By Michael W. Harris
I began, rather unknowingly, my career in libraries one afternoon in September of my junior year at Truman State University. At that time I still had my sights set on a professional trajectory in music, either as a performer or teacher, with bassoon as my stock-in-trade. I mainly began working in the Music and Media Library as a means to earn my work study dollars, and I had an in with the boss because my sister had worked there previously. I would continue to work there for the remainder of my undergrad.
The next three years.
It took me a long time, thirteen years in fact, of working off and on in libraries during my undergrad, first masters, and PhD to figure out that libraries is where my heart truly lay. Thirteen years of shifts in focus, constantly trying to deny the one profession that kept pulling me back in. The thing that I kept coming back to when other jobs would not work out of when injury sidelined my orchestral bassoonist delusions. And once I finally got pulled into libraries full time, for good, back in 2014, it took another year for me to intellectually commit to what I already knew on an emotional level.
I am a librarian.
It started back on that Monday in September of my junior year at Truman. My orientation to the Music and Media Library. Getting my introduction to the many call number systems used, how to find things in the back, the standard “how do I work here” that I would need to know when I started my first shift the following Tuesday morning. By the time I left that job, I could many times guess the movie being checked out just by the call number, though I knew only the smallest amount about the specifics of Library of Congress Classification. I also knew only the bare minimum of how to navigate a reference interview (the art of figuring out what a patron’s actual question or need is when they ask for your help). These are now things that occupy my professional life daily, but you try telling that to a newly-minted 21-year-old who is just looking for an easy work-study gig, and who views the Music and Media Library as the perfect marriage between his music career goals and love of movies.
I look back on that day now with a curious view. So much has happened to me since then. I am both the same and not. The fact that it took me so long to finally find my “career,” and maybe only now, almost 18 years later in 2019, feeling like I may finally now consider myself a professional librarian…well it is a strange feeling. It is also strange because while my world was slow to change to the evolving nature of my future career, and the truth I was trying to deny, the world would rapidly and violently change the morning after that orientation, the morning of my first shift as a library student assistant making $5.15 and hour on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
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As I write this in May, 2019, it is now almost eighteen years later and I am sitting in a coffee shop in Chattanooga, TN, killing some time, and taking a much needed break from the annual Tennessee Library Association conference. I have lived in this state less than a year, but it really is the first time in my life that I have felt like I am anything approaching a “professional.” In a few hours I have a meeting of a TLA roundtable that I currently serve as vice-chair of and will being assuming the chair duties not long after the meeting wraps. I am also now a tenure-track faculty member at an aspiring R1 school with more job duties than hours in the day, to go along with research and publishing expectations. This is to say nothing of how, magically, over the past few years, I became someone who evidently knows things, has had experiences, or otherwise is listened to when voicing an opinion. I became a “professional” librarian. I have no ideas when or how this occurred…but it did.
Along with my other major life changes vis-à-vis health and moving, I am decidedly not the same person that I was two or three years ago. To say nothing of my 21-year-old self just starting to inch down the path towards librarianship. And I think that is part of what screws with my brain when I try to see and think of myself as a “professional” (scare quotes intended) librarian. It was not until age 35 that I finally made the commitment to being a librarian. Thirty. Five. And even when I made the choice, it seemed/felt less like an actual choice and more like a rational decision. Which is how I feel like most of my choices are made. Less “choice” and more logical determinations. And much like my decision to pursue a PhD in musicology rather than a DMA in bassoon performance, this conclusion was reached while driving.
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There were two moments in 2015 that solidified my path towards librarianship. First was when I had to decide not to pursue a degree in music criticism and instead focus on earning a degree in library science. This decision was made while taking a Spring Break vacation to New Mexico, and during which I learned there was no money to be had for me to move to Los Angeles and attend USC. Already being six-figures deep into student loans from just my PhD alone, it did not seem sane nor logical to get a degree in something like music criticism/journalism regardless of how much I love writing (this blog is now my outlet for such writing).
