I knew I wanted to be a librarian the moment I entered Trinity College Library in Dublin. The visit came at the close of a whirlwind three-week study abroad trip all around Ireland. I had already witnessed ancient castles, tiny fishing hamlets, cozy villages with cobblestone lanes, herds of sheep, crystal-clear lakes, rugged mountains, and so much greenery I could have cried. And yet, when I entered the Long Room, I was awed.
There are more impressive libraries, certainly. Libraries with more manuscripts, more impressive architecture. Older libraries, prettier libraries. But this was my first library. Not literally, of course: I had grown up practically living at my local public library, having to be ushered out by weary librarians at closing, dragging a book-bag filled to the brim with the maximum number of books you could borrow (twenty-five, at the time).
But the Long Room was when I finally began to recognize the library as an ancient institution with dedicated caretakers. As one of the archivists led us on a tour, explaining how she maintained the centuries-old books lining the hall, it finally clicked for me: being a caretaker of books – of knowledge – was something people could get paid to do.
Of course, when I say I “knew” I wanted to be a librarian in the Long Room, I didn’t know, not as such. I didn’t walk away from the experience with the intention of going to library school and becoming a librarian myself. No, I felt the desire on a much more abstract level than the intellectual. It was more of a gut feeling, a calling struggling to let itself be heard in actual, intelligible dialect. I knew, but I didn’t know.
My brief trip to Ireland concluded just as I was beginning my sophomore year of college. I hadn’t yet declared a major. I’d gone in to university with a rapidly fading interest in Japanese culture and a half-formed desire to major in Japanese and teach English. Part of me knew I didn’t actually want to teach English, nor was I particularly good at learning new languages, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. A few months into the semester, my adviser sat me down and told me it was time: I simply had to declare a major. I needed to pick something, anything.
I considered the subjects I had excelled at in high school. I thought about my favorite college class thus far: an introductory seminar on post-Civil War American history. Hell, I thought, that history class was the most fun I’d had in a pretty lackluster two years of undergrad, so I just went with it. I declared a history major, and I’ve never regretted it.
Unfortunately, when you declare a history major, certain things happen, particularly when you come from an immigrant family who had pinned all their hopes on you becoming a doctor. Cue the mind-boggled expressions, the admonishments, the constant, never-ceasing question: “So you’re gonna be a teacher?”
I tried not to let it bother me, but like most undergraduates with no clue what they want to be when they grow up, I was panicking, just a little. As much as I didn’t want to be a teacher and hated being asked the question, I wasn’t sure what else there was for me to do. I liked history. I liked school and learning and academic environments in general. I loved research and discovering new things. I briefly considered a Ph.D, until a history professor, to whom I am forever grateful, enlightened me about the realities of getting a humanities doctorate. I realized I really did not want to get a Ph.D.
I continued on. I attempted a minor in computer science, but ended up pivoting to a minor in English, to nobody’s surprise. So, in 2014, having graduated with a major and minor that the general population consider thoroughly useless, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My mother wanted me to be a teacher, if I couldn’t be a doctor – steady pay, she said, and government benefits. I demurred. I applied to everything. Everything.
Three months later, having only received a single interview for a university admin job, I caved to my mother’s wishes and began the process of becoming a certified teacher. At the same time, I sent out a resume to my local Petco. We needed money, fast, and I couldn’t afford to be picky.
But then. The same day of my Petco interview, I got an email about another job, one I hadn’t really expected to hear back from. It was for a reference position in a prestigious academic library. Surely I was under-qualified? After all, the job ad said “Master’s preferred.” I went in for the interview, which took nearly a full day. A week later, I heard back: they had decided to go with someone else, but they had liked me and there was a similar position in another library department, would I be interested in that one? Yes, I said, I was definitely interested. So, a week later, I interviewed again, with many of the same people, but a different department head. And I got the job.
The job was, essentially, reference librarian, only not really, because titles and tenure and salaries and other stuff. It didn’t matter. I was still doing librarian work: virtual reference, desk reference, student appointments, instruction sessions, research guides. I enjoyed the work, but I was also struggling with something that had nearly derailed my college career: severe anxiety.
