Librarian heroes?

Today I catalogued a book called The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter. Yes, it is a children’s book, and yes, my Faculty library does collect children’s books — but only if they deal with the information profession.

Like a number of other works that I select for the library, The Librarian of Basra came to my attention in a circuitous way. One of our interns had told me about Alia’s Mission by Mark Stamaty, a graphic novel about a real-life librarian who tried to save her collection during the Iraq war. Another library on our campus had already purchased a copy, but I learned that a picture book had also been published about the same librarian and the same heroic deed that she had performed. None of the libraries on campus had it. I was determined to get a copy, in the hopes that more future librarians will learn about this story.

Flipping through Winter’s work, I was captivated by the vibrant illustrations. The language, too, was fascinating — because even though the words were fairly simple, the tone was sophisticated. For instance, on the second page, Winter writes:

Her library is a meeting place for all who love books.

They discuss matters of the world

and matters of the spirit.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story of Alia Muhammad Baker, she was the chief librarian at the library of Basra. When war broke out in Iraq in 2003, she had the foresight to rescue the books before the war destroyed the library. Enlisting the help of family, neighbours, the nearby restaurant owner, and his friends, they managed to save 70% of the collection before the armies arrived and the library burned down.

The story makes me think of how much librarians admire, aspire, and dream of being superheroes.

Another book that I recently picked up, out of sheer curiosity, was The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines: the Graphic Novel. It’s not based on real life, except in so far as it derives its story from legends we know. Its main character is a librarian who spends more time “rescuing” mythical artifacts and dodging bad guys in exotic locations than answering research questions.

In both of these stories, the heroic aspect of each librarian’s deed is very much rooted in saving cultural heritage by rescuing objects of culture. But The Librarian… the Graphic Novel took it a bit too far. The protagonist was clearly collecting for the sake of possessing them — in other words, war trophies — with barely a second thought to context or users.  I just wasn’t sure whether it was the image we want to be promoting.

We do so much more than collect physical items; and when we do collect anything, we do it with the thought of users and research in mind. I love books, and I love looking at objects in galleries and museums, and I love the stories that they tell. But we who work in libraries also know that we do much more than acquire. I like to think that the heroic part of our work lies in the act of helping our users (be they students, faculty, or the casual scholar) discover knowledge — and sometimes, in generating new knowledge of our own that builds upon the growing universe of information.

Transition from student to professional

This past week I found myself stepping into the role of “mentor”. Project leader, supervisor, or teacher, I have now had experience with, but mentor is a label that I am still learning to adjust to. My surprise comes from the fact that it has only been 3 years since I earned my Masters degree — and 2 years since I began my current position as supervisor of collection development and cataloguing. Yet, as I spend more time with current LIS students, I realize that the transition from librarian-in-training to bona fide librarian is an experience in itself.

From the shadowing student I met on Wednesday to the incoming Masters students that I spoke with at Thursday night’s Meet and Greet, all were interested to hear about my work, and even more interested when they learned that (1) I am an alumna of the school, and (2) I graduated pretty recently.

So what have I been able to share about being a “next gen” librarian?

Think broadly .

I enrolled in the Information Studies program because I knew I would gain a set of really useful, employable skills, and not because I had the absolute intention of becoming a librarian.

In grad school, I took a variety of courses from public services, reference, to technical services. I took courses geared towards various types of libraries, and wasn’t afraid to enroll in courses just for fun, like Readers’ Advisory. I made sure that my coursework as a whole included both theoretical and practical components.

Since graduation, I’ve found that I have been able to use something from almost every class I took, in the job that I do now. My background in history and political science, from my pre-LIS days, has also been useful.

Be open to any opportunity.

After graduation, I accepted two short-term project contracts. Even though they were 5 months and 6 months long, with no promise of permanence, I took them on because of the experience that they would provide me. Accepting those contracts turned out to be some of the best decisions I’ve ever made: my performance during those contracts opened the door to my current position.

Find a mentor.

Someone who understands what it is like to be just starting out as an academic librarian is a definite must in a mentor, but he/she must also be someone who encourages you to go beyond your comfort zone.

Embrace the challenges.

Speaking of comfort zones, every new experience is an opportunity to build new skills and become a stronger professional. Ever since I started working as a librarian, I have jumped into things that have been terrifying, but ultimately rewarding. From approaching faculty, to writing for the masses, to presenting at conferences, to teaching, to running weekly tutorials, I have learned that a little fear at the beginning is never a bad thing. Overcoming the fear is a prize in itself!