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.
At the end of my junior year at Lawrence, while wrapping up a tutorial meeting with Professor Carr, she asked about my post-LU plans. I had myriad answers which, in reality meant I really had no answer at all. All my life, I had been able to answer the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?” without hesitation, but a variety of unexpected, ongoing, and often debilitating health problems screwed up my plans. I no longer had a clear vision. Professor Carr sensed my confusion, smiled and said, “You might want to look into library science.” The rest is history.
Epiphany! Libraries had always been my intellectual and emotional sanctuaries, but, strangely enough, I had never seriously looked into the profession. As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by classification and organization, and not just of books: I’ve always been always curious about the philosophy and logic behind such notions, wanting to know how we describe things and classify them accordingly; the nature of the relationship between the concrete (e.g., a copy of a book) and the abstract (e.g., what a book is about); whether we organize things just for convenience, by convention, or in a manner allusive to deeper assumptions (consistent with the world carved at its joints). It only made sense to pursue a career where I could put these questions to the test and, yes, be surrounded by books, but in truth, that’s merely a bonus to my job; librarianship deals with far more than analog books nowadays. (Yes, dusty, bibliographic curmudgeons, I qualified the term book!)
Thus, I enrolled at UW-Madison’s iSchool (formerly SLIS–School of Library and Information Studies; now the Information School, a humorously vague title). Just as I matriculated, unexpected and unfortunate personal events reared their ugly heads once again, forcing me to take things at a much slower pace than originally planned. What I discovered was breathing room, allowing me to concentrate on doing a stellar job on fewer assignments and gain invaluable work experience, all of which led me to my current, dare I say it, perfect job.
A starter job as a pager in the Special Collections Department (which I loved because it allowed me to go into the vaults and inhale the archival fumes), gave me a chance to do some basic cataloging, and returned me to the meticulous world of bibliographic control. It reminded me of learning the basics of the card catalog back in grade school, when computers weren’t yet ubiquitous. Here it was: a way to utilize my love of organizing, to implement my abstract interests, and to facilitate information access and retrieval (with no appreciation from reference staff—Kidding!…kinda…).
Along the grad school way (actually, before I even started classes), I tripped over a job in the UW Law School Library. The Reference Librarian asked me to help with the library’s brand new institutional repository. Projects involved creating and maintaining collections of digital resources significant to the school’s history. I stuck with it all four years I was a student, and discovered an interest working at the intersection of analog and digital data—a fascination with the juxtaposition of old and new technology (e.g., I created electronic records for archived manuscripts and digitized old, brittle faculty photos). I worked on the faculty scholarship collection, the digital photo collection, and, my favorite, the oral histories. The Law School Library served as a guinea pig testing the new Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS), an open-source software program facilitating metadata creation for interview recordings (involving former and current faculty/staff members). I indexed, summarized, and subject cataloged entire interviews (ranging in length from 2 to 8+ hours), listening two or three times over to be sure I captured all that might be of interest to patrons. The histories were fascinating, and I enjoyed creating data that (I hoped) would help patrons find what they needed for their research. I plan to do likewise here in DC, working on improving the hitherto neglected metadata for the LOC’s Web Archive.
Speaking of the LOC, shortly before I fully entered the dreaded world of job applications, I came across an interesting opening on the iSchool’s jobs blog: a new residential program at the Library of Congress. Knowing the chances were slim at best, I took a shot in the dark and applied. Thereafter I thought little of it, staying realistic and increasingly preoccupying myself with job applications elsewhere. I had several initial interviews but no job materialized. Then, in February, I received a phone call from the Library of Congress. A section head, the librarian who created the new residency program, asked me if she could interview me. A month and a half after the interview, I was offered and accepted a place in the program.
Six months into the residency, my section decided to hang onto me permanently. I can now call myself a full-fledged librarian. I plan to move up the ranks in my division to a point where I can catalog independently and train other employees. Down the road, my supervisor will lend me to another section to help subject catalog their influx of philosophy materials (I majored in philosophy at LU and continue to study it on my own time). I also plan to get involved in the BIBFRAME Initiative, a program testing the new Bibliographic Framework data scheme to replace MARC (finally!–don’t tell a veteran cataloger I said that). The scheme will streamline cataloging across different library systems and allow users to access the institutional catalogs outside their ivory towers (e.g., when you look up a title via Google, search results finally will include library holdings). As digital libraries continue to grow, metadata remains crucial to navigating bibliographical cyberspace. I’d like to help patrons maneuver through the maze of online resources with clear, concise, and consistent metadata.
I am unbelievably fortunate to have begun my career in the largest, most respected cultural heritage institution in the world.
Thanks, again, Karen. (And thanks, Pete, for letting me pick your brain about the profession.)
By Zachary Fannin, Class of 2012