly folk that rarely stepped foot outside of the library. Even in college, I’d never really gotten to know the librarians on a personal level, despite the fact they bailed me out countless times. It seemed as though librarians were a higher life form, on par with the Elves in Lord of the Rings, who existed beyond the normal realm. Plainly put, librarians knew a whole lot about a whole lot of things. I wasn’t sure I fit the bill.

Fast forward a few years when my husband took a job in the rural Northwoods running a YMCA camp. By some act of luck, I landed a job as the director of the local, rural library. Thanks to some antiquated state statute, librarians at the smallest of public libraries are not required to hold an advanced degree in library science. It only took one day as director of the Boulder Junction Public Library for me to realize I’d found my dream job. I quickly pursued a Master of Library Science from UW-Milwaukee, and for the next ten years I held a variety of reference and administrative positions in southeastern Wisconsin public libraries.
In 2009 I was tapped to serve as the Interim Library director and later appointed Director of Library Services for the University of Wisconsin-Washington County, a freshmen/ sophomore campus of the UW System. Working in the UW System offers me the power of a large academic institution in terms of colleague caliber and strength in resources, yet I get to interact with students in an intimate campus setting a bit smaller than Lawrence. I think about the skills I acquired at the Lawrence library on a daily basis working with students one-on-one. When I educate students on information literacy strategies and watch them wade through the vast information resources at their fingertips, I think about all those hours I culled through books and resources at the Mudd. During formal library instruction sessions, I tell students they arguably have it harder in today’s digital world than I did as an undergrad when it comes to seeking and evaluating information. I share with them my memories of researching in my college library (I can still here the “shunk” sound of the Mudd’s turn style) and how I took for granted the credibility of the information I found there in print. As a small college library director, I get to administer a dynamic student-centered library similar to what I experienced at LU – and I love it.

The switch from public libraries to academic libraries was a great opportunity for my career and personal growth. Not until writing this blog entry did I realize what a homecoming it was for me. As a guide for students in the research process, I relive a bit of those college years and I find myself remembering my days at the Mudd with tremendous fondness. I feel lucky to have a job that appreciates, even encourages me to embrace my generalist-self that still enjoys chasing divergent research leads wherever they take me. And the best part is I don’t have to stay up until 3 a.m. writing that final paper.
I treasure the years I bumbled my way through the Mudd library collection. I reflect on that time frequently as I work with undergraduates learning to navigate the physical and virtual collections in the UW System. From my perspective, a career as a librarian is a glove-like fit for the type of person Lawrence inspires you to be: curious, tenacious, widely-read — a first-class generalist.

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