Career Limitations, Academic Blindspots, and Other Barriers: The Journey from BFA to Technician to Librarian

I was asked to write this piece for Perspectives many months after a friend and I had a spirited conversation in our program’s student computer lab. We were both at the midway point of our graduate degree, but like everyone else in the program, had taken a very long, drawn out road to get there. After spending most of our young lives in school, we wanted to be out already! I remember having this conversation in the lab at an early hour. We were the only ones in the room at the time, which was abnormal because it was near the end of term when labs were busiest. We were both enrolled in the same class, working on our respective group projects, and complaining about the lack of time to get everything done.

Eventually, our conversation circled round to how we each came to be in this program, a question that practically everyone asks t as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Like cell mates in a maximum penitentiary, we are obliged to tell the gruesome tale of how on earth we ended up in library school. And my origin story is what brings me to you, reader.

First, I must mention the concept of this piece, as described to me, was to speak about barriers as a technician within the profession, and those which drove me to pursue my MLIS. My friend made deliberate mention that perhaps ‘barriers’ was not the right word to use. I think it is an interesting choice with some nuance. For example, you cannot talk about barriers without talking about privilege.

In 2020, I’ll have been a part of the library world for ten years. I started as a technician. Correction: I started as a freshly-minted BFA graduate, scared about where to go or what to do next. I just wanted a low-stress, barrier-free job where I could go about my day, shut off at its end, and come home and work on my art in my off hours. And in my mind, what was more stable, barrier-free, and low-stress than working in a library?!  Pause for collective guffaw.

The complex issues surrounding mine and so many others’ false impression that libraries are stable, barrier-free and low stress, would take several volumes of this publication to adequately discuss. The result of these issues is often someone like me, who very evidently (at the time) has little knowledge about how libraries really function, assumes that they do. With this admission, I’m guessing it would surprise none of you that I struggled with the tech’s program at first. The coursework was pretty dry, and did not present a lot of opportunity for creative expression. I had a shelving job which I found boring. I did not connect with the majority of my peers. Many folks seemed to be obsessed with books, and grades, and while I liked to read and liked getting good grades, these were not what kept me in the program. What did, you must be asking? In the end, it was being of service to people. Not long into my studies, my illusions of future employment in a peaceful, clean library where everyone obeyed the rules were dashed to smithereens. I realized I actually liked helping people find the information they needed, and teaching them about how they could acquire and access more. In short, I was starting to find myself.

When I went back to grad school, seven years later, I was working in—what I realize now—was a very unique position and office. I had a great deal of responsibility in my role. I was valued for my skillset, and allowed to utilize it to its fullest extent. Still, I was left wanting. I also happened to be working in a library where all but one of my librarian colleagues had started as a library assistant before getting their graduate degree. This was somewhat unusual in our system. It was also critical to my making the decision to go back to school. They recognized my restlessness and encouraged my potential. They sensed my growing dissatisfaction with the limitations of my role as a tech, as they themselves had reached its barrier. I needed more opportunity to enact change, and I simply was not going to be able to do it effectively with only a diploma. As sad as that is. And they knew it. I remember having a conversation with one colleague who asked not too long after I had started why I didn’t want to be a librarian. I said I was given the advice that as a librarian, I’d be stuck being a manager. They turned to me and very politely replied, “Someone gave you bad advice.”

Fast forward to grad school. Someone is describing to me that our program is not something you enjoy: “… just something you get through.” I knew what they were referring to, but had to laugh because I didn’t always feel the same about school the second time around. With grad school, I more or less knew “the drill.” It wasn’t such a shock to the system. Still, their description got me thinking about the possible barrier we build in our minds around school: That it is just some accepted, necessary, boring evil we must all endure until our eventual payoff—glorious employment. As if we’re entitled to employment just for sticking it out. It’s true that the majority of your learning happens on the job, but with all honesty, my MLIS studies were not so torturous. I found the course selection to be incredibly diverse. With the very odd exception, my instructors were exceptional. The networking abilities were invaluable. Having the breadth of subject matter to choose from and the quality of professionalism to glean from were aspects of my experience I will cherish forever. And it just wasn’t available to me at the same level during my technician’s program. I want to make clear that I had excellent teachers and courses during my diploma. But if this person had described the program to me in such a way back then, I’m not sure I would have stuck around. Knowing how much fulfillment I derive from my career now, that’s a distressing thought.

Despite the great course selection and great profs, however, there was something missing in almost every graduate level course I took. Can you guess what it was? Here’s a hint: it was me. Well, not me me, but me, the technician. I was shocked by the absence of the technician from the curriculum and class discussions, especially since my grad school peers and I were being trained to be leaders of our organizations who would likely manage or supervise technicians. And yet, we were taught nothing about who technicians were, what their education was, and how we co-existed. I happened to go to grad school with a lot of technicians. I’m not sure how standard this is, but it made for interesting class breaks. We would get together, commiserate about the curriculum overlap, and discuss our strange lack of presence. It seemed to exacerbate the very point of why most of us were there. We had reached the threshold of what was possible in our current roles, looked around and asked: “Is this it?”

But I mention this not because I believe the answer should necessarily be, ‘Yes this is it, and so to grad school you must go.’ Instead, I think about how our profession distinguishes between, and subsequently utilizes, a librarian and a technician within a library, and what that means for either program. Many instances I would see my librarian colleagues overworked and overwhelmed with something I knew I had been educated on as a tech. I would offer to help, knowing that union rules, and job descriptions, and role responsibilities made this impossible. There were also many instances of cross over between both programs’ curriculum. And it was frankly insulting to be denied exemption from a course out of concern for my comprehension of the theoretical component, only to discover the class was using the same textbook as the one I used during my diploma. Lastly, maybe I’m too out on a limb in saying this, but I wonder about people my age and younger (those darn millennials!) as they gravitate toward the profession, and their consumption and quick adoption of technology. How are these skills being tested? Taught? Interviewed for? How can they be more effectively used within our libraries? How are we ensuring we’re tapping into those resources? With all due respect to the wisdom that only comes with age, after the umpteenth time of helping your superior attach a PDF to an email, you cannot help but critically compare the difference of pay and say that you each have within the organization. And in doing so, almost always the conclusion to this comparison is, “To grad school you must go.”

Jennifer Pride is a recent MLIS graduate from the UBC iSchool. She has been working in academic libraries for ten years as a technician, and currently is in the role of Librarian with the Visual College of Art and Design Vancouver, developing their new library.