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Aug 10 / Philip Zupon

The Long Hard Path To Becoming A Librarian – Part III

I entered the Library and Information Science Program at Wayne State University in the fall of 2008 excited for the adventures that lay ahead. This was after all, graduate school where I would ultimately be able to learn more about the library profession as a whole while focusing on developing my career and figuring out what aspect of library science I would enjoy most. However, to me, there was an even deeper and more significant meaning to this path in my education that I was now taking. Until this point in my life, I was merely a patron to every library that I entered. It mattered not that I may have been much more passionate about reading, learning, and research than the others in the library surrounding me. I still could only read the books, listen to the music, watch the films, and view the webpages on the online databases that contained important information on my favorite interests that I could not find anywhere else. These activities taught me little about how these print, sound, visual, and online forms of media came to be part of that wonderful world of discovery that I knew as the “library.” I wanted to know how the librarians that ran the library developed these expansive collections of media that seemed to grab my interest and prick my curiosity like very few other things in the world did. How did they know that adding a new book on fighter planes to the transportation section would ensure that I stopped by that section during every library visit? How did they know that I would be delighted to discover that they had a collection of classical music cd’s that was as large as their pop-rock cd collection? Moreover, how did they seem to know how to develop the library media collection in a way that also encouraged my desire to want to learn more and more? Now, I would learn how to become a librarian who helped create the world of the “library” that had enraptured me from childhood. Instead of being a visiting explorer, I would now learn to become the person that taught others how to love learning and knowledge and how the joys of learning could help them discover the great world around them. With all of the changes that the internet age was promising to bring to libraries, my role as the people’s guide to exploring the world of knowledge and information seemed to only grow more exciting.

However, not long after my first semester in library school began, the “Recession of 2008” hit metro Detroit hard. Suddenly, masses of people were unemployed and both the business and the government employment sectors were announcing freezes on hiring any new employees. This included many of the local public libraries in my area where I was initially hoping to find a job. If this wasn’t unsettling enough, I was totally unprepared for yet another greater ramification that caught me completely by surprise. Around the same time people were being laid off from their various professions, the enrollment rate in the Library and Information Science Program jumped significantly. Many of the new students who were entering the program were people of all ages who had come from various professions and had all been laid off or were in danger of being laid off. I had been hearing for several years that the nursing profession was being flooded with people who had been laid off from the automotive industry. However, it never dawned on me that those who did not want to become nurses might just choose to become librarians. Plus, there were many other unemployed professionals-turned students that quickly filled the ranks of the Library and Information Science Program’s rapidly growing online student population. During the previous fall, I had participated in the New Student Orientation with around one hundred new students all entering the program. Many of these students were former undergraduate students like myself and maybe an eighth of them were former teachers or came from business backgrounds. By the next spring, the enrollment of new students into the Library and Information Science Program had increased so much that Wayne State University decided to change the Library and Information Science Program from being an academic program under the Graduate School into an individual school of its own; the School of Library and Information Science.
So, less than a year after entering the path that was supposed to lead me to my profession, I was faced with a reality that translated into scant library jobs and more people than I had ever fathomed competing against me for these jobs. The obstacles didn’t stop rising even there. Articles began popping up in my library magazines about government municipalities on all levels reducing and even eliminating librarian positions. I even met a few grade-school media specialists who had been laid off or forced to become regular teachers due to school district decisions to eliminate all media specialists. My own state, Michigan, came very close to closing its own state library, the Library of Michigan, in the summer of 2009. Even this wonderful state cultural institution did not escape without a major reduction in both its size and its staff of librarians.

Nevertheless, I continued to persevere. During my second semester, I did find a job as an evening library page at my university’s law library. However, because I did not have a law degree, I was not allowed to assist patrons in answering reference questions because the library did not want me giving any form of legal assistance or advice to anyone due to liability issues. Consequently, I knew that I would quickly have to find a second library position or another library position altogether that would enable me to gain more experience in the library environment beyond shelving books. So I continued applying to every non-MLIS library position that I could find as well as every internship opportunity that the School of Library and Information Science offered. I had several interviews for a few of these positions and internships and I even went to several interview workshops that the university career services offered so that I could do well at each of the interviews. Unfortunately, even these extra efforts did not help me succeed in landing any new positions.

