February 16, 2018

The Lucky Few: Three New Librarians Tell It Like It Is

I remember reading my first Placements & Salaries issue of LJ. I was a recent graduate, and the economy had officially hit an all-time low. The Chicago sheriff was making headlines for refusing to kick renters out of foreclosed apartments, and gas prices were soaring. I looked at the cover and realized that with my salary I couldn’t balance student loan payments and gas for the commute to my first job. I also felt concern about my mostly unemployed friends.

How much has changed since then? The past two years have brought all sorts of things to me personally, including difficult job searches. So the survey of 2009 graduates (see p. 22) reflects and confirms things that I know to be true, not from data and statistics but from rejection letters and underemployment. Ah, those pesky placements. Isn’t that really just another way to say “finding a job”? Those three little words impact our day-to-day lives so intensely. Placements seem to be the hardest part of becoming a librarian these days. You apply for jobs, knowing that you are just one of possibly 200 other qualified new librarians.

Breaking into the library world has never been a walk in the park. “Doing time” as a clerk, shelving, or simply working part-time is par for the course in this profession. But as a great man once sang, “The times, they are a-changin’.” There is a drastic increase in the number of degreed librarians taking paraprofessional positions, simply because they need a full-time job with benefits. Also, there are more temporary positions being filled with librarians wishing and hoping for the position to be made permanent. It is a daunting reality, and we all deal with it in our own ways.

Three finding their way
The three librarians highlighted here are newbies like me. All of us transitioned to Librarian (with a capital L) in the past three years. We came into a job market incredibly changed from the one experienced by many of our predecessors. Molly Kelly has fought tooth and nail to claim her place in the library world, finding herself at one point on the wrong side of a pink slip. Justin Hoenke turned his job search into an adventure, knowing he couldn’t stay put geographically. Karen Keys got hired at a major metropolitan library in 2007, before the now notorious job freezes and layoffs devastated our crucial urban systems.

It is difficult to select only three people to hear from, because we all have these stories, these struggles. Times are hard for new librarians. So many in the field didn’t have to deal with the challenges we have, and that can be frustrating. However, we are all librarians and that unifies us. If there is one thing that we librarians are it is survivors. We fight for funding. We search out and lobby for what we believe to be true. We apply and apply and apply and hold our collective breath that everything will end well because this is our new reality. We became librarians not for money or prestige but because of our beliefs. We believe in connecting people with information and know deep in our hearts that knowledge empowers them.

These are the stories of three newly minted librarians working to find their way in this challenging time becoming known as the Great Recession. They are individuals, but their stories are part of all of us and our collective experience as librarians.

Functional Design Manager, Special Projects
Queens Library
Jamaica, NY
DEGREE Pratt Institute, 2007

Karen Keys: The “Yes” Woman

When my cell phone alarm went off at 3:15 a.m. on June 13, I rolled out of bed, bleary-eyed and sans bushy tail. Why had I agreed to show up at Grand Army Plaza in the wee hours of the morning? And when exactly did I lose my ability to stay up all night? Thirty-four-year-olds should still be able to rock’n’roll.

Face washed and teeth brushed, I headed up the street to the Brooklyn Public Library to contribute my 15 minutes of reading during the We Will Not Be Shushed 24-Hour Read-In. The read-in, for all three New York City library systems, had been organized by several of my colleagues. They had done the heavy lifting and committed to stay the entire time. The least I could do was show up and read some pages from Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

Advocacy, part of the job description
The read-in had been planned to draw attention to the massive proposed budget cuts to libraries and to empower people to advocate for keeping them open. When we fight against cuts, we are not just fighting to keep our jobs but for all the opportunities, programs, and services libraries provide.

Grad school, particularly my urban public libraries class, had underscored the necessity of advocacy and establishing community partnerships. Nonetheless, I did not comprehend the importance of the grass-roots, pavement-pounding, please-sign-this-petition action that would occur in what’s becoming yearly cycles. I have come to view advocacy as part of my job description, equal to outreach, literacy, reference, and readers’ advisory.

Justin Hoenke: Have Degree, Will Travel

Teen Librarian
Portland Public Library
Portland, ME
DEGREE Clarion University of Pennsylvania, 2008

I got my first library job at the Cape May County Library in Southern New Jersey with two months still left of graduate school. My wife and I had decided that changing location was a top priority. It’s not that we weren’t happy living in northwestern Pennsylvania; there just weren’t any jobs in a 200-mile radius that paid well enough to allow us to live a decent life and still manage to make cumbersome school loan repayments. Relocation was a must, so we embraced our upcoming move as an adventure to new and exciting lands.

An odyssey
We arrived in New Jersey in May 2008. Two weeks later, we found out my wife was pregnant with our first child. Nine months later, our son, Finn, was born. A year after that, we decided to pack it all up once again and head north to Portland, ME, where I became the Portland Public Library’s first ever Teen Librarian. What a long, strange (and, might I add, tiring) trip it’s been.

