The Librarian, Waiting: A Ghost Story

I’m not sure how the rest of the country celebrated Halloween, but here in the mid-Atlantic, we were all up in the haunted houses, the corn mazes, and the spooky hayrides.  Some of us painstakingly assembled Halloween costumes to wear to parties where Edith Wharton might’ve blanched at the level of social competitiveness over concept and execution.  Others bought up candy like it was going out of style so they wouldn’t get a reputation for handing out crappy treats on their block.  And, of course, at the reference desk we fielded the yearly round of questions about witches, ghosts, local hauntings, urban legends, and the like.

The spookiest thing I had going on, though, was a trip down memory lane as I copied Word files from floppy disks to USB.  If you really want to scare yourself, hunt up a piece of writing from about eight years ago and take a good, hard look at how your brain was working back then.  Especially if the document you’ve unearthed is…

your library school application essay.


When I saw the filename and realized what it was, I was almost too chicken to open it.  Was I really ready to jump in the wayback machine and take a look at how I viewed the profession before I was in it?  What if I were such a naive simpleton that my hard-won, battle-scarred, sophisticated ninja reference persona couldn’t stand it, and dissolved into a poof of smoke from sheer cognitive dissonance?  What if I  were guilty of writing that I wanted to be a librarian because I loved books so much?


Never one to back down from danger, however, I took a deep breath and let the past come back to haunt me.  For your spine-tingling edification and nail-biting delight, let’s take a look at some of the silly things I said before I was a librarian.  Those with weak hearts should turn back now, before it’s too late!

Still here?  Fools!  Your “reward,” brave souls, is my opening paragraph:

Joseph Campbell wrote, “We must be willing to give up the life we have planned in order to have the life that is waiting for us.” I lived the truth of those words while I was studying for my doctoral exams in literature. Three years into my studies at X University, I was having second thoughts: did I really want to commit myself to a life of teaching and scholarship? Was I wise to head straight for a PhD without exploring other options? With such heady questions buzzing around my brain, I did what any self-respecting, clnflicted scholar would do: I withdrew from my graduate program and went off into the world to find the life that was waiting for me.

Egad!  Who quotes an author in an essay and doesn’t cite a source?  No self-respecting future librarian, that’s for sure.   I’m surprised the admissions folks  didn’t crinkle the whole thing up and toss it in the round file on the spot. 

Luckily, well-trained present-day me was able to verify that I’d somehow managed to get it right (Reflections on the Art of Living, 1991).  As for my naive-arrogant tone, well…there’s nothing to do for that except headdesk.


Luckily, I redeemed myself in paragraph two:

I threw myself into career exploration in the same methodical manner I’d thrown myself into writing research papers and teaching classes.  I took aptitude tests and interest surveys, pored over books like What Color is Your Parachute, and shadowed friends and relatives on the job to see what their careers were like.  On a more practical note, I got my first non-academic job, which proved to be an intensive seminar in customer service.  For fun, I started going to Friday Night Improvs and entertained Pitt students on a weekly basis.  These seemingly unrelated pursuits taught me a lot about my strengths and preferences.  I learned, for example, that I liked to work with the public, and that I had the skills to both make them laugh and put them at ease.  At the same time, I was obviously skilled at research and organization, as my rapid advancement in my “real world” job demonstrated.  I realized that I wanted a career where I could weld my scholarly pursuits with public service.  Where was the best place to work with both people and information?  Why, in a library, of course.

Obviously the scary part about that passage is that it’s entirely too long, and my inner critic is half-tempted to start drinking again over the fact that clearly, at one point in my life, I had no clue how to break up large chunks of text into smaller, more sensible paragraphs.

Upon closer examination, though, what we see here is a plucky kid with a lot of potential who at least has some problem-solving skills. Although I didn’t realize at the time exactly what I was doing, I treated the process of finding a new career as if it were a reference interview, consulting credible sources, asking other people for help, and experimenting a little to see what would happen. This informed, yet playful approach is, I hope, what sealed the deal.

Let’s see what other havoc I wrought on the English language:

Once it finally dawned on me, I’m surprised I hadn’t known it all along. Maybe subconsciously I did; when I looked back on my career thus far, I’d always been happiest either in a library, or showing somebody how to use one. At any rate, there was one way to find out; to test my new goals, I applied for and obtained a help desk position at the Carnegie Library’s main branch. Several months of observing the Humanities team, shadowing the other departments, and answering patrons’ questions have convinced me that I’m on the right track. I would like to explore the possibilities more closely before I decide what kind of librarian I want to be, which is why Pitt’s program, with its independent study and internship options, is so attractive to me.

