Who’s Behind the Curtain?

Okay. I’m just going to lay it right out there. It’s a secret I’ve kept from you since we first met. At first I thought I’d tell you, but then I didn’t. And the more we became friends, the more I feared sharing the truth. And the longer I waited, the harder it became to tell you. I don’t know how many times I tried to find the courage to tell you, but when the moment came I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I was afraid that if I told you, you’d scoff at me or roll your virtual eyes, ostracize me from this community I’ve grown to love. But the thing is, you not knowing has been eating at me for years. I have dreams about it. I wake up in a cold sweat, nearly hyperventilating. My wife, accustomed to these frequent night terrors, strokes my  forehead and calms me to sleep. This is it, though. I can go no further without you knowing the truth. So darn the consequences. Here goes: I….I….I do not…<gulp> have a degree in library science. [record scratch], [crickets], [gasps] from across the AISL frontiers].

I won’t blame you if you disown me, throw me out of the library club, remand me to the usurious hands of full price booksellers. I’ve misrepresented myself. I’m a fake, a charlatan, impersonating a librarian for all these years. And I didn’t even sleep at a Holiday Inn Express!

I mean, do you even know me at all? The foundation of our relationship has been built on a lie. I wouldn’t blame you if you reported me to the librarian police and sent me away to library prison for life. But before you condemn me to books previously annotated by a sophomore who uses hearts to dot i’s, hear me out. I never set out to deceive you. It just happened.

I’ll spare you the entire career history, but a few highlights are needed for you to understand how a nice boy like me ends up in the rough and tumble world of librarianship. I was a college English major (a revelation that, at the time, nearly caused my mother to choke on her Tab cola).  After a couple of years of stereotypical mid-1990s, post college Boston living, I decided to go to graduate school. I’ll be honest (finally, I know!), I didn’t even think about an MSL. Heck, I am pretty sure if someone mentioned it I would have assumed they were talking about Major League Soccer! I went for an M.Ed. with a certification to teach secondary English. But the joke in my family is that I went to graduate school for two years only to teach for one. That’s right, after a year of teaching ninth grade English on Cape Cod, I left academia all together. I had a penchant for some wanderlust – and wander I did – back to Boston in 1997 then Amsterdam, Toronto, Zurich, New York, Los Angeles, until I returned to Massachusetts in 2004. I married, had kids, and relatively soon thereafter chose to move back to my home state of Connecticut. With my praxis test taken and my Connecticut secondary English teaching certificate in hand, I returned to the Nutmeg State somewhat resigned to, after a decade and a half away from academia, a return to teaching. At first I landed a temporary job at my old high school. (Yes, it was as uncomfortable as you might imagine!), but I was keeping an eye out for something better.

It was at this time, with a bit of free time on my hands, I did what all great job seekers do: auditioned for community theater. During my second show (The Crucible – ironic life parallel?) the director and I got to talking. She asked me a bit of my career back story and what it was I was hoping to do. It was toward the end of that conversation that she said, with some conspiratorial undertones, “Have you ever thought about working in a library?” I said, earnestly, “No. Tell me more about that.” And with those six words uttered in reply, my life – my family’s life – was irrevocably changed. This woman, who directed plays on the side, had been at my current school for nearly 30 years. She’d been the library director for close to a generation. With her retirement not long beyond the horizon, she was looking to groom her replacement. She ushered me into the school as her assistant. It helped that I 1) had a master’s degree, 2) had technical/computer experience, and 3) for the benefit of the boarding school life, was a runner and a former college rower.

It’s not exactly the right analogy, but it also isn’t that far off: she was my Mrs. Miyagi and I her karate kid. I began as all young apprentices do: in the stacks. I refreshed my knowledge of the Dewey system, shelved books, neatened stacks, and helped pull books for weeding, scraping off barcodes and stamping discard on them. My desk was right near Mrs. Miyagi’s and she announced her every library activity. What she was doing, what she was buying, why this book was being discarded but another wasn’t. I checked new books to make sure there weren’t missing pages, wondering why bother (but of course, we found some!). She taught me how to catalog, I learned how to read the Sears subject headings, and what in Sam Hill name a Cutter Sanborn table is and how to use it! Eventually I was permitted to go beyond cataloging fiction, learning the nuances of subject headings for non-fiction, learning how to sometimes disregard the suggested Dewey number to put a book where it would be better found in our library. Suffice it to say that in the course of three years working under my library director, I worked my way up from the proverbial mailroom to know, intimately, each and every inch of shelving and every aspect of our library’s operations.

