2018 – What Is and What “Should” Be

As I do many years, I got to the middle of January and thought “I think I have a blog floating around… somewhere. I should probably update it so that people will see that I am a Serious Librarian who does Serious Things.” The joke’s on me, however; I am very seldom a Serious Librarian (nor, as I’ll get into later, am I a librarian at all these days) and I would rank most of my day-to-day work as only moderately serious. I do think a lot about accountability these days, though—accountability to myself and to my cobbled-together little peer groups—and so I will give blogging yet another Girl Scout try.

Why do anything online in the name of accountability? Twitter has no need to verify what I or any librarian did in a year or a month or a day. Facebook isn’t thanking me for logging on once every month or so to lock down my privacy settings again and post admonishments to my college friends about keeping a skeptical mind when reading the news. These kinds of blogs and social media posts and letters to the editor, etc. can, in the aggregate, improve our profession, because by being transparent about what we do and how and why we do it, whenever we can, we can ideally help ourselves, our peers, and our future peers be the best for and to each other.

That’s a long-winded and sort of pompous way to get to the point, which is: as of July 2018, I no longer have “librarian” in my title, and I no longer have a job as part of a library staff (though I am still within the same organization and do eventually report up to a senior manager who happens to be a librarian). I am 85% super cool with this, 10% ambivalent, and about 3% existential angst to the tune of “but I went to library school to be a librarian!” (The other 2% is inescapable workplace nonsense—the cafeteria doesn’t have my favorite kind of ginger ale, people don’t change the water in the tea kettle, etc. etc.)

I am 85% cool with it because my job is really cool. I was at a conference earlier this year put on by some of my awesome departmental colleagues for the community of instructors who (primarily) teach economics in the college/university classroom. The woman next to me had come in a few minutes late and I handed her my program, handouts, etc., knowing I could always run out and get more. When the session we were in ended, we introduced ourselves. When I explained that no, I wasn’t an economics professor, but a librarian who worked with our online resources, particularly our economic history library, she exclaimed “That is the coolest job!” I basked in that for weeks; if a non-librarian thought my job was cool, it might actually be cool! (Whether or not you think an economics professor is capable of recognizing cool is another matter.)

In my new job, I get to think about a lot of very librarian-y topics and to use knowledge of a lot of the things I enjoyed studying most in library school: metadata, human-information behavior, scholarly communication, web design. (Cool stuff!) To account for that 10% of meh, I also get to (have to?) deal with topics that I mostly learned in my pre-library school days and which I would happily avoid if possible: privacy and copyright, reputation management, branding, workplace politics.

What I don’t get to do a lot of is the stuff I suspect many librarian folks dream of (at least those who dream of library school as a path to specialized reference work at a venerable research university, anyway): original research, student instruction, and rich, in-depth reference work. (I sometimes get the sense that the dream librarian job is somewhere between Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and Rachel Weisz in The Mummy. To be fair, a job that was both of those things would indeed be a very cool job.) I get to do some of those Serious Academic Librarian tasks sometimes, and I enjoy the work immensely. The mismatch between what I dreamed of doing, however—being the kind of only-in-the-movies brilliant and effortlessly tweed-chic academic librarian—and what I actually do in a job that more than pays the bills is what causes that 3% existential angst.

In the era of endemic burnout, is 3% angst worth it? Almost certainly. Maybe reducing the 3% to a friendlier 2% is an achievable goal. How much is the dream that I’m not quite realizing my dream, and how much is societally imposed? How much is my fear of missing out or sense that I’m not doing “enough” caused by someone else’s image of what a librarian does, what an educated person should do, or what would make my grandparents proud? Would shedding those assumptions about work “success” make me happier?

Maybe instead I should be aiming to turn my 85% to a 90% EVERYTHING IS AWESOME quotient. Or maybe I should break the 85% cool into something more nuanced: 40% awesome because I’m using skills I worked hard to get, 30% exciting because I’m learning new and interesting things, 15% satisfying because I’m becoming a better version of myself. Though I don’t know what the path forward is, I do know I want to be more thoughtful and deliberate about understanding what I do and how I feel about it.

This blog might help me do that. It might not. To be accountable to myself in an honest and authentic way, I’ll post if it helps, and not if it doesn’t. Wish me luck, friends; let’s start as we mean to go on.


Happy Clueless Shopper Day!