Ding, ding, ding, ding! Despite my horrid sentence structure, we have a kernel of truth here. Tender library school students, I beg of you: if you only heed one thing I ever say, let it be these words uttered by both the ghost of my former self, and the slightly wiser woman who sits before you now: before you go get that ridiculously expensive degree, go get a job in a library and find out if it’s really what you want.  And by the way, pick a program where internships and practical experience are, if not required, strongly encouraged.

[One caveat: your classmates might laugh at you for working clerk jobs; some of mine did. They called me a Wal-Mart greeter, and made a point of ribbing me about it every chance they got. Ignore them. They won't be laughing quite so hard when job-hunting time rolls around, and you are the one with practical experience and professional contacts in your arsenal.]

The end is in sight, thank goodness:

It’s more than a little ironic that my pursuit of authenticity has led me back to graduate school. Joseph Campbell, however, would both understand and appreciate the irony of my career quest. Hopefully you will share his view and let me begin the MLIS program this May. With your permission, I can prove that I will be an excellent librarian.

Gah, cover your eyes! Weak! Lame! Pathetic! Aieeeee!


Anyone have any smelling salts? While I find it somewhat comforting that I have clearly developed as a writer, I reserve the right to be appalled at the extent of my ignorance, despite the best education I could afford.

It was ironic, though, that following my true, authentic path in life meant another master’s degree, and another outlay of funds, though I’m pretty sure Campbell wouldn’t have an opinion one way or the other (ah, the arrogance of youth).

Still, the true beauty of this last paragraph lies in the fact that it’s actually a dare. C’mon library science: let me show you what I can do. And when one dares to dare, one is generally taken up on it. Life loves a daredevil, either to raise him/her high, or bring her/him low.

The true end of this story lies, I hope, a long way off, and is bracketed by two ghosts: the ghost of the person I once was, and the ghost of the librarian I will be. Standing at the center point, looking forward and back, I can see and hear them both. The “normal” person I once was can’t believe she will “grow up” to be me; the sophisticated, white-haired woman I will become — who, for some reason, looks a lot like Barbara Cartland in my mind’s eye — simply smiles so as not to give away the game of what’s to come.

Can you see, from where you stand, the ghost of the librarian you were, and the ghost of the librarian you will be? How did you get here? How have you improved? What will you learn, and what will you go on to do? And of course, the most important question of all: are you willing to give up being the librarian you are in order to become the librarian who is waiting for you?


That took forever and a day to write; I had originally intended it to appear on Halloween; however, I have just returned from a delightful, delicious long vacation and — in keeping with the theory of the Year of No — I simply refuse to do any sort of professional labor when I am not on the clock, technological advances be damned. Be that as it may, however, I was unable to keep away from the library altogether, and I have several amusing stories to tell you about that at some point, workload permitting.

For now, though, I invite you to look in your own ghostly librarian mirror and tell me what you see…

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  1. Tina said,

    November 2, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Great post…especially for people like me who haven’t stated school yet and want to know what NOT to do! =)

    I will say this, I scare myself quite often when I open old journals. Not sure why I subject myself to that but reading past thoughts scares me half to death! Sometimes I think, “Boy was I was stupid and immature!” On top of that I find that I had issues with articulating myself. EEEEKKKK!

    My love for library work landed on my by accident. It was 1991 and my sister convinced me to move from beautiful California to Ohio (where she was miserable and bored). I was 21 and didn’t care so I hopped in my car and took off within a matter of days. The day I got there my car broke down so I entered the State ready to go into debt. I found a job working for a woman who’s family owned a Garage. They fixed my car and I was her nanny. They took money from my check each week to pay for the car.

    My boss had a sister who told me she could get me a better job making more money. She gave me an address and phone number and within a couple weeks I was working at OCLC, completely confused and not sure what the hell I was doing.

    It would be 2 years before I paid off the car and moved back to California where I got a job as a Cataloger in a Southern CA Library and I haven’t left the field since! I love it, have worked in different departments and have learned (after 10 years or so) that my love is with Reference, but am interested in archival studies…maybe. I’m an art major so I’m trying to figure out what degrees would work best together!

