Becoming a Librarian

October 17, 2003

When I defended my dissertation at the University of Toronto in 1993, I was worried about my prospects for employment on the tenure track in English. Five years earlier, my adviser had been encouraging when I had proposed writing an interdisciplinary study of Restoration and 18th-century music drama.

I wrote a respectable dissertation on the interrelations of music and theater -- on John Dryden, Henry Purcell, John Gay, and George Frideric Handel -- one that earned praise from my committee and from which I was eventually to publish three long articles in standard academic journals. By the time of my defense, I had some teaching experience, had presented a number of conference papers, and had shown my well-roundedness -- artistically and administratively -- by running a successful baroque-music chamber ensemble in Toronto for five years.

Still, I was worried. The job market was abysmal; moreover, while I was a U.S. citizen, I was applying to American colleges and universities from a Canadian graduate program. I suspected that I would be at a considerable disadvantage for this reason alone, because I had gathered that many American academic employers seem to strongly favor graduates of American institutions. Plus, I had already cast about for jobs at the MLA meeting the preceding year, and had no nibbles at all.

Yet it was not until I went on the job market with the all-important "Ph.D. in hand" that I realized exactly how grim my prospects were.

Despite some initial interest, search committees proved not to be falling all over themselves to embrace my expertise. They seemed at a loss to appreciate what I might do for their departments. Over the next few years, those departments that told me anything about my rejection offered some version of the explanation that I was "too specialized."

This made no sense to me: Isn't the whole point of a doctoral dissertation to demonstrate deep knowledge in whatever corner of your discipline you choose? I gather what they meant was not that I was too specialized, but that I was not specialized in ways or in matters to which they could relate.

For the time being, I was able to survive on adjunct work and on tutoring at writing centers. I assumed that eventually some door would open; all I had to do was keep demonstrating my commitment to the profession by being a model teacher and scholar.

Six years after completing my Ph.D., I had worked at as many colleges -- including some really good ones like MIT. I had taught freshman composition, medieval and Renaissance survey courses, "Foundation of Western Civilization," Shakespeare, "Fiction to 1832," you name it. I had published several articles and book chapters and had more in the works; had presented additional conference papers; and had won postdoctoral fellowships to conduct research at libraries including Harvard University's, the Huntington Library, and the British Library.

I had also hand-crafted nearly 500 cover letters, tailored as many CV's to particular jobs, and spent far more than any adjunct could be expected to pay on photocopying, dossier requests, and postage. Instead of increasing my marketability, my achievements resulted in ever-more-deafening silence from prospective employers.

Meanwhile, although I enjoyed interacting with students in the classroom, the onerous task of grading was getting me down, as were the low pay and the ineligibility for benefits. Add to this the frustration of feeling that, unless a miracle occurred, I would probably never be allowed to teach a high-enough level course to share what I liked most about academe -- the research process -- with my students.

After an on-campus interview at a typical state college for a job teaching four courses each semester, including two sections of "developmental" (read: remedial) English every term -- a job that I was nonetheless not offered -- I was fed up. It was time for a career change.

Since the first days of graduate school, I had been devoted to library work, and had developed great respect for the research librarians who had helped me unearth the countless treatises, pamphlets, play texts, and musical scores I needed to produce my scholarship. I was good at both knowing what to look for and finding necessary materials in libraries myself, particularly rare-book libraries.

About the time of the state-college rejection, a friend who was a library director in Boston (where I was living at the time), and who was familiar with both my skills and my frustration, suggested I pursue a career in academic librarianship; she even offered to help get me started by forwarding my CV to other librarians she knew.

Unfortunately, I had just attended a nonprofit job fair along with, it seemed, every inhabitant of the city of Boston. The crowds were wrapped around Mass. Ave and Huntington all the way to the Museum of Fine Arts. What jobs were on offer? Box-office clerk, file clerk, and the like. Thus, when my librarian friend offered to help, I was in such despair that all efforts felt hopeless; Every option seemed like the dead end that teaching and nonprofits had proved to be. Still, something in me growled, "Just give it a chance."

I met with two Harvard librarians, and to my delight, both said instantly that a Ph.D. in English and a master's in library science would make a "powerful combination" of credentials for a future librarian. One even helped me get a job as a library assistant at Widener Library, and I gratefully accepted.

Encouraged by this happy turn of events, I applied to Simmons College's Graduate School of Library and Information Science, was accepted, and believed I was finally on my way. Of course, there was still a little matter of tuition to worry about. Did I dare assume any further debt, given my precarious financial circumstances? I felt I had no choice but to go forward; I bit the bullet and took out additional student loans.

After working in technical services at Harvard for a year, now with a semester of library school behind me, I applied for the job of library associate for collection maintenance and public services (responsible for the day-to-day operations of the main library) at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I was offered this job and learned many further skills -- mainly managerial -- while completing my degree at Simmons. Between Harvard and the master's program, I learned the ropes of librarianship and had fun doing so; I even learned the art of artist's bookmaking and got academic credit for it.

The next challenge would be finding a job as a professional librarian. As I approached graduation from Simmons, I attended a job fair there, at which, to my utter amazement, two representatives from Yale appeared. Tentative, I approached them. One, my current boss, said that Yale was looking for a librarian for literature in English.

I already knew that, having scoured the job ads for months, but I thought there was no way I would be seriously considered, given that, in the scheme of things, I had barely begun my transition to academic librarianship. Nevertheless, he encouraged me to apply, saying that we were in a seller's market and that Yale really needed but was having trouble attracting qualified subject specialists. To my further amazement, he followed up with a phone call early the next week, urging me to apply to Yale.

Yale offered me the job less than a month from the date of the Simmons fair, and I remain happily ensconced in my current position. I have landed on my feet at long last.

My position at Yale offers multiple rewards. I am the collection development specialist or "selector" for all of Sterling Memorial Library's and Cross Campus Library's materials related to literatures in English: print, microform, and digital. That means I manage a six-figure budget, one of the largest Yale library portfolios. I run the undergraduate and graduate bibliographic instruction programs -- some mandatory, some elective -- for the English department in my capacity as their library liaison. That means I have a lot of direct contact with students, both in the classroom and in follow-up, one-on-one sessions.

It also means that every day I teach my favorite subject of all: library research skills. Let me end with a plug for the importance of teaching such skills. Julie Walker, executive director of the American Association of School Librarians, says that most students will have multiple careers, so the knowledge they gain in college will not serve them throughout their lives: "It will be their ability to navigate information that will matter." I couldn't agree more.


Todd Gilman is the librarian for literature in English at Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library.