My lack of success in finding a new job both bewildered and disappointed me. Up until this point, I had been sure that being a library science student was the key to getting an entry-level non-MLIS library position. Moreover, unlike my fellow students who were choosing to become librarians as a second career or as means of guaranteeing themselves a job, I wanted to become a librarian because I love libraries and value their significant role as cultural institutions in American society. I was certain that this would be apparent to the library staff who interviewed me since I had gone straight from undergraduate school to MLIS-school. Much to my dismay, this seemed to be more of a deterrent than a plus for me. Because libraries were dealing with staff reductions and hiring freezes, they wanted library science students who had previous career experience and seemed to care little about the motives of the students they hired. What disappointed me the most, however, was that even the internship positions hosted by the School of Library and Information Science seemed to favor students with previous career experience. Wasn’t the purpose of these internships to give students like myself who were new to the field and had relatively little experience a chance to learn more about the library science profession and gain more experience? Yet, even the libraries that hosted these internships chose students with more career experience so that they could spend less time teaching and training them.

By the beginning of my third semester, I was starting to lose much of my passion for being a librarian that I originally had two years earlier. Things had really begun to come to a head the previous spring when an affluent community near where I lived, Troy, failed to pass a millage to fund its public library. I had volunteered at the Troy Public Library two semesters earlier and had come to know some of the librarians and other staff there quite well. The librarians there were very knowledgeable but also placed a strong emphasis on both patron service and community outreach. Moreover, never in my life had I ever seen a large crowd of people waiting outside of a library every day waiting for it to open like I did at the Troy Library. So it made no sense to me why a community that appeared to greatly support their library would vote against a library millage when their library was in danger of closing (I could write another whole blog about this story). All I could think of at the time was that we were entering an age in which our society no longer valued its libraries. If my hypothesis was true, then it seemed to me that my decision to pursue a career as a librarian might be as futile as my idea of becoming an architect over five years earlier. However, I was already too far towards earning my Master’s degree to quit or change my plans. So I chose one of the most forward-thinking faculty members in the School of Library and Information Science to be my academic advisor and took all of the courses that he recommended that I should take. I placed a particular emphasis on the courses that would make me the most marketable and versatile in the job market when I graduated. In addition, partially at the advice of my advisor, I decided to pursue a Graduate Certificate in Information Management in addition to my Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science so that I could pursue careers outside of the realm of library science in case I could not find a job as a librarian after I graduated.

Fortunately, the Wayne State University School of Library and Information Science does offer its students the opportunity to take practicum courses as part of their elective classes that they are required to take in order to earn their MLIS. This is one of several main reasons that I choose Wayne State University’s School of Library and Information Science over other MLIS programs. These practicum courses are semester-long library internships that are set up like a hands-on library course. The courses are divided by the different fields of library science such as public libraries, academic libraries, school media libraries, and archives. Students can sign up to take one practicum course each semester in a particular field of their choice and the School of Library and Information Science will find a library in that particular field that is located within the area where the student resides that is willing to host the student as an intern for the semester. The student then spends the semester working at the library where they are placed and is graded based on the assessment of their performance by both their professor and their host library. I took a public library and an academic library practicum course in my third and fourth years as a student. During both practicums, I was able to land my internships at the libraries of my choice. Both of my host libraries provided me with wonderful opportunities to practice some of the skills that I had learned from the library science courses that I had taken as well as the opportunity to learn new skills. However, these two practicum internships were the only opportunities that I had to practice some of the different library science skills that I had been learning over the previous few years. All of us need to practice new things that we learn after we learn them to a certain extent or we will lose them. Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome like me not only need opportunities to review and practice new skills and concepts that we have learned right after we have learned them but we often need to practice them on a consistent basis for a short time after we have learned them so we can fully understand what we have learned. The reason for this is rather complicated but I will try to explain it briefly. People with Asperger’s Syndrome or other forms of ASD have a tendency to focus very heavily on the minute details in certain areas that they are learning. This often makes it very difficult for them to see the bigger overall picture of what they are trying to learn. For example, if I am taking a course in library collection development during a certain semester, it is very helpful if I have an internship at a library during the following semester where I am required to work with the librarian who is in charge of collection development on several of her collection weeding or enhancement projects. Note that I say several and not just one because I will need to work with her on more than one project so that I can see how the collection development skills that I have learned—which not only involves library budgets but sometimes politics as well—apply to different library workplace scenarios. This is why I tried so hard from the beginning to find a good consistent entry-level library job. I knew I needed a work environment where I could practice all of the new skills that I was learning on a consistent basis in a working library environment.