Valentine’s Day is always one of my favorite days to be a Victoria’s Secret employee. Even on a Monday like today, our stores are filled with clueless yet oddly intent shoppers desperate to get the thing that the other person vaguely (or worse, specifically but incomprehensibly) indicated they wanted. It’s eerily akin to the reference desk the week before final exams.

For Valentine’s Day, blinking, apprehensive men wander into our rooms full of pink confections looking for “well it’s kind of a soft material? and I think it’s pretty stretchy?” or “well I just want something that goes together” or “she told me it’s a low-rise lace-top cheeky, but I don’t know what that is.” (Heaven help them when we tell them we actually have six different kinds of low-rise lace-top cheekies.) Every patron services librarian knows this kind of attitude. Some of our patrons (particularly our undergrads) are sure that there’s A Thing that they’re supposed to get, and hopefully they’ll know it when they see it, but if not, they depend on us, the experts, to tell them that yes, this is what your instructor wanted, and we’ll explain to you WHY it’s what you need. We’re there to help them identify the general class of Thing they’re looking for and then coax them to make their own choices.

Victoria’s Secret has a vocabulary that’s just as opaque to these kinds of customers as the language of librarianship is to a student new to research. It’s our job as customer service providers to be intrepid translators not only of the original assignment but also of the result of the searches we guide our patrons through.

So happy Valentine’s Day to all you retail workers and patron service librarians. I hope it was full of satisfied customers.

My Secret Identity: The Editrix

Since I graduated from library school in May, I’ve been job hunting, working part-time (a situation I’ll explain in another post) and spending varying amounts of time on the best freelancing job ever – editing roleplaying game manuscripts for White Wolf Publishing.

A bit of background: I’ve been editing publications in some form or another most of my adult life. I was on the newspaper staff in high school. I helped found an undergraduate history journal in college, and I spent five years working for News & Information at Washington University, including working directly on the weekly newspaper the Record.

In 2004 I met one of my best friends, Eddy Webb, who was at that time an independent game designer and also working at WashU. I’d just recently discovered the world of pen-and-paper gaming, though I was a longtime computer gamer. Eddy had gotten the opportunity to write an RPG book for a licensed property and asked me if I wanted to edit the book. (He and I had had many grammar- and language-nerd chats in the months we’d known each other and he knew I was looking for something interesting to fill my free time.) Thus my career as a freelance editor began with the … quirky… RPG, Tomorrow Knights.

The experience was eye-opening. Editing prose is generally pretty easy – if you know the basic rules of English and have some kind of style guide, you just scan and look for errors and idiosyncrasies. Editing game rules, however, is trickier. There’s a bit of math-checking involved (does this number in this stat plus that number in that ability add up to the bonus indicated in this rule?); a bit of scenario-testing (if a character did this with this power, would it be likely to overpower other aspects of the game?); and a bit of flavor-tasting (does the supernatural effect described here fit in with the other pieces of the game world as written?). Some days it flows easier than others, but it’s always more of a challenge than any other kind of editing I’ve ever done.

Over the next few years, Eddy got more game work and often offered me the chance to edit. I got to work on his awesomely weird science fiction-noir game Midway City along with layout maestro Adam Jury. Eddy was eventually hired by White Wolf and in early 2008 (after some pestering on my part) gave me the opportunity to work for the company as a freelancer. I’d played WW’s games for about five years at that point and was familiar with their style and the semi-fantasy world of their World of Darkness game line (and to a lesser extent, their Exalted game). I had reference books and I was ready to go. My probationary job apparently went well, since I’ve been editing now for almost three years.

It’s not a thrilling job – there’s a lot of tiny nitpicks like fixing smart quotes or making sure “Willpower” is spelled out instead of abbreviated. I see a lot of really terrible purple prose (amateur romance novelists, you’ve got nothing on game writers). I’ve rewritten some manuscripts pretty heavily to remove evidence of poor English, close-minded attitudes, and concepts that are better suited to some other company’s games than White Wolf’s.

Despite all that, it’s a FUN job. Since the majority of projects I work on are set in the World of Darkness, an alternate reality that mirrors real life, I do a lot of fact-checking and research to make sure things have the ring of truth. I get to learn more about games that I enjoy playing. On one occasion I was even given the chance to write a chunk of an “in-character” religious text, drawing on my background in religious history.

While I continue the hunt for a library or education job, I’m glad I have the opportunity to keep my brain going with a deadline-driven, language- and research-heavy, deeply weird job. (Though I’m going to continue to use that Oxford comma on my blog, even if WW’s style guide won’t let me!)