I’ve been trying to think of an interesting angle for this topic all month and have yet to come up with something high level and meaningful1. These past few months I’ve been inspired by Caroline J. Dale’s excellent TinyLetter Private Dickhead. The way she spins a tale, weaving interesting history with life experiences into a smashing good read2. I lack the ability to match her own unique style so this will be more like an homage, the kind you’ll look at and go “huh, yeah I kind of see it…but not really.”
Initially I set off to find some historical library figure and tell you an interesting tale you might not know, specifically that your library fav was problematic. We all know how big a jerk Melvil Dewey was, so I looked closer to home and to Dr J. S. Battye. Yet my short lived research only revealed that J. S. Battye was vaguely misogynistic in electing to put books about women’s health under the heading ‘Diseases of Women’ (redirected from ‘gynecology’!), and kept them in the closed stack 3. I was frankly disappointed, not because of the lack of dirt on Dr Battye, but more so that every article I found about him sung his praises from a very white, British perspective. Surely I’m not the only one who does a Google search for actors, writers, artists, and the like with the suffix ‘problematic’. I am positive that my past would return a few hits on that search, but I deal better with feedback these days and am actively trying to make myself a better person.
Which rounds us neatly back to me and my journey. I don’t remember much before seventh grade, try as I might I can’t recall much from that year or the years prior. It’s possible that nothing of interest occurred, and the memory centres of my brain at the time were more concerned with memorising Simpson’s quotes4. Back then I was more happy reading books outside the classroom at lunch than being around others which lead to a lot of conversations like the following:
Kid: What are you doing?
Kid: You like reading, huh?
Me: turning a page Yeah.
Kid: You should be a librarian.
Which is basically how I got into libraries, everyone told me to do it, so I did. I do recall one high school job fair in year eight where I only wanted to know what I needed to study in order to become a librarian. There was a Curtin University stall that was (un)fortunately staffed by science representatives. When asked ‘how do I become a librarian’ they ummed and ah’d while flicking through a uni guide and eventually found the course. My parents diligently writing down the prerequisites, while one of the staff tried to convince me to do a science degree first so I could become a science librarian instead5. It wasn’t until eleventh grade that I found out that I had been doing the wrong math unit to get directly into that uni course. Never send a scientist to do a librarian’s job, clearly. My backup was always to do the Library Technician Degree at TAFE and that is exactly what I did.
Those two years at TAFE flew by quite quickly, however I did manage to make some friends, one of whom I am working with now, almost 17 years later. Being one of four men in the course, I attached myself to the only guy my age and we became ‘those guys in the back’. I fully admit I am the worst student in the world and mucking around with your mate at the back of the class seemed much more fun. Case in point, when we were looking at Library Management Systems (LMS), we were allowed onto a shared test Dynix system. I became bored and started re-writing catalogue and membership entries to mess with fellow students (I told you I was problematic). It was also decided that my friend would spend the next two years introducing me to ALL the music. Mostly punk and metal, he would turn up on Monday with a stack of CDs and expect me to listen to them all ready for the next instalment the following week. The occasional gem like A Perfect Circle stuck with me, but my tastes tended to run more eclectic. Why am I telling you all this? Well, that very friend is the whole reason my library career shifted from ‘eh, it’s a living’ to ‘this is what I want to do.’
I’ll skip over the entry level jobs at various public libraries7 and go right to my transition from public to special. A job had come up for a Library Technician at what was the Family Planning WA (FPWA) library. My friend was between jobs and I thought this would be great for him and encouraged him to apply. Flash forward to the day before the job applications were due and he let me know that he wasn’t going to apply. I spent the entire night re-doing my resume and submitted my application at the last possible moment. Within two days I had a job interview, and before I even got home from the interview they had rung my references and left a message on my machine at home saying I had the job. This was my first introduction to how different the not-for-profit, non-government sector was. Excited as I was, panic set in as I realised I had neglected to inform my current boss I had even applied. Intending to do it the day after depending on how badly I bombed the interview. Needless to say, the next morning I was summoned into her office and congratulated much nicer than I deserved.
I should point out that FPWA had a short questionnaire that they made all applicants complete before the interview. Questions about sex and sexuality, attitudes and behaviours, and issues around health in general were asked, and you could mark questions for discussion. I was quite naive at the time and don’t quite remember what was asked but I managed to pass. I owe a lot to FPWA, it was a highly feminist organisation8, and has shaped a lot of who I am now. Working with doctors, nurses, Indigenous educators, disability services, sex-worker support services, councillors, marketing, and IT, it exposed me to whole new worlds and I was at just the right stage in my career to be a sponge and take it all in. I eventually ran that tiny library, did all the graphic design, and was the level one IT support for the entire organisation. It wasn’t until I went to my first VALA conference that I even thought about leaving.
Up until the point I applied for the FPWA job, I had been very clear that I only wanted to work in public libraries and wanted absolutely nothing to do with networking. Enter Twitter and my life plans went out the window. My memory is absolutely terrible but I’m pretty sure that VALA 2012 was a turning point in my life (I still have the bag!). I’m still unsure if it was a good or bad thing. Kidding. Mostly. Whatever happened there I only know for sure it’s where I met some amazing people (Kat, snail, and I think Hugh?) and realised that there was more to library life than what I had. I got involved, and wanted more. Growing out of my small special health library9, I moved back into public libraries and learnt everything I missed out on the seven years I was away.
It wasn’t until I applied and got a job that was previously held by a then twitter hero of mine that I realised how far I had come from that kid in the back row listening to surfer punk in class. This was another job that heavily influenced who I am today. I was lucky enough to have a boss that let me do my thing and I got into makerspaces/activities, wrote a paper, and did the conference thing. Fast forward six years, a divorce, three jobs including a stint as a branch librarian, enrolling in an undergrad BA in Librarianship, and I’m back in a tech role helping to shape libraries, GLAM workers (newCardigan, VALA Tech Camp), and support my community.
That was a little more self-indulgent than I usually like, and I’m not quite sure what anyone will get out of it. If you’re looking for advice I’d say ask anyone else but me. If those people say the same thing then I guess my take-aways would be look after your own happiness first, look for opportunities, help people out, and question everything. Of course I’m now at that part in my career where everything is served with a healthy dose of criticism and as Anita Sarkeesian says ‘we must be critical of the art we love.’ This is why I always look for the problematic fav, question everything we do, and ask those difficult questions people tend to ignore10.
Apart from unpacking all my privilege that allowed me to get where I am, but unpacking all of that in public would probably reveal more about myself on the internet than I would be comfortable with. Let’s just acknowledge that I’m a white, able-bodied, male and assume all the privileges that come with it.
Here’s an example http://www.carolinejdale.com/audition
Although well done Mary Neil! I like the cut of your jib.
Which was difficult considering I wasn’t actually allowed to watch the show.
Which did initially appeal to me, however I thought I should study librarianship first then do my science qualifications. People told me to be a librarian, not a scientist after all.
Mine was a very easy career progression, see the aforementioned privilege. Plus it helped that one of my high-school mates' mum worked at my local library. Thanks Mrs Stark!
I actually found out what feminism meant by working there, both in theory and in practice, did I mention I was quite naïve?
As cool as it was working there, selling sex toys, and helping people have good phone sex through the power of books!
This might be why people are reluctant to give me a mic at conferences these days...