Rolling in the deep

At ACRL a young woman asked me, as I reviewed her resume in the volunteer career placement center, “How did you do it?” She meant how did I get to this job, at this age, in this profession.  I promised I would blog it.  I never did.  This is half of the story, the impractical half, the half made of passion and desire and will.  As I consider two anniversaries, I thought it would be a good time to share it.

There’s a fire starting in my heart,
reaching a fever pitch,
and it’s bringing me out the dark

Ten years ago this month I finished my MLS at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was idealistic, naive, an optimist, and determined that I was going to do good work and make a great life for myself.  I’d spent two years driving from Rockford to Madison to finish the program, working two part-time jobs in Madison on top of the 2 daily hours in the car, just to make it through. I was broke, I was exhausted, I’d gained 30 pounds, and I was ready to take on the world. I loved libraries, the future was going to be amazing, and I was pretty sure I knew everything.  I was on fire, and ready to burn.

Finally I can see you crystal clear,
go ahead and sell me out and I’ll lay your shit bare

It didn’t take more than a few months for that fire to fade; I didn’t know shit. I was in way over my head. The theory I had been taught was useless in practice in a small academic library.  There was no time for theory; I just had to do the job.  I was supervising a staff member who was 20 years older than I was and far more experienced, and so on the fly I had to learn how to supervise a mentor.  I had another staff member who was quite elderly and had no comfort using our ILS, and I was supposed to just… make that work somehow. I had a Director who had very precise ideas about what was right for a library and for our library, and another colleague who had very little interest in collaboration between public and technical services.  I was building a library’s print collection single-handedly, straight out of grad school, with only a pile of theory, a hope, and a prayer to guide me. The future was irrelevant; I needed to stay afloat in the present.

Because I couldn’t pay my bills with my salary, not by a long shot, particularly not when my student loans kicked in.  I had an apartment, a car, two cats, and a job, and I was broke and struggling.  How was I supposed to compellingly position a library for the future if I couldn’t even be certain of my own?

See how I’ll leave with every piece of you,
don’t underestimate the things that I will do
There’s a fire starting in my heart,
reaching a fever pitch
and it’s bringing me out the dark

But then people started to tell me I had something special.  That I could go places. Do things. My boss started grooming me to take over as Director when she retired.  The local regional library system hired me to work as a consultant on the shared catalog project, and the Director there began wooing me to come work for them. I was accepted into a statewide symposium to build and support young leaders in Illinois libraries. When my Director became Interim Provost, I was appointed as her proxy in the meetings of the Directors in the shared system meetings.  The regional folks gave me a committee to chair, and I took a workshop on running meetings.

I found a voice.  I found that my idealism and my fire and my optimism weren’t misplaced. They weren’t lost. I had just banked them for a while as I got my feet under me. The future came back into focus.  I could build something.  I could effect change. Libraries were fascinating again.

The scars of your love remind me of us,
they keep me thinking that we almost had it all
The scars of your love, they leave me breathless
I can’t help feeling we could have had it all

A few years ago, a friend of mine traded a job she loved, in her words, “like a lover”, for her marriage.  Her husband wanted to go to graduate school, so they left the state they were in for a new one, and she left that job behind, the joys of one love traded for those of another.  I envied that love she felt for her work.  And I wanted libraries to stay fascinating to me, to be a part of building their future, and to be able to build my own, as well.  Paying my bills had never sounded so good.  And so, for many reasons, I moved on.  I got a new job in New York, coordinating collection development.

I loved that job.

Let me say that again: I loved that job.

Two years ago, on May 19, 2009, I walked away from it.  The future was calling again, glinting on the horizon.  Today, ten years into my professional credentials, in year seventeen of living my life under the tyranny of the academic calendar, I’m the Director of Libraries.  And it’s been a hard two years.  I look at my new scars, and think longingly of the job I loved so fiercely that I sacrificed a marriage to it.  And I wonder about this one.

Rolling in the deep
(Tears are gonna fall, rolling in the deep)
You had my heart inside of your hand
(You’re gonna wish you never had met me)
And you played it to the beat

Anniversaries are moments when we reflect on what we’ve done.  On what we’ve accomplished, what we’ve survived, what we’ve learned. Our growth rings and our scars.  Ten years.  Two years.

So what have I learned?

Administrative jobs will eat you alive.  They will suck every last bit of life out of you and spit you back out.  No one means for it to happen. No one says, “Today I’m going to sap her will to continue fighting.”  No one says, “I’m going to say no to this project and watch her wilt.”  No one says, “I’m going to throw up a roadblock today, because I haven’t done that in a while.”  I believe that. I am still an optimist, I believe in the best in people, and I believe that I am not being played intentionally.  But I have no illusions; I am being played. I am a cog in a machine, and the machine demands that I perform, and is designed to make me perform. If I don’t turn in sync with the other cogs, the whole machine starts to protest. When I reach too far toward my own goals, toward my own vision, the machine wrenches me back into place because it must if it hopes to keep turning.  Responding to that pressure, those conflicting pulls, is exhausting, if you care about what you do.

I’m watching as my peers — my tribe — the young managers in librarianship — are wilting.  The grind of the gears is getting to us.  The politics, the improbable demands, the challenging staff, the heartbreaking budgets, the battles lost.  Maybe we aren’t spinning fast enough.  Maybe we’re not ready, not made of stern enough stuff.  Maybe we were overconfident in thinking that we could do this job, that we could change our profession, that we could take on the future with a grin and a swagger.

