Checking Out Her Options

September 30, 2004

I imagine many people think that a job as an academic librarian is an idyllic one -- surrounded by books, humming computers, and questioning students.

The cold harsh truth, however, is that life in an academic library can be as cutthroat and petty as in any other department. They can be places where internal politics ruin careers and lives, personal grudges are held for years, and biting criticisms fly orally and in writing. My own library, unfortunately, fits that bill.

Don't get me wrong, I like being a librarian and I want to continue to be one -- just not here.

I've been in my current position as an instruction-and-reference librarian at a medium-sized public university in the South for about four years. I like the work, I like most of the people, and since the university is in my home state I like the area.

But the last four years have been an education in how not to run a library. People have filed grievances, been "invited" to resign, stepped down, met with university and private lawyers, and generally picked each other apart over minutiae. We've had so many resignations someone suggested renaming the library newsletter The Daily Resignation.

I've served on no less than six faculty search committees for our library, which doesn't include the staff searches. We've had complete turnover in my department alone -- twice. In short, this is not an emotionally healthy library.

In an article for, "In Search of an Emotionally Healthy Library," Nancy Cunningham describes the characteristics of such a library, and as I read her article during a particularly trying time about a year ago, I realized that my library had none of the characteristics of a healthy one and all the characteristics of an unhealthy one.

I shared the article with the dean of faculties, my supervisor, and my peers. The result was that we all knew this was an emotionally unhealthy place, but had no idea how to fix it.

Now, more than a year later, it's still unhealthy. So I am entering the job market again.

I've heard from four of my former colleagues that things are better out there -- not perfect, but definitely better -- in their new libraries. One now works at a much smaller technical college in a non-tenure-track position and loves it. Another is at a private high-school library and loves it. A third gave up tenure to work at a state library and loves it.

The one that gives me the most hope is a fellow who landed a tenure-track position at another academic library, and loves it.

While they have all said that it takes time to adjust to a new workplace, they have also said that their moves have been well worth the expense -- financially, emotionally, and physically.

In my own quest for a healthy library this year, I'll be looking for a place where the patrons are a source of joy, not a bother; where there is a desire to improve services and programs, not a fear of change; where there is outward respect for all staff members; where communication is welcomed and people work together for the good of the whole library; and where even if people don't like each other on a personal level, they work together in a respectful, collegial way.

I'm turning loose the notion that I need a tenure-track position. While that is what I want, I'm taking a page from one of my former co-workers and branching out.

Finding librarian positions isn't hard, especially if you are willing to relocate. I'd like to remain in my home state, but I'd definitely move for the right position.

There is a lot of competition, however, and often the job descriptions include so many different aspects of librarianship that few people have all the required qualifications, much less the desired ones. I recently saw a job ad that wanted a librarian who could catalog, coordinate the reference section, and have desktop-support experience -- which is akin to asking a Ph.D. in biology to also teach history and sometimes business administration. But that's another column.

I have a strong vita rich in publications, presentations, community and university service, and a variety of library experience. Plus, I hold a second master's degree (mine's in history), which is a real asset for librarians.

My vita is polished. My interview suit is dry-cleaned. All I need is an interview. I've already sent out an application for a position at a smaller university, where I've heard good things about the library director and the program.

In the meantime, I'll continue to check the job postings and try to keep out of the internal problems of my own library. We did just hire a new director and maybe things will get better, but I'm not betting the farm on that just yet. I've flatly refused to buy a house here until I see what develops. Maybe things will get better, but I'm feeling pretty positive about seeing what else is out there.

Emily Edmonson is the pseudonym of an academic librarian at a public university in the South. She will chronicle her search for a new position this academic year.