This decision was made while driving in the high desert of New Mexico after leaving the Very Large Array and listening to a voicemail I received while my phone was respectfully turned off. I would not want to mess with the sensitive instruments at the radio telescope, peering out into the depths of space, trying to understand the future by listening to what is our past (because light delay). My future, however, was anything but clear…though it was slowly coming into focus.
The second moment came a bit later that year, over the summer, when I made it to the finals for a job that seemed tailor made for me: musicology professor, double reeds teacher, and library liaison. I was literally all of those things, the union set of the Venn diagram. However, the day that I was returning to Colorado after the campus interview at Southeast Missouri State, I had a bad feeling. Like it was not right for me, though I did crave the job stability it represented. And the day that I learned I did not get the job was the day I finally committed and enrolled for classes at Simmons College to begin my library degree. Committing myself fully to this profession.
And knowing this, knowing that I really did fall backwards into my career because of narrowing choices, holding out hope until the last moments, it feeds into my imposter syndrome. Makes me feel like I am a phony, a library dilettante.
I often talk about the disconnect between knowing something intellectually and knowing something emotionally. And on this, I am all messed up and turned around. I both intellectually and emotionally know that I am and am not a pretender. An imposter. I have been working in libraries in some capacity for almost 20 years, but I have only considered it my profession since 2015. And have only been in a permanent position since 2018. And I only committed to the profession after feeling that I washed out of both being a professional musician and college professor. Yet, I only dropped the musician path after suffering carpel-tunnel syndrome and voluntarily left the adjunct life when afforded the chance, and I am still an educator and use the skills I developed in my PhD everyday as an academic librarian.
So I should decidedly not feel like an imposter, but it has been hard to shake the feeling. And even now, as I am starting to feel more like a professional librarian, feel like I am starting to engage the profession more on local, regional, and national levels, it is a sense that is tough to get rid of. Hard to let go of a nagging doubt that I will be exposed as a fraud or dismissed as a mere “failed academic.” It is why I have so many mixed feelings about using my PhD in my title, going by “doctor” when introduced. I always cringe a little when colleagues present me as “Dr. Harris,” even though I am proud of my degree and work.
Some of that maybe lingering feelings of working at CU-Boulder after graduating from it. Being introduced at times by my Special Collections colleagues as “our resident musicologist,” but also being smacked down so hard when I tried to engage music classes for Special Collections visits. Not from my SPC boss, but from the music librarian who didn’t like me reaching out to them directly. Felt like I was going around her by engaging with my former professors, many of whom I also call friend. It left a bad taste in my mouth, even though working with teaching faculty (graduate students included) is one of my greatest joys. The lack of this very thing has also been a source of frustration in my new job at the University of Memphis. It is my goal for the coming year to change that, though I feel like it will be an uphill battle.
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I want to be seen as a professional librarian. This is maybe why I so clearly over-corrected when told by a former boss that I dressed like a grad student and instead started dressing like a 1930s Ivy League professor (just think Indiana Jones when he is in the classroom scenes). I have done all that I can to adopt a unique look and style. Dare I say “quirky,” but also memorable. Has it fully paid off? I don’t know, but we’ll see.
Regardless, I am a professional librarian now. It is how I make my living, and researching is now my job. I am an information professional, and in the coming year I will be teaching an entire class on “information,” though I still don’t know how I would actually define that word.
It has been a long path towards where I am now, one that began eighteen years ago on a Monday before everything I knew about the world changed. And while I know what has happened to me since that day is nothing like what happened to so many others, my professional life will always be caught up in that moment, and it is impossible for me to think about my life as a librarian without thinking about showing up to my first shift to find my co-worker frantically trying to get a news website to load, or trying to find a radio station broadcasting updates, and me having no idea what was going on because I had just rolled out of bed, gotten a shower, and went straight to work.
My life changed that morning, but the actual change would take over a decade to manifest. The course of human history, political and cultural, shifted violently and suddenly and we are still living through its fallout, the effects still rippling through everything that we do. But while I was not personally affected by the worldwide events of that Tuesday morning in September (beyond how any of us were affected), the subtle change of a tiny stone tossed into the river of my life has now slowly shifted the entire course of my being from where I thought it was going.
I am a librarian and you best believe that I will shush you if you start talking on your cell phone.