The Accidental Librarian

Originally published in Colorado Libraries 34:1, 2008.

I was going to be an English professor. I had known this since I was a freshman in high school. I laid my path accordingly, graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a BA in English, and I then plotted a graduate career with the end goal of a PhD in English Literature. Several years later, however, I found myself in the English MA program at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, DC, depressed by the prospect of spending at least five more years living in self-induced poverty to complete a dissertation, only to enter a miserable job market. However, I couldn’t think of anything else that I wanted to do with myself professionally.

Enter Elizabeth Aversa, then Dean of The Catholic University of America’s School of Library & Information Science (SLIS). I needed a job to pad out my financial aid-based budget, and she needed a graduate assistant to help the School prepare documentation for accreditation. She warned me during my very informal job interview that she was going to turn me into a librarian. She said, “You’re going to be an English professor, huh? Yeah, I was going to write the great American novel. I’m going to make you into a librarian.” I smiled politely, knowing that she could not possibly be right. I simply was not interested in becoming a librarian.

I worked for Dean Aversa and the SLIS faculty for the entire academic year, which culminated in successful ALA accreditation for the School. During this time, I continued my coursework in literature, but I dog-eared the page of the CUA graduate catalog that described the joint MA/MSLS degree programs in library science and six other disciplines (including English). Jean Preer, who was then Assistant Dean, slyly mentioned to me that she’d heard of research that showed that students pursuing a PhD in English who had previously completed a master’s degree in Library Science were able to finish their English doctorate degrees, on average, a year earlier than others. It was certainly food for thought, so the next summer, I took two library science courses: Libraries and Information in Society and Humanities Information. I certainly had some subject knowledge in literature, so I entertained the notion of becoming a collection development librarian in an academic library.

Later that summer, however, I received a teaching assistantship from the English Department. The teaching assistantship paid tuition and a stipend, whereas the SLIS graduate assistantship had only paid a stipend. What was partially a financial decision shifted my focus back to the English professor career path. I was excited about teaching, though; finally, I would be teaching college English courses! I noticed during my first year as a TA, however, that teaching took quite an emotional toll on me. When students performed poorly by choice, I took it personally. I was teaching a required composition class that most of them would have just as soon skipped. Discipline was difficult for me, and the English Department’s mandatory policy that stated that seven absences equaled failure for the course did not help matters.

Teaching assistants were encouraged to take advantage of the information literacy sessions offered by the librarians at Mullen Library, which was the main CUA campus library. It was a day to relax a bit and watch the instruction librarians work their magic with the students. For me, it was a revelation: as an academic reference librarian, I could do all of the things that I liked about teaching. I enjoyed working one-on-one with students. I could teach information literacy classes, which would satisfy my urge to get up in front of a classroom full of students, but the paper grading, attendance policies, and discipline issues would, for the most part, disappear.

After taking the basic reference course the next summer, I was swayed back toward library science. I continued my English coursework only because I was too close to finishing my MA not to get the joint English/Library Science degree, and, well, because the English Department’s teaching assistantship paid my tuition regardless of whether or not I took literature classes or library science classes. In my English 101 sessions the next fall, I skipped the sessions offered by the reference librarians at Mullen because I wanted to do them myself. In fact, I redeveloped my entire English 101 syllabus around the re-search assignments that I designed. Before I even finished my English comprehensive exams, I got a job as the reference and instruction librarian at Howard Community College in Columbia, a suburb of Baltimore. Before my graduation with a joint MA/MSLS, Dean Aversa moved on to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I did send her an email, however, to let her know of her success in transforming me from an English professor into a librarian.

Even after librarianship radically altered my career path, my transformation into my current self was not yet complete. I had been at Howard Community College a little over a year when the librarian in charge of the library’s web site left the College. Our director, Lucy Gardner, asked me if I was interested in learning HTML and taking over the content and development of our web presence. I said no, and she signed me up for a Dreamweaver class anyway, much to my chagrin. I should have taken the Dean Aversa lesson to heart, because as it turned out, I loved working on the web site. I spent less and less time at the reference desk and more time up to my elbows in HTML.