I could write thousands of words about what it was like to live with that kind of anxiety, but suffice it to say, it messed me up. The thought of standing up in front of a group of students was terrifying. Talking to a colleague in a meeting was terrifying. Saying good morning was terrifying. I had imposter syndrome. There was no way I could ever be a proper colleague to all these smart, confident librarians.
Then, of course, there was also the worrying job market. Just as I was graduating librarianship was undergoing a dip in prospects: the market was over-saturated, said all the think-pieces, the industry was underfunded, and jobs were extremely competitive. You’d have to be open to moving anywhere in the country to find a job. I didn’t want to struggle for a job, and I didn’t want to be tied to a particular state. So I convinced myself I didn’t really want to be a librarian, that it was all too highfalutin for me.
At that point, I was certain of a few things. I liked working at a university. I liked working in the education field, thought I didn’t want to teach full-time. I liked working in a place where it wasn’t all about profits and the bottom line. And I liked working in a field that valued work-life balance and gave you more than a week’s vacation a year. I thought to myself: how can I continue to work in higher education without becoming a professor or librarian? Ah, I know: I’ll go into higher education administration.
My job offered me tuition remission benefits that I was desperate to make use of, so I decided to apply for the most practical Master’s degree I could find: Higher Education and Student Affairs.
About three-quarters of the way through my Higher Education MA, I realized I hated it. I mean, I really, really hated it. I didn’t think it was a bad degree or a bad program – on the contrary, it was a pretty great program if you actually wanted to go into higher education administration, which, as I slowly realized, I really, really did not. It wasn’t the profession I’d thought it was. Unfortunately it had taken me an entire Master’s degree to learn that.
I remember my come-to-Jesus moment quite clearly. It was the day of a higher education and student affairs conference I had signed up for. The keynote speaker’s speech conflicted with a reference meeting at work. I skipped the speech. Once I realized I would much rather be in a reference meeting than listening to a respected speaker discuss the higher ed administration landscape, it became clear to me that I didn’t want to work in the administration field at all.
Around this time, something momentous occurred: I was diagnosed with severe social anxiety and put on medication. The clouds parted. The angels sang. I know this will sound utterly ridiculous to say, but it felt like I was being reborn as a new person. I could see clearly for the first time in my life. I could think clearly, without the incessant buzzing of fear and dread droning on in the back of my head, screaming at me to just find a job that would allow me to lock myself up in a room and never have to speak to anyone ever again.
Now that I had clarity, I could see what I truly wanted. Before I was even done with my higher ed MA, I enrolled in library school.
In April of 2014, a few months before I was set to graduate from undergrad, I was browsing Facebook, when I came upon this post from Humans of New York:
I distinctly remember being riveted by this particular post. There was something about the young woman that intrigued me – the whimsical dress, the classic librarian cardigan, the Strand tote bag. Her sartorial choices and her statement – “I’m studying to be a librarian” – evoked something in me. Envy, maybe. Admiration, certainly. Her brilliant answer to a somewhat asinine question certainly evoked my respect.
I lingered on this post for a while, living vicariously through this young woman for a few moments. I thought back on my time in the Long Room. If I believed in the idea of a sentient universe, I would probably think that here was yet another hint the universe was sending my way. But still it just didn’t click. There were so many moving pieces in my brain, all clouded by the fog of anxiety, and none of them could quite see each other well enough to come together like a completed puzzle should.
This week, I graduated from library school with a Master’s in Library Science. I have four years (and counting) of experience in an academic library. I’m the recipient of two prestigious scholarships from library associations. Thanks to my meds, teaching is no longer terrifying. Soon, I will begin searching for my first job as a reference librarian in an academic library, and begin what will hopefully be a long and steady career in academic librarianship.
When I think back to that moment in the Long Room, it almost seems like this was all meant to be. I certainly feel like I’ve come full circle. When I think about my personality sans anxiety, my interests and goals and values, I want to smack myself, because of course I was always supposed to be a librarian. Of course this is the perfect career path for me. There was never supposed to be anything else.