At the same time that we’re fighting to hold onto our sense of self  and succeed in these administrative roles, people are attacking librarianship. Pundits and society are attacking it from the outside, predicting our demise.  But more damning, we’re attacking it from within. We’re eating our young by cutting out entry-level MLS positions, sucking the life from our administrators through change aversion and stalling tactics, and punishing our change agents for talking about and trying to build the future they dream of.  We’re losing important voices because the status quo means more than the debate, and we’re still failing to prepare our graduates for the world they’ll actually work in.

In the face of the daily grind and the endless external crises and the professional existential angst that is everywhere in librarianship, the grin and the swagger start to falter.

Baby, I have no story to be told
But I’ve heard one of you, and I’m gonna make your head burn
Think of me in the depths of your despair, making a home down there
As mine sure won’t be shared

Or maybe we’re not wrong.  Maybe the system is a killer.  Maybe the forces turning us in the machine are stopping us from doing what we should be doing. Maybe that future we can see is really the right thing, maybe it’s the direction we need to be moving, and maybe we should be bringing the whole thing to a halt so we can all start over.

Or, more likely, there’s a middle ground there.

The scars of your love remind me of us
They keep me thinking that we almost had it all

Where I loved my old job like a lover, I do battle with this job.  I spend my days and nights fighting the inertia of the machine, determined to win free to the future. Both relationships have their pleasures, and both their challenges.  I can’t dwell in the past — the future is still out there, glinting with promise.  And I have to keep chasing it.  It’s the right thing to do. I believe in it.

The scars of your love, they leave me breathless
I can’t help feeling
We could have had it all

I’m feeling scarred.  In the last two years, shielded by my boundless optimism and hope for the future, I’ve done battle with individuals, with administrative structures, with processes, with projects, and with the profession.  I’ve succeeded more than I’ve failed, and fought to truces, and thrown some carefully crafted salvos only to have them ignored entirely — but it’s the losses that really sting.  Every approach mattered, or I wouldn’t have struggled with the issue or fought for the position, and the hits I’ve taken as a result hurt.  And I’m tired.  Fighting for what’s right, for what matters, is hard work.

But I still think we can have it all.  The future’s still out there.  I’m going to keep trying.

That’s my lesson, two years in, and ten years later. We could have had it all. And I haven’t given up.

15 thoughts on “Rolling in the deep

  1. Lisa Kurt

    Really really good Jenica. I’ve been struggling myself recently. It’s nice to know I’m not along in feeling beat up and punished some days. Gotta keep working and fighting the good fight for the future. Thank you!

  2. John Klima

    Dear God, this is the best thing I’ve read this year. Maybe this decade. There’s so much here that I feel and experience in my own work that the only thing I can say is: thank you.

  3. Bryan Loar

    “It is what it is” should not be the aphorism of our time. You stated, “The future’s still out there.” Action, not apathy, will lead us to the future that we envision, that we aspire to. Through your elegant writing, we are inspired to progress. Thank you.

  4. Megan Hodge

    Thank you so much for posting this, Jenica! When the job is eating you alive, I hope you remember the role model you are for so many of us who are just starting out in this profession. You give us hope.

  5. heather

    I don’t think it’s possible for any program to teach it all. This is more of a ‘here’s a compass, head north’ kind of field. But you’ve done more with the tools you were given than anyone I know. Happy anniversary, JPR.

    ps: 10 yrs? Really? Yikes.

  6. Colleen

    Thank you so much for this. I just hit my one-year anniversary at the newest job, and I needed to read this, because it’s a job I love dearly – but it is hard. Knowing that talented, strong people also find it difficult – and can be successful in the face of it – is something I find uplifting and inspiring.

  7. Jenica Post author

    I am glad to oblige, all. I was moments from un-posting this after I wrote it, and it was a few “thank you” posts on Twitter that kept it up. So, thank you for the feedback, in return.

    And I’m taking a vacation in 2 weeks. No worries. I’m not gonna burn out. That would be “not winning”, and I always win.

  8. Dom

    Very eloquent.

    I noticed you have a lot of “I”s. Where is your team? Where are the people to turn to for help? I know they are your support staff, but have you shared your vision for the library lately?

    We can’t be islands in administration. We need to play the games, be patient, and cajole our “enemies” and use our influence so we don’t eat our staff….or our own careers.

    Waiting and constantly being reactive sucks the life right out of change and our vision for our libraries. you only loose if you let them win.

    This is a total misquote from a TV show but I say it over and over in my head after non-productive meetings:
    “The best thing about getting older is watching all the people I hate die”.

    And I know- that one day that person who has been a constant torn in my side politically (and I can’t influence at all) will leave, retire, find a new job, get hit by a bus…but that obstacle will disappear. Then I plan what I’ll do once they’re gone, and it makes me happy. :0)

    Happy anniversary!

  9. Pingback: Links of interest: May 20, 2011 « A Modern Hypatia

  10. C

    I visit this entry periodically. It helps me in a new way each time. When it was first forwarded to me, I was dealing with a failing relationship, a library job in which I went to war daily, and moderate depression.

    This time? This time I’ve made it to the next job — one that isn’t slowing eating away at my soul. But now? I think I’m becoming complacent. Upon this reading, I feel reminded that the battles are sometimes worth fighting, and perhaps it’s time to get my uniform on and soldier up.

    Libraries are worth it. But so are we.

    Thank you for writing this!

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