I recently got a reminder of how long it’s been since I’ve posted, which brought about some predictable feelings of blog-neglect guilt. My excuse? I’ve been working on other projects lately and can only think about so many things at once. (Words of wisdom – if you ever plan on writing a book, prepare yourself for permanent eyebags.) A library school student in New York and Ohio University alum wrote me a few days ago via Meebo saying that she’d like to hear a post in which I reflected on my experience as a new librarian at her alma mater. I promised this around the time I left OU and never delivered… busted. So here goes.
In my brief time as a librarian I have observed that even if your first job doesn’t make or break your career, it will (for better or worse) form the basis of your professional identity. Like a first relationship, a first library job is all about learning the ropes, having drama, and being generally awkward and terrified. Unless they are balanced by more positive learning opportunities, any of these trials can leave you permanently emotionally scarred. How your first job or relationship begins and ends colors your perceptions of what comes next for quite some time. Date a jerk? Have a nasty breakup? Work for a tyrannical boss? Required to step on necks to get ahead? You’re likely to leave any of these situations similarly dented, and go running for the next worst thing that comes along. Conversely, if you are treated right early on and given opportunities to grow, it will protect you from developing professional bitterness and help you understand what to look for in your next situation.
Straight out of library school most of us are identical on paper, so landing a first position is the luck of the draw that can take you literally anywhere. This is precisely how I found myself a year out of library school living in a cabin in rural Ohio, chasing wild turkeys into trees and throwing logs on the fire to stay warm. Finding snakes in the woodpile, swimming in leech-infested ponds, buying eggs at my closest neighbor’s ramshackle farm… you get the idea. Like many others, I went somewhere I never thought I would live – Appalachia – for my first professional job. I tried my damndest for over a year to stay in Austin, but the market had a different idea. So I decided to bite the bullet and move to the middle of nowhere.
After a period of rough, the-owls-are-not-what-they-seem adjustment to living in the woods, I quickly discovered what that working for the OU Libraries was the professional equivalent of hitting the jackpot. Not only because it gave me a chance to be country for a while, but because I was lucky enough to find myself in a fabulous Reference and Instruction Department in a fabulous library with fabulous coworkers. Keeping up with others I knew who were starting first jobs, I became struck by the overall functionality of public services at OU, and ever since I’ve been mulling over how we got so much accomplished.
A fast rundown of my experience there: all of my bosses were supportive and accessible. The campus was appreciative and relatively well-informed about library services. I found humor, creativity, and engagement among my coworkers. Publishing and presenting were encouraged and appreciated, but not required. No one took themselves too seriously. I was given funding and time off work to pursue a second master’s degree. I had an extremely effective manager and role model who helped me learn the elusive skill of getting things done. A small-team approach to both instructional innovation and technology development reduced bureaucracy and helped things actually happen. Ideas for new services, as hare-brained as they might have seemed, were always given due consideration and room to develop organically based on the personal interest and initiative of their proposers. Feedback was forthcoming, and good work was recognized. The OHIOLink consortium made innumerable access services much more viable. A powerful, shared service ethic guided my department and others, realized in the variety of truly user-focused low and hi-tech approaches constantly being tested, developed, and revised. There was an excellent 24-hour learning commons that helped us stay connected to students and their research needs. Micromanaging was nonexistent, birthdays were celebrated, families were inquired about, and interpersonal issues were resolved. Most incredible of all, meetings were few, (relatively) painless, and generally productive. Stacked against all of these benefits, the normal annoyances of working life were utterly manageable. No situation is without its challenges, but my experience at OU was about as close to ideal at it gets. I left for a familiar reason – the area did not provide enough opportunities for my partner, and I was fortunate enough to subsequently land a good job in a place where our interests coincided.
I am fully aware that few librarians can list this many positive attributes about anywhere that they have worked, be it their first employer or their last. Like anything else, librarianship is a job, and jobs can be a grind. The problem with working a less-than-supportive first position is that it can both stifle your ability to do something interesting with your time as well as damage your future expectations of a workplace and coworkers. I was actively mentored and “eased into” the aspects of my job at OU that I knew nothing about, which allowed me to become comfortable with admitting that I had things to learn instead of defensively pretending I knew it all. I was also allowed to work on innovative, unproven projects – some of which had less than stellar results. Instead of being derided for failure, these projects were recognized as trial runs and learning opportunities. Expectations were reasonable, goals were shared, and assistance was offered. Ideally, every library could create this type of working environment.
I learned from working at OU that organizational problems in libraries are netiher endemic nor inevitable, even in large universities of 20,000-plus students. You don’t have to accept a toxic or unengaging workplace, and should you find yourself in this type of environment you can either actively work to change the situation or start looking for something better. This does not mean systematically telling the entire organization how unhappy you are – change can be achieved in a number of personal and subtle ways. Get practical and figure out how to learn new skills while you are there, preferably supported by your employer. You can turn outward and focus on the interactions you have with students and faculty, or turn inward and try to cultivate connections to coworkers. Find ways to work around walls and motivate similarly frustrated colleagues. Alternatively, you can bite a different bullet and become a (preferably well-mannered) rabble-rouser, and try to foster some real difference in your organization. Any of these strategies can mitigate workplace tension/boredom/etc. and lead to more interesting work experience and a feeling of shared professional and personal interests.
I have definitely been accused of naivete when I talk about the potential of fostering change in libraries that seem too stilted and/or stolid to roll with the punches. I hear people say my time at OU was idyllic, that their workplaces are too large, too small, too oldschool, too conservative, too entrenched, too poorly funded to allow any sort of innovation or development. Similarly, whenever people wonder why I can be so blithe, I simply tell them that my first experience as a librarian made me this way. I saw the way academic libraries can work, and by work I mean work extremely well.
If you are a recent graduate in academic libraries chances are good you will have to take a job somewhere so depressingly unlike where you want to be that it breaks your heart. Take it from me, it might be the precise thing that teaches you who you are in the library sense as well as personally. Even crappy jobs present good challenges, and living in the middle of nowhere gives you a lot of time to work on yourself. I encourage you to not be afraid of trying it if the opportunity presents itself (vice versa for city living if that hasn’t been your thing). In the two years I lived in Ohio, I discovered the secret of country industriousness – I taught myself how never to be bored, ever again. Find yourself somewhere random? Use the ample free time having few friends and fewer decent dance parties creates by getting more education, or cultivating esoteric skills. Self-consciously making the most of things goes a long way, in any context.