Booksellers v. Librarians: GO!

[Ed. note: I started writing this at the end of January of 2009 but never published it for whatever mystery reason I may have had at the time. Nearly 11 months later (eep!), a lot of what is written here is still highly relevant, so I’m cleaning it up and pubbing it.]

I wish I had some witty story about a patron to give this entry more punch but the best I can come up with is the “faculty” dude who came and started yelling at me about “throwing out those kids” who were apparently disturbing his royal highness while he was working. I was, at the time of the yelling, walking over to work with another patron who needed access on the all access computer (no Internet access but allows students to install and run software for classes. Thus, “all access” is kind of moot, I suppose.). Even though I motioned that I would be with him in a second, he kept yelling across the open area about how they were bothering and disturbing him and I HAD BETTER DO SOMETHING! Right sparky, I’ll get right on that.

After helping the student get logged into the all access computer, I looked for the librarian on duty for consultation and it turned out “those kids” were two girls who were talking quietly while working on a project together in an area designed for such a thing. The open plan area is not a quiet study area and that information is posted as such all over the place. The librarian on duty spoke quietly with the girls, his royal highness kept glaring at the librarian on duty and at me and didn’t say a peep after that. It was one of those “what the fuck, becky” kind of moments.

And I’m only two weeks into my new job.

The one thing that has been stressed since my starting this program is that you need experience, experience, experience in order to make it in the real world and winning this job has been a $deity_send in that it is giving me not only real world reference experience but experience in an academic library to boot. But here’s the thing: my classes that were to prep me for this job have really had no impact on how I handle myself at the reference desk. This sentiment was also echoed by several librarians I have interviewed over the last six months who have all told me that while lib school was great for the theory and some of the application, they really didn’t feel that they learned their jobs until they were on the jobs.

This, then, becomes the catch-22: You need some experience to get an entry level position but you must obtain an entry level position in order to get the experience. Lots of libraries like to hire in-status students, which is a boon to many of us who have had no prior experience in libraries before lib school. But this goes back to the teaching moment in that how you are trained while working in the library whether as a volunteer, intern or paid employee. These experiences can and will shape how you handle your professional career thus one must also take this factor into account when one is looking for a starting library position.

One thing I have noticed is this slightly playful but not really competition between those who work in a library and those who work in bookstores. For some reason that I cannot fathom, there seems to be some sort of unspoken rivalry between booksellers and librarians, and I’ve heard more than one librarian on various message boards bitch and complain how booksellers “try” to be like librarians by providing reader’s advisory and reference services without proper training and booksellers complain that librarians try to treat bookstores like libraries or that librarians feel like they are slumming if they come and apply for a job or work in a bookstore.

This is the part I don’t get: Bookstores are out to make money and to the corporate bookstores, the bottom line is ALL about the money. Whether or not someone gets interested in reading or enriching their life based on the books they purchased means nothing to the higher ups in corporate America – it’s just about how much the customer has spent and is there a way to get them to spend more. It’s about discounts, volume and bestsellers. It’s not about education, enrichment, support or education. This is not to say the average bookseller is not a reader, I’d roughly guesstimate that about 90% of the people I worked with were huge readers who read in a variety of genres and many of us had subject specializations. We were a very well rounded crew with a broad spectrum of education and backgrounds.

And this is not also to say that every bookstore feels this way – but having worked in $corporate_bookstore and being told time and time again that I spent too much time educating the reader rather than hand-selling them crap, I speak from experience. The other big argument that often comes up in discussion is how the bookstores are attempting to be like the library system (“help desks” that imitate reference desks, library-esque setting, comfy chairs, etc) while the library system is attempting to try to be like bookstores (cafes, overhead music systems, wider range of programming). But my question is: Why spend all this time arguing about who is trying to be like the other? All this mudslinging is ridiculous as libraries and bookstores can co-exist AND live together.

It’s like watching a never ending game of Tekken and in the end, the ones left holding the “WTF?” bag are the customers/patrons who just wanted help finding a damned book.

The consequences of world domination.

Last week, to put it succinctly, was the week from hell.

