February 17, 2018

Christine Oka | Movers & Shakers 2002

Speaking About Teaching

From military code breaking to searching the OPAC

Christine Oka offers the typical response when asked how she became a librarian: “I’ve always liked libraries–I worked in my high school library, I worked in a public library in Los Angeles when I was in college, I even worked in a law library….” Oka, however, took a rather unique approach to joining the profession after college: she joined the army! Yet while she didn’t serve as a librarian in the service, she insists her training at the Defense Language Institute and subsequent work in military intelligence intercepting Russian radio transmissions helped her gravitate toward the library world. “The transmissions not only were in Russian,” Oka says, “but they were in code, so this really prepared me to work in the library–really!” She argues that call numbers, which are symbols for items but not the items themselves, are the same as coded messages.

After finishing a three-year hitch in the service, she found a job doing bibliographical work at UCLA’s tech services department, where her skills in foreign languages opened a few doors. “I knew Russian, but I also knew French, Italian, German, Spanish, Scandinavian, Hungarian, and African languages.” Oka’s break came when UCLA added an OPAC in 1980. She had already been working with the tech services automation system, “and when the OPAC came up, they needed people who knew how to search, so they were pulling volunteers to work at a public services desk. That’s when it clicked for me.” Oka earned her MLS while on the job and received a minority internship at UC-Santa Barbara. “I received good training in Santa Barbara because there was flexibility…it gave me a lot of experiences and possibilities.”


Current position: Bibliographic Instruction Coordinator, in charge of the Library User Instruction Program, Northeastern University, Boston

Degree: MLS, UCLA, 1990

In 1995, Oka pulled up stakes, leaving behind her Western roots for Northeastern University in Boston, where she currently serves as the bibliographic instruction coordinator. She continues to add depth to her experiences and finds teaching the librarian craft to others the most rewarding. She notes that she is one of the few Asian Americans now teaching librarianship. “It’s only starting to change where you see Asians teaching the library classes, working at the public services desk, or running programs.” Not only does Oka teach, she has co-written a textbook with Harvard’s Cheryl LaGuardia entitled Becoming a Library Teacher (Neal-Schuman, 2000). She also was the first librarian to receive the Northeastern University Aspiration Award, in 2001, which honors a group or individual who has advanced the university’s aspirations of community outreach, research, and more. Oka ultimately embraces new challenges and opportunities, for as she asserts, “If it’s too comfortable, you’re not going to grow.”