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Librarian as vocation?

March 18, 2006

I always think of a vocation as a calling….rather like, well, like a nun or Thomas Merton’s conviction that he was to always be a monk of Gethsemani. A calling, something above and beyond a 9 to 5 job, beyond a career. A vocation.

However, the longer I look for employment I realize I don’t just miss working (and a paycheck). I miss the *books*—I miss the “atmosphere”, the presence, the essence, of just being in a library environment. I actually miss the smell of books. Especially in a rare books collection or archive. There is a distinct smell. Of old books..of history or something…. 

Whether working with books or archives, staffing the reference desk or designing a web page, I miss the library environment. It is palpable. It is an ache that I have difficulty describing.

My first library job was in a branch library in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1980s. I was 24 years old and I was a half-time library clerk. I learned how to sort the overdues with this device, although I can’t remember what it was called, it was a metal rod that would be inserted in holes that were in cards that were used to track books checked out. From those cards, I would know which books were overdue and I would take the microfilm reader and search for the titles of the overdue books. These were images taken with a machine of the patron’s library card (back then, we called them patrons, not the tacky term “customer”) and I would type the overdue reminders on our one electric typewriter. That was how I spent a portion of my half-time job. I also checked out books. We had a camera that used microfilm to shoot an image of the back of the book, where the pocket was located, with a card that was removed and put in a large cavernous well arranged by date due. The bibliographic information was typed on the pocket and we laid the library card next to it and then shot the image, stamped a due date (or later, inserted an already stamped due date, all done manually) and handed the book to the library user.

Needless to say, that was the extent of our technology. I had a wonderful library branch manager who introduced me to the New York Times Book Review and other publications and allowed me to make recommendations for purchasing. I was at the circulation desk for the majority of my day so I became quite familiar with the regulars. Being a small, Southern branch library that was frequented by three primary types of library users (the elderly who lived in the neighborhood, the homeless who needed a place to escape the elements, and the high school students) who wandered down two blocks after school to either read, study or just mess around until their parents picked them up. It was the 80s. No iPods, no laptops, and if the students were loud or had food, the branch manager made them leave. Surprisingly, in retrospect, he never had to argue with them, of course, they were typical high school students but they were also typical Southern high school students of the time. Southerners tend to not make too much of a fuss in certain public situations when told by their mama’s “this is the place you behave”.

I went on and began working in a school media center out in the way far west. I did cataloging. On the job training and I absolutely loved it. This was 1985. I cataloged a multi-media collection using Bibliophile that had MARC records I could search and download. These were sent to us on CDs. I downloaded the record then I would upload it into the ILS. Although, the ILS wasn’t searchable by any of the school libraries at the time. Since there wasn’t an infrastructure in place for searching an online catalog, yet. However, that quickly came about and I ended up being asked to apply for a technical services position at a new county library. Way cool. To be continued….

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