I did, briefly, because we thought I might eventually require an actual MLS (or MILS, if you’re getting all fancy and modern), take online courses at Southern Connecticut State University and at San Jose State University. I took Foundations of Librarianship and Information Communities and Information Analysis and Organization among a few others. And, to degrees, it was helpful, but they didn’t specifically prepare me for the unique environment in which we ply our trade. So when it came time for Mrs. Miyagi to retire, it was because she knew that I had graduated from her MLS program. It was longer than a typical program, and the practical component was intense. I don’t have a degree on my wall from Mrs. Miyagi’s Library School, but I have the education to rival any accredited institution’s. (And the best part was that I got paid to enrol!)

As we all know, though we may have been educated to assume our professional responsibilities, we are never done with our education. And this is how, among several other opportunities, AISL plays such an important role. Whether we call it professional development or continuing education, our active involvement in the AISL listserv, attending the summer or annual conference and workshops – certainly for me, and I know for many of you – is the impetus for so much of the positive changes and initiatives we take at our school. The collective AISL brain has helped me not only fill in some gaps in my library education (hey – we all have them, right?). It’s helped me greatly make up for my lack-of-MSL inferiority complex (not sure what DSM code that is.)

This lack of librarian self-esteem is, to some extent, your fault! You’re all so gosh darn smart, and with each question, suggestion, blog, or “helpful” link, I am only made more aware of my shortcomings. But that’s okay, because it makes me not only want to be a better librarian, but somehow prove my worth in spite of my lack of a library degree. So, yeah, I might have a chip on my shoulder, but it serves me – and our library – because it motivates me to do the best we can with our small but important sphere of influence. 

Mrs. Miyagi still lives in our area. She comes in to check out books and chat. The library looks different from when she was here. Gone is our reference section, in favor of a more contemporary seating and work areas. And there are other changes, too, in the nature of the services we provide, the demeanor we exude. Many of the changes we’ve adopted were influenced by you! Mrs. Miyagi may not approve of everything we have done, but she knows that when she retired, that I would, like a constitutional oath – not dissimilar to the ALA Bill of Rights (which I also learned!), solemnly swear to faithfully execute the position of library director, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the mission of our library, which is, essentially: to support the curriculum and mission of the School by developing critical information literacy skills and by instilling an appreciation and understanding of the value of reading to promote lifelong learning.

Okay, so now you know. The truth is finally out there I’m sorry I kept it from you for too long. That was wrong. I understand if you need some time to process. I, for one, feel relieved and unburdened. Whatever the consequences, I hope that you can understand my initial reticence to disclose the truth. I am so enamored and in awe of all of you. I just wanted you to like me, to feel like a peer. Instead I felt, for a time, an imposter. Now, however, after all my years of both my direct and practical training and the ongoing education I’ve absorbed, feel as confident as ever in my credentials and abilities as a library director, librarian, information literacy educator, advisor for readers, and a role model for students that it was high time I came clean. And if I can pave the way for just one more librarian to reveal their true path to this noble profession, then, well, this whole confession will have been more than worth it. So, that’s it. It’s time to move on. I’ve got reviews to read, books to process, and students and faculty to serve. Simply stated: it’s time to go back to work.

4 thoughts on “Who’s Behind the Curtain?

  1. This is well-written, and you are most definitely an asset to our tribe! I think of how many of us have spoken about being wowed by our AISL colleagues and how many conversations I’ve had with librarians about imposter syndrome. Also the imagined dream of librarianship where I thought I’d be matching eager teens to books sometimes collides directly with how I’ve spent my day thus far this morning—teaching two classes of students how to use the automatic hole puncher to create books for English class. Oh, the glamour!

  2. Best bit of literature I’ve read this morning — and it’s non-fiction! You are so welcome to this tribe, no apology required. My imposter syndrome is that I work in a building of educators but I am not a certified teacher (the opposite of your experience). Enough confessions for one day 🙂 Have a great weekend!

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