About a year later, a hybrid reference and web position opened up at Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library. I jumped at the opportunity and got the job. Georgetown was a fantastic place to work; I’ll never forget the first time that the Caller ID on the reference desk phone in front of me displayed ALBRIGHT, MADELEINE. (Alas, it was always the former Secretary of State’s teaching assistant calling, but it was a thrill nonetheless.) Prince Charles and Camilla paid campus a visit once. I had family connections at Georgetown as well. A colleague who was a Jesuit priest baptized my daughter in a chapel on campus. Dr. Richard D. Mudd, my husband’s greatgrandfather and a member of Georgetown’s Class of 1921, had left his papers upon his death in 2002 to Lauinger’s Special Collections Department. One of my final projects was posting the finding aids and folder listings of Dr. Mudd’s papers to the Special Collections web site.

I spent as much time at the reference desk and in the information literacy classroom as the other reference librarians, but the web projects kept piling up — a redesign of the Special Collections web pages gave way to a redesign of the OPAC, and then we suddenly needed a new library web site for a remote campus that-was forming halfway around the world in Doha, Qatar. Although I still greatly enjoyed my reference and instruction duties, they were increasingly becoming distractions to what I really wanted to be doing: working full-time on the more technical aspects of web site. There was no one in the Systems Department who did this, and even though I “lived” in the Reference Department, I found myself collaborating more and having more in common with my Systems colleagues.

On the home front, my husband and I had accepted that our adorable 1400-square-foot Cape Cod in the Maryland suburbs had been too small for the two of us when we bought it, much less our growing family. One dog had become two dogs and two kids. And while Washington, DC, is an exciting place to live, the high cost of living presents a number of challenges to raising a family: commutes are long, child care is expensive, and the exploding housing market made it impossible for us to afford a bigger house without moving further out into suburbia. Midwesterners by birth, my husband and I began considering pulling up our DC stakes and relocating, but few viable options had presented themselves, particularly since he had given up his own English professor career path for a job as an analyst with the federal government.

This changed in August of 2005 when he came to Denver on a business trip. He discovered on this trip that his department was looking to greatly increase operations in the Denver area, and they were in desperate need of people with his exact skills. He called me and joked, “Hey, do you want to move to Denver?” He happened to be calling on his cell phone from my parents’ back porch; they had retired in 2002 from my hometown in Wisconsin to Summit County, where I had learned to ski on innumerable childhood family vacations.

Little did he know, that very day at work, I had seen a posting for a job on the WEB4LIB email list that made me salivate. It was a Wednesday. I put the kids to bed and stayed up until four o’clock in the morning updating my resume and composing a cover letter. Six months later, in February 2006, I reported to the Auraria Library — the academic library for the Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State College of Denver, and the University of Colorado Denver — for my first day as Web Librarian. Not only had I relocated from Washington, DC, to Denver, I had relocated from the Reference Department to the Systems Department. I had arrived; I finally felt like I was where I needed to be professionally. My husband transferred his position successfully, and three very long trips down Interstate 70 later, all of our belongings were in a house in the Denver suburbs that was twice as big, half as old, and much less expensive than that adorable but tiny Cape Cod. We even had enough room to add another kid.

Shortly after arriving at Auraria, I discovered that CUA’s Mullen Library, which had figured so prominently in my career change, is named for John K. Mullen, a Coloradan and a devout Catholic who had made his fortune early in the 20th Century with flour mills. He not only funded the building of the library that bears his name on the CUA campus in Washington, DC, but he also funded the construction of St. Cajetan’s Church, which was built in 1926 for the growing Hispanic Catholic community near what is now downtown Denver. St. Cajetan’s was decommissioned in the mid-1970s when the church building became part of the new Auraria Campus. I don’t consider myself a religious or superstitious person, but hey, I know a sign when I see one. I just hope that I have finally learned my lesson about resisting the kinds of changes that become bridges to exciting new places and opportunities.

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