I took a ride on the emotional roller coaster almost every day during my first two years as a teen librarian. There were so many ups and downs, from dealing with and understanding local politics to handling staff drama to coping with the everyday grind of working with the public. I was frequently frustrated with the snail-like pace at which change happened. Technology and everyday life was changing at such an alarming rate, and I felt like the public library just couldn’t keep up. There were moments when I got up on my soapbox and proclaimed, “The public library is doomed!” only to retract the statement once I calmed down. I guess you can say that these experiences were things for which library school can’t ­really prepare you. You just have to go through it, struggle for a bit, and come out with a lesson learned.

My biggest ally
I’ve learned to embrace community as my biggest ally. I provide service to the people around me, but these same people are also those to whom I turn for support. Without the help of local Portland organizations such as the Telling Room, Curious City, Portland Police Department, and Maine Teen Talk, I wouldn’t be able to offer a wide variety of excellent programming to my teens. Local organizations and active citizens within the community will make the library a stronger, more community-based center. The connections that I made first were local, because being a public librarian is all about the community we all serve.

Community is important not only in serving my patrons but also when it comes to my coworkers. Fostering a strong sense of community within all areas of my professional life has led to nothing but good vibrations all around. I find myself confident in my own work and as a coworker I’m ready to back up and help out colleagues when needed. Community builds relationships, and relationships are needed to make any kind of forward progress.

Some kind of peace
As I write this from Portland, I can say that I’ve found some kind of peace as a librarian. I’ve learned that change takes time, but that it does happen. I’ve learned to appreciate everyday ups and downs as part of a learning experience that will help me out in the long run.

Packing up everything you have into many boxes and dragging it across a few states is not much fun, but here’s the thing: by moving, you’re expanding your horizons. You’re going to connect with a radically different community than the one you’re used to, and, in the end, it will make you a stronger librarian.

My best advice for librarians just starting out or relocating to a new area? Embrace the icky stuff.

Molly Kelly: Waiting To Make Her Mark

Library Assistant
Fitch Ratings
Chicago, IL
DEGREE Dominican University, 2008

I tell everyone I meet that I want to work in a public library. I keep hoping that one day someone will say, “Well, I’ve got the perfect job for you!” Realistically, I know it doesn’t work that way. It’s been about two and half years since I graduated from grad school and began my search for that perfect job. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t think it would be this hard. The endless cover letters, the endless rejections—they begin to take a toll. Yet I’m optimistic that one day I will find the job that is right for me, a job that will let me begin to make my mark in public libraries.

A foot in any door
During grad school, I heard all about the retirement exodus that would be happening just in time for me to find a great job; the economy’s downfall taught me otherwise. I graduated in May 2008, and while I did take five weeks to travel and realize my goal of studying abroad in France, I didn’t find any library work until that September. This may seem quick to some, but the job was a part-time volunteer position at a museum. I was definitely grateful to get my foot in any door, but a heavy weight stuck with me. I needed to pay my bills. It was as simple as that. As I learned to inventory rare book collections and sort through catalog cards (yes, they still exist!), I continued my job hunt.

Six months later, I was hired for a paid, part-time internship at a fire consulting firm. I was happy. I learned how to catalog, research for collection development, and answer basic reference questions. Engineering is not my forte, but I found myself picking up skills that I knew would be beneficial in the future. Yet the frustration did not go away. Though I’m by nature an optimist, I still felt the pinch of bills and the rub of not being where I wanted to be in my field. Then, to top things off, I was let go, owing to companywide cuts. Seven months into my career, I was back at what seemingly felt like square one.

Keeping afloat
My job hunt ebbed and flowed while volunteering and working as an intern. Everyone knows it’s hard to find a job while working, but people do not understand the true physical and emotional stress unless they have been in that situation. I was drained. I wanted so badly to work in a public library, or any library at that point, but I had to look for any job in order to keep afloat. That was disheartening.

Luckily, I was able to find a retail position to help me out financially while I continued the hunt for library work. I knew I needed to do more than apply for jobs. I interviewed with a library work temp agency.

One of my best moves: I began setting up informational interview appointments with public librarians in the Chicago­land area. Not only did I learn a great deal from the helpful librarians I met, but the meetings strengthened my belief that public libraries were for me. I started thinking more about specific projects I wanted to complete for public libraries, and I advocated for public libraries in all aspects of my life, from my family and friends to the online world and coworkers. Throughout, my love of public libraries never wavered.

Still waiting to land
In January 2010, I received an email that finally gave me a sigh of relief. My temp agency wanted to know if I’d like a 35-hour-a-week position as a library assistant at a corporation in Chicago. Did I ever! Knowing that I would be able to work full time in my field and pay my bills brought a feeling I’ll never forget. As clichéd as it may sound, I could breathe again. I could focus on finding a public library position while having some stability. It truly felt like a blessing.

To top it off, I also began volunteering on a bookmobile at the public library I went to as a kid, and the fire consulting firm even hired me back part time.

So, here I am, working one full-time position, one part-time position, and one volunteer position. I am grateful. I don’t take any of this for granted; still, I’m longing for public libraries. I sometimes feel like, “What do I have to do?” but I know I’m doing what needs to be done: working, searching, and knowing one day I will start my first job as a public librarian.

About Leah White

Leah L. White is Readers Services Librarian at the Morton Grove Public Library, Chicago, IL. She graduated from Dominican University in 2008