It took me four years of hard work and studying but I finally reached the finish line and graduated with both my Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science and my Graduate Certificate in Information Management in May of 2012. Then I proceeded to join the masses of new MLIS graduates looking for prospective employment. Fortunately, I have been able to keep my part-time job at the Law Library for the time being so that I can pay for my daily expenses while I look for a better paying job. While I have had my share of dull moments, I have continued to take advantage of every opportunity that I can to continue to build upon my library and information science education and learn what I was not able to learn previously due to time or lack of opportunity. Last summer, I took my first post graduate course on Information Literacy and How It Relates to Libraries. This past spring, I took yet another course on Social Media Awareness for Information Professionals. In addition, I am currently volunteering at a local library and I am finally having the opportunity to practice some of the library skills that I learned several semesters ago. I am also learning other basic library science skills that I feel that I somehow missed when I could not find any jobs or internships immediately.

So here I am today pleased with what I have accomplished so far but also wondering if there is something that I could have or should have done differently that would have enabled me to become the full-time professional librarian that I envisioned I would be by now. Many people tell me not to be too hard on myself because the local, national, and global economy is poor and there are many people looking for work or working in jobs that are far below their qualification level. However, when I see many of my peers from graduate school at the different public and academic libraries that I visit working as part-time or full-time librarians, I have a hard time believing that I am just the victim of bad luck. I probably should have done things differently! Right now I am not exactly sure how I could have taken a different path but I am fairly sure that I should have chosen a different undergraduate major that would have enabled me to pursue a career without requiring me to go to graduate school immediately. If having previous career experience was the key that helped all of my friends obtain their current library jobs, then maybe that is what I should have done too! There are a few of my friends in the librarian world who did go straight from undergraduate school to getting their MLIS and still were successful in obtaining library jobs. However, almost all of these people had jobs both in high school and in early college at their local public libraries as library pages. I applied to be a library page at my hometown library several times throughout high school. However, your parents had to be heavily involved in the Friends of the Library organization at my library before the library would even consider hiring you for a page. My parents worked so many hours that neither of them had any time to be involved in any community organizations. So there was no getting in that side door for me. I could blame everything on my Asperger’s Syndrome as I have done in the past. Maybe I didn’t ask enough questions or talk to more librarians ahead of time and consequently, I missed out on some social cues unique to the library profession that I should have picked up a long time ago that held the keys or secret code needed to open the right door that all individuals who wish to have a successful career as a librarian must enter.

Oh well, I am wasting too much time dwelling on “what ifs” and it is getting me nowhere. I must go on now and figure out what I have to do to pursue my career that I know that I will enjoy at a public, academic, or specialized library wherever it may be. In the meantime, I will start to look outside of my profession to see if there is any place where I can find a career that I can put my information management and research skills to use while continuing to grow in other areas as an individual. There are those along my course of life that have tried to tell me many times that my goals are too lofty and that Asperger’s individuals like me just do not belong in the professional workplace or in environments where we are required to interact with people on a consistent basis. However, I will not be daunted by such nonsense! I have worked too hard to overcome my shortcomings so that I can be a part of the society of our world and humanity where people told me I did not belong in the first place. Hence, I will not take “no” for an answer from those who think that they can convince me that I do not belong in the sub-societies of the library profession or even the professional workplace. I am capable of doing and becoming anything that I put my mind to and I will find my place of respect and influence as the people’s guide in that wonderful world of knowledge and information known as the “library” as it continues to grow and change in the greater world of the unknown that we call the 21st century!

« Part II