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.
Envy. I admit it. That’s what I feel when I think about students in college and graduate school today considering entering the library field (including my son, a current student at Lawrence). Not to be too “back in my day” about it, but when I attended Lawrence in the late ‘80s I can positively state that being a librarian never entered my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my local public library in West Bend, Wisconsin and was a frequent visitor to my school libraries and even the good old Mudd while a student at Lawrence, but it’s hard to describe to students today how much technology and culture have transformed libraries (and the role of the librarian).
Quiet. Sedate. Solitary. The libraries I used to know were filled with knowledge but were not particularly dynamic places. Going to the library (of any kind) meant entering a serious place where mostly silent, individual exploration took place. The stereotypical librarian was a “shusher” with glasses and a prim demeanor. She (typically) served in a gatekeeper role where orderly systems of classification ruled and being a patron had a definite “supplicant” feel. It was not a world I ever envisioned finding the most engaging, dynamic, and fulfilling career of my life. And yet…
If I could have majored in “Liberal Arts” at Lawrence I would have. I was interested in everything and took as long as I possibly could to pick a major, and even then chose one that spanned two disciplines (back then Lawrence had an Anthropology/Sociology department). Plus I threw in an Education minor and earned my teaching license in 7-12 Broad Fields Social Studies. Lawrence made it very difficult to leave the world of learning, so even though I was prepared to enter the classroom as a teacher, I decided to extend my studies into graduate school and entered the Masters in Sociology program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I completed the program with a thesis based on original research on the topic of urban education. After getting married and moving to New York City so my new husband could pursue graduate studies, I entered the world of publishing as an editorial assistant for an editor working on academic titles in the fields of Sociology and Philosophy, while I spent nights teaching GED and ESL classes at a non-profit community organization. Upon returning to Wisconsin three years later I took a job as an academic advisor with a program called Upward Bound, run out of the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan campus and three years after that I became pregnant with my first child and found myself moving again so my husband could pursue his career. Whew.
Taking time off from paid employment to be a stay-at-home parent to my two children was definitely not time wasted (in fact I highly recommend it if money and circumstance allow), but it did create a sizable hole in my resume when I decided to return to the work world when my younger child started Kindergarten. I knew I wanted a career again, a profession that would be part of my identity and allow me to fulfill my potential. Traditional teaching was obviously an option, but I didn’t have the same passion for it that I did when I was younger. I considered other roles within the education field, such as counselor, or reading specialist, because I had really enjoyed the one-on-one relationships I built with students when I worked for Upward Bound, but I knew I needed to go back to school on some level to refresh my knowledge and credentials before anyone would hire me.
I turned to the website for the UW-Milwaukee Graduate School to see what programs were available that might allow me to combine taking courses in-person with an online component, because I still had young kids and driving 35 miles from my home in Racine, Wisconsin was not always possible. It is there, while perusing the various programs, that I first laid eyes on the School of Information Studies (SOIS). Have you ever had one of those moments where everything just came into focus? I was excited and surprised. Course titles like The Organization of Information, Information Access and Retrieval, Metadata, and Information Ethics intrigued me. What sold me was the ability to combine a Masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) with the certification for a School Library Media Specialist license (K-12) by taking courses like Library Services for Children and Young Adults and Multicultural Children’s Literature. It felt like a great fit, so I enrolled in January of 2008 and never looked back.
How had this field escaped my attention all this time? Well, a little thing called the Internet took over the world in the time since I left Lawrence in 1989, and libraries and librarians have been leading the way as innovators and navigators of this brave new world. Now I work as a Library Media Specialist (sometimes referred to as Teacher Librarian) in a public middle school serving more than 800 students in a very culturally and economically diverse community. I am certainly proud of the collection of books I have selected and curated over the years but I am not the English-major book nerd that is often part of the librarian profile. I approach my profession as a Lawrence graduate, a liberal arts nerd who is fascinated by and knowledgeable about many different fields and topics. I collaborate with my social studies, math, science, art, music, and even gym teachers as much as I do my English faculty. The online world is a wonderful and terrifying place for kids and adults and a large part of my value to my school is my ability to make technology and digital information accessible, manageable, and meaningful. I collaborate, I troubleshoot, I teach, I counsel, I provide inspiration and sometimes refuge. Every day is a different schedule and a different challenge. I get to know and serve every student and teacher in my building. I also have chosen to participate in my profession by serving on task forces and committees for the American Library Association (ALA) and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), which is just the cherry on top of my already awesome job because I get to know and work with amazing librarians from around the country. (I’m currently serving on the Odyssey Award 2019 committee which selects the best audiobook created for children each year).
So, yeah. Do I wish I had found this career earlier? Absolutely, but I also recognize that the school library of my childhood was nothing like the one I work in today, so I just have to be grateful that I’m able to spend the 2nd half of my working life in a job I truly love (and also a little envious of those who can embark on a vital career in libraries right out of college).
By Elizabeth Bast, Class of 1989