I left for St. Louis to present at a conference on Wednesday, came home mid-afternoon Friday only to immediately head to the Fox Theatre with Justin to see Bob Dylan play Friday night. Saturday morning, after dropping Wednesday off at the dog boarders, we drove to Kalamazoo to see our friends Lauren and Eric get married. Sunday, after a pit stop at IKEA, we headed home where I was able to finally couch for the first time, it seemed, in weeks.

I only checked email twice on Monday. Twice! Clearly, I was tired and overworked.

Justin and I have been having a lot of conversations on what’s going to happen with me when on-campus classes are done for me in May (I’ll still be doing a few online classes for the summer session): I’ll be out of a job (the graduate program kicks students off of student assistantships after 36 credit hours and I hit 42 or 44 May 2010), Justin and I are getting married (to get health benefits – srsly), we’re moving somewhere but we’re not sure where. And then there is the honeymoon to contend with (UK? Italy? For how long?). In a short amount of time, a lot of stuff is going to be happening and I can’t plan for it because it is all dependent on whether or not I get a job offer and if so, where I’m going. And on top of that, if I don’t get a job offer, where do we move to? Justin has the luxury of telecommuting, and I know that if I can’t find a job in X time, he will support me, but I don’t want to have to do that.

It’s called having to pay $900/month in student loans, muthafucker. (“Down with your bourgeois education,” Justin says.) So then it goes back to, “What do you want to do! What do you want to do with your life!” and of course, “world domination” doesn’t necessarily pay the bills.

In all seriousness though, I stacked my interests and my work experience in the last two years to make myself as marketable as possible. I’ll have 18 months of academic librarianship under my belt, along with having presented at a conference, certification in archival work coupled with practicum experience, digital librarianship, special projects I’ve worked on with professors plus my own incredibly varied background.

I’m awesome and I know that.

One thing I keep musing on is just how far and to what extent I want to make librarianship and archival work my life — because I know me well enough to know that I will rabble rouse and want to change the world (I’ve already started that on campus here with the creation of a new student group that I did with three other students this summer), and while there are many incredibly awesome librarians and archivists out there who do similar rabble rousing things, the profession as a whole can be and is to some extent, incredibly backward and staid. As a student, looking at the work being done typically sums up one thing — that everything has to be committed to death and with that comes the death of innovation and moving forward. But as par usual, I’m digressing. As it stands, in addition to my course work and 20 hours of ref desk pimpin’, I currently am doing the following:

  • President, ASIS&T,Wayne State student chapter.
  • Vice President and co-founder, Progressive Librarians’ Guild, Wayne State student chapter.
  • Communications chair, Graduate Employees’ Organizing Committee, Wayne State.
  • Member, virtual reference committee for new technologies, Wayne State Library system.
  • Digital technologies librarian liaison, various roles/responsibilities 1.

I can see my life going in a variety of directions, and I know that I’m flexible enough with my skillset that if I don’t like how one way goes, I can totally switch it to another. The problem, however, is that I’m not quite sure if I want to be a rabble rouser anymore — my own work and interests seem to get pushed to the side because when I take on something, I like to think I give it 110% of my focus – and I know it is because of this that makes me so good at what I do.

Writing, for example, has gone to the way side. Not just missing a few days or a few weeks but it’s been since MAY since I’ve posted anything to this or my LiveJournal account, which I even barely check anymore. My other domain, is to represent my “professional portfolio” and that’s not even been tweaked with since I installed Indexhibit on it a few weeks ago.

The quandary I’m having is not only how I want to live my life, but how to live my life and make it meaningful. How do I balance a husband, a future family, a career and personal interests while giving myself Lisa-time? What type of jobs should I start looking for? Should I sell out? Consult? Write the “Great American Novel”? Do I want to work 60hrs a week and push family and personal life aside (like my mom)? And if my school involvement right now is any indicator, it can end up like that.

Because I find it incredibly difficult to say “No.”

1. I have not discussed with my freelance employers what I can and cannot post about my work for them, so for now, they remain anonymous.