30 @ 30: work and vocation [#9]

If I had wanted to be a librarian all my life, I suppose this could have been a much shorter blog post (and maybe I'd have been able to finish it for last Wednesday)! But actually, the decision to become a professional librarian came relatively late in my exploration of possible vocations. Looking back, that fact seems sort of inexplicable. After all, I grew up living a scant 1.5 blocks from the local public library and applied for my first library card the moment I could sign print my name. I even volunteered there as a child, honing my alphabetization skills by re-shelving the chapter books in the middle-grade fiction section one afternoon a week. It was a great way to discover new authors.

Still, "librarian" didn't make the cut as consistently as a number of other options on the what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up? list. As I was just relating to a friend recently, when I was a wee child under the age of ten my most ardent desire was to become an actress in musical theater -- my very first vinyl record was the Broadway cast recording of Annie Get Your Gun and you bet your bottom dollar I knew every word.

I also considered "lighthouse keeper" after seeing Pete's Dragon at an impressionable age.

As I've written about previously, I always felt comfortable caring for young people and for a long time assumed that parenting and perhaps some sort of professional social work occupation were in my future. When I hit puberty and became fascinated with pregnancy and childbirth, I considered midwifery (and later doula training) as a possible option. I still think about this -- the doula/midwifery thing -- as a possible second career, though right now our family can't really handle my taking on one more new thing.

Perhaps the most abiding vocational dream I had growing up was a vision of becoming a writer of fiction. I figured I might combine this with being a bookshop owner -- preferably a picturesque bookshop by the seaside, complete with the bookshop cat(s) or dog(s), and a small apartment above the shop in which to live.

me (circa 1993)
After I started volunteering at the local history museum as an adolescent, the bookseller/author dream was joined by the possibility of becoming a museum curator, or perhaps working at a living history site somewhere (the romance of this only increased by Nancy Bond's novel Another Shore in which the protagonist is sucked back in time through working at a living history village). This was how I ended up taking History classes in addition to English and Women's Studies classes in college -- and ultimately discovering my love of research and scholarly writing -- and how I ended up being encouraged to consider graduate school as an option.

For someone who'd waffled about even attending undergraduate classes, graduate school was an idea that I was both flattered by (I had an incredible group of faculty mentors) and resistant to.

Which is actually how I ended up in library school. Mostly because I really didn't want to apply for PhD programs. I knew I didn't want to teach and by the time I graduated from college in 2005 I was fairly sure I didn't want to get into the business of independent book selling -- I just don't have the business head for it. A year and a half in corporate book selling at Barnes & Noble was enough to tell me I'd go mad in that environment. I was good at the customer service side of things, but hated the corporate pressure to compete internally over sales and memberships and all that crap. Just -- no. I couldn't be bothered. Which would have meant not moving beyond part-time sales clerk, no matter how well I knew the stock.

Librarianship (alongside continuing my studies in history) seemed like a good way to compromise on all of these competing interests without closing any doors for good on my research or feminist interests. And if my present-day occupation(s) -- including this blog -- are anything to go by, I'd say the gamble has by-and-large paid off when it comes to quality of life and work-life balance. I have a job that I find intellectually stimulating and socially responsible. I realize that one (a satisfying, respectably-compensated job) doesn't automatically follow from the other (an MLS degree), but putting one foot in front of the other in that general direction brought me to Boston and eventually brought me here.

But what does it mean, to me specifically, to be at this point where I have a professional job? What do my career choices (at this point in my life) say about how I think about the labor we perform? And what we are called to contribute to the world? I don't have any pat answers to those big meta questions. But I do have a few observations.

I grew up in a home where what people did as paid employment didn't define them. My mother worked in preschool education and went to college for English and Architecture before leaving the workforce to pursue full-time parenting. My father took his (still current) position as a bookstore manager before completing his BA and has remained in that job throughout his career. While he actively pursues professional development and has re-invented the role of the bookstore (and bookstore manager) several times over, it has never been who he is any more than being a full-time parent has been who my mother is. I could also introduce them, variously, as "cyclist," "cartographer," "calligrapher," "fiber artist," "writer," etc. While we children were encouraged to follow our passions and do what we love, we were also not required to turn those loves into money-making work.

I believe in professional standards and ethics, but resist the hierarchy of professionalization. I've written about the issue of professionalization and one-ups-manship before on this blog (see here and here) and in a slightly different context over at Harpyness (see here). What it boils down to is that I value people's knowledge and skill set, not their credentials -- and I don't trust the credentialing system to always give me accurate information about an individual's abilities. I imagine this comes from being homeschooled. And to be frank, it also comes from having been through graduate school and seeing first-hand the work my fellow students were doing. Schooling doesn't always equal expertise.

"Work" is not always synonymous with "vocation." My job is to be a reference librarian. While I see that job as part of my vocation, it does not encompass it. I'm not precisely certain, at this juncture of my life, what my vocation is ... but I believe I could pursue it in a number of different guises, librarian and blogger being only two of a myriad options.What's my vocation? I was lying awake at 4am this morning trying to think about what aspects of my work I think of myself as being called to do in some sort of "I must do this or fail to thrive" sense. Writing and thinking about ideas certainly falls into that category. Cultivating and nurturing intimate relationships (sexual and non-sexual). Being conscious about the way my life choices effect others is another part of my answer to the question "how to live?" But none of this requires a particular type of job in order to pursue.

"Work" is also not separate from "life," any more than "school" and "life" are mutually exclusive. Growing up outside of school, I find, has had an enduring effect on how I consider the dividing line between what I understand to be "work" and everything else. I don't think that "work" and "play" have to be (or ideally should be) mutually exclusive categories. Nor do I think that "life" is something we should picture as being put on hold when we go to work. I realize that for the majority of paid employees, that is the reality -- they aren't allowed to be themselves in the workplace. But even when we work in shitty workplaces, that too is part of our lives rather than being something that puts our lives on hold.

While I do hold certain expectations that personal drama be kept from bleeding over into our workplace lives, I also don't believe there are hard and fast rules about this. Sometimes shit happens, and sometimes it happens while we're at work. While there are aspects of my non-work life I don't feel interested in sharing with my colleagues (or really anyone outside my intimate circle), I also appreciate a workplace that recognizes I am a human being with a full life and interests that may fall outside of the scope of my job description.

At the same time, I don't want work to be my life. I don't want to be defined by my profession, and I don't want my life to be dictated by it either. I'm lucky enough to have a boss that chastises me for checking my email at home (even if she does it herself), and who insists that I work my 35 hours/week and only that with rare exceptions (which are always acknowledged as exceptions). I appreciate that I can walk away from work at the end of the day and it doesn't follow me home. I'm also grateful that there are times when my work is so interesting that I kinda wish I could take it home. But for the most part, I don't. Because I want to make sure I leave room for my other (my vocational?) priorities.

So where am I headed from here? My bare minimum expectation for "success" as a worker is to have a job where I'm respected as a human being and as a laborer, a job that's intellectually stimulating, fairly autonomously-directed (i.e. I have freedom to do my work independently), and a job that pays for good quality of life. I have that right now, which is a position of social privilege in these economic times. There are junctures when I wish we were a little more financially stable, or when I wish we had more discretionary income with which to travel or give gifts (see the upcoming installment "money"), but for now I am content.

Did I imagine this sort of work life when I was a child? Probably not (mostly because the internets were a thing of the future; I learned to use libraries when card catalogs were still, actually, card catalogs).

But I don't think my child-self would be disappointed with where I've ended up thus far. Which I feel is about the highest form of praise I could ask for.

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