You can’t tell by looking at me that I have a master’s degree in art history. I concentrated in museum studies when I got my Master of Library and Information Science; I didn’t care about the Dewey Decimal or MARC. I wrote a sixty page thesis titled Capturing Otherness on Canvas: Sixteenth through Seventeenth Century European Representations of Amerindians and Africans. I studied the history of museums and their culture in the United States. I interned and worked with an art museum since high school. My mom pioneered interactive gallery activities in the nineties by providing handmade scavenger hunts incorporating the art we were seeing. Art – studying it, doing it, writing about it, looking at it – is part of my identity.
Now, I’m a librarian.
I didn’t want to be a librarian – not even at an art museum. Libraries are astoundingly important to Democracy and Free Thinking and Education and Emancipation and etc, etc. I was going to vote for the levy, maybe even donate some money, but working there just wasn’t for me. I got the library degree because you could concentrate in museum studies. Becoming an actual librarian never played into the decision process.
For a while I was able to keep one foot solidly in the world of Art, capital A. I taught at a private arts college, I worked at a museum exhibition design firm. As long as I was actively employed in even some ambiguous way in museums and the arts, I told myself, I could still claim Art as part of my identity.
I applied for exactly one full-time library position that I actually wanted. It was at a public library where the programming seemed really innovative with a small, tight-knit staff. I did my absolute best in the interview. I wore an artsy shirt. I still have the rejection letter with a personal note from the director, “We were really impressed with you. We’re just looking for someone with more experience right now. Good luck with your search!” After so many similar rejections, the solace of a personal note from the director did little to assuage the deepening despair. I sat on the couch and cried for the first and only time during my job search. It was tears of disapointment and guilt, frustration and anger. This one felt so personal: I would be perfect for that library and they just can’t see it.
I pinned the rejection letter above my desk. I told myself repeatedly I didn’t want the job at that dumb library, anyway.
A few months later, I was working at a museum exhibition design firm. It was my first job at a for-profit company and my Artsy Fartsy identity was intact and blossoming. Two arts-related paying gigs at barely over minimum wage with two master’s degrees under my belt? Check. Competitive and creative atmosphere with pressing deadlines and pseudo-perks like free La Croix? Check. Then one day an email popped up on my phone from that library director who wrote the note on my rejection letter. She knew it was unlikely, but was I still interested in the job?
Vindication! I met with the director and other key staff people for coffee and left the meeting feeling quite smug. I made pros and cons lists, trying to come up with reasons for how a part-time technically temporary gig at $13 an hour with wack-a-doodle hours and buckets of stress could compete with a full-time library job stacked with benefits and a salary. The design firm had a loose connection with art and a heavy hand of creativity and cool. The library had a sense of security and a lot of unknowns.
I’ve worked at that library for almost eight months now and almost every day I think about how glad I am that I accepted the library’s offer. When searching for a job, all I wanted was someone to give me a chance. I was ready to throw myself into an organization and do its work. I just needed someone to take a – very low risk – chance on me. I’ve been given opportunities in just eight months at the library that I know some people don’t get in an entire lifetime. Being part of this tremendous team has made swallowing the pill of a new identity much easier.
When I started as a Librarian and people asked what I did, I often modified with, “and I have a degree in Art History.” It felt necessary to explain that, while I may be a librarian now, I’m not giving up on my True Calling, which, of course, is Art. It was a matter of pride. Recently, I’ve stopped trying to explain why I’m a Librarian instead of a Curator. I’m learning to be proud of my work because, fundamentally, I wanted a job where I would be part of an organization whose mission was focused on public education. There’s no glamour in working in a public library; there are no show openings or fancy donor dinners. You have to wear close-toed shoes. It’s not as mysterious to say “I’m a librarian” as it is to say, “I curate exhibitions.” Sometimes, this still feels like a failure.
We had staff development day at the library on Monday and our keynote speaker asked us to do an exercise where we introduced ourselves to our coworkers by saying, “one thing you don’t know by looking at me is [fill in the blank] and this is important for you to know about me because [fill in the blank].” Immediately, I thought of art history. One thing you don’t know by looking at me is I have a master’s degree in art history. This is important for you to know about me because I thought I was going to be writing exhibition catalogs, not library programming guides. This is important for you to know because Art was integral to an identity I worked on constructing for years. Loosing that is like loosing an old friend.
Letting go of this rigid, academic, idea of my identity – wrapped up in degrees and job titles – has been one of a myriad of blessings in the last eight months. I’ve been humbled: I’m not a Curator, I don’t work in museums. Each day I’m learning to take pride in a different, more ambiguous type of work. I’m discovering what I really value in a job: leadership and team, balance and perspective. There are days when I don’t believe it, but deep down I know that degrees and jobs aside, I can still be whoever I want to be: historian, author, librarian.
And on the days when I am really down about my proverbial path, I take a day of paid sick-leave and feel a lot better.