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The Many Paths to Librarianship

June 16, 2019

Musician. Teacher. Rocket Scientist. Bowling Alley Manager. Black Jack Dealer. Circus Sideshow Performer. Political Organizer. One of the biggest surprises for me at this summer’s Pennsylvania Library Association’s Academy of Leadership Studies (PALS) was learning about the wide variety of job experiences that my colleagues had before becoming librarians.

Sometimes I feel the full force of imposter syndrome because I didn’t come to the library field until my mid-thirties, after training for a different career, working a variety of day jobs to pay the bills, and slogging through my fair share of existential angst. I compare myself to others who knew they wanted to be librarians as young children, went to undergrad and grad school (with no gap years like me), and then moved right into a library career. They are so focused, driven, put-together! My resume sometimes feels like a busted piñata in comparison–I’m the one wearing the blindfold.

Listening to the stories of my PALS cohort helps assuage some of my insecurities. My colleagues were open and generous, sharing stories of sometimes feeling lost, feeling overwhelmed, feeling like an outsider, feeling like a failure. In particular, Tina Hertel talked about what we can learn from these kinds of detours, whether in travel or in life, in her presentation, ”Taking the Lead with Your Career.” So much of this rang true for me. Some of us might not have set out to become librarians, and yet we’re all here now, doing our best for our communities, and our daily work is not an erasure of those stories but in so many ways a continuation of them.

One of our PALS ice-breaker activities asked us to finish the sentence, “Once upon a time…” Well, once upon a time, I worked as a cashier, which taught me to keep my cool when faced with long lines of stressed customers. I worked as a baker, which taught me to pay attention to detailed inventories and recipes. I worked as a home goods salesperson, which taught me how to use planograms to set up end cap displays.

Working as a server taught me how to improv with strangers and quickly build rapport. Working as a writing tutor taught me how to ask open-ended questions and how to teach rather than edit. Working at a tax office taught me about privacy and record-keeping.

At first glance, these jobs might not seem as relevant to being a librarian as some of the other library staff jobs on my resume (yes, there are more!). Still, I use all of these skills in the library when I do reference, instruction, collection development, promotion and marketing, and more.

The deep personal reflection sparked by PALS helped me see more of these connections and think about my career detours and how they might lead, even circuitously, to my future destinations. For those of you interested in this kind of reflection and development, please consider applying for the PALS program next year.

Jessica Showalter is the Student Engagement & Outreach Librarian at Penn State Altoona’s Eiche Library. Say hello on Twitter @libraryjms


2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2019 9:50 pm

    Incredible! This so applies to me! I was 40 when I got my MLS, but I had always loved libraries and volunteered in one when I was 12 years old; I should have followed my passion then. But as you mention, all of your other jobs helped prepare you for your career as a librarian, and I feel the same way! A wonderful read, Jessica!

    • Jessica Showalter permalink
      June 23, 2019 3:31 am

      Thanks, Michele, I’m so glad you liked it! Did you find that once you decided to pursue being a librarian, things kinda just clicked? I know that for me, I never considered it until I took a part-time job at a library at age 32 and realized, whoa, this is my place. And then when I told family & friends, they were all like, “Yeah, duh, we could have told you that.” I think I was the last to know haha–typical for me, though, I always seem to need to learn things the hard way :)

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