    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!! =)

  2. Laura Barnes said,

    November 2, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    I had to laugh when I read this because last week I ran across a handwritten draft of my library school admissions essay in a notebook my twelve year old daughter “borrowed” from me and left in the living room. I wrote it in 1990.

    At the time, I had some library work experience, but still had no idea who I was or that much about the profession as a whole. Not only that, but the writing was cringe inducing. I’m not sure what the admissions committee saw in it. Maybe I had really good letters of recommendation.

    To this day, I’m grateful that they let me in. I love libraries, librarians, and librarianship and can’t imagine a profession where I’d be happier.

  3. laura said,

    November 3, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    I had diddley squat library experience when I applied to library school, and I wanted to be an archivist. I believe my application essay ended with something like “I became an activist in order to make history; now I wish to become an archivist in order to save it.” I can only imagine the eye-rolling. Then again, I’m not sure that the application essay is a genre in which one can ever produce anything that doesn’t reek of earnestness. All bad poetry is sincere, and all that.

    I ended up being a public librarian, and I had a much, much easier time getting a job in an actual library once I was in library school, so while I’d certainly endorse the “try it before you go” approach as sensible, it can work out okay the other way around.

    I’m starting a new job in a very different public library next month — we shall see what the Ghost of Librarian Future brings!

  4. November 3, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Ladies, thank you so much for sharing your opinions and stories!! I love to hear about how other people navigate(d) / will navigate our profession…

    @Tina, wow, what an epic – I think you could flourish and thrive regardless of what degrees you get and where. Best of luck to you! And don’t feel like you have to hurry and make up your mind, either.

    @Laura B., I always appreciate it when the “grownups” see beyond our surfaces and into our potential. Notebooks from 1990! Wow…if you’ve got the love, you’re all set, because love always finds a way. :)

    @Laura, good point on the application essay. Nobody’s handing out Pulitzers for them anytime soon, that’s for sure, and I imagine it’s to evaluate potential…still, I do so hate to do things badly…thanks, too, for offering an alternative perspective on the school/work order. Best of luck on the new job!

  5. Laura Barnes said,

    November 3, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    @Leigh Anne, I have major packrat issues.

    @Laura (the other one :-)), I don’t know that I would have even considered library school if I hadn’t worked in my local public library while an undergrad. I was a circulation clerk, which has come in handy at various times over the years, believe it or not.

  6. Kelley said,

    November 4, 2010 at 8:25 am

    Oh good lord! What fun and what authenticity! Yay for those two pairing up and creating a great blog post! I can’t imagine what I wrote in my MLIS application essay – probably that I loved books or some-such-nonsense. Luckily, I got in, figured it all out and am here to conquer the world!

  7. November 4, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    @Laura, oh man, don’t get me started! Packrattery…sigh….

    @Kelley, so glad you liked it! And yes, you ARE here to conquer the world! Heaven help us all. ;)

  8. Jessa said,

    November 4, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Oh, Gads. If I look back, I see a desperate little Jessa-face who is newly 22, working as a shifter and shelver, and making about $800/month. She finds out that the grad students are making $17.50 an hour, and she thinks, “Hell, I can scan a barcode just as well as they can. I’ma get me a library degree and make the *big* money!”

    Present-Jessa… well, she’s paid off her libschool loans, at least. She would sell her left kidney to get in at SPLS, but for now, other jobs must needs be investigated.

    I have noooo idea what the Jessa of Christmas the Future will bring. I envy you your ability to see Future-You guiding you forward, because I don’t have any insight into where I should be or what I should do next. Stupid 20s. They’re like the Terrible Twos, but you’re not supposed to throw your food. *sulk*

  9. November 8, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    @Jessa, thank you so much for sharing this, and I cry your pardon on my slow response. Life has ramped up again over here. :) I bet you were a pistol at 22 – you certainly were smart!

    Congrats on paying off those loans. That puts you way ahead of a lot of people in your age bracket. And don’t worry too much about your 20s. They sound…nornal. You couldn’t pay me to do mine again, but I am grateful for what they taught me!

  10. November 16, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    I like to think that in eight years (two years for grad school, of course) or so I will think about my interview with the department head and wonder why I didn’t say this or that.

    Luckily, I have no scary essays to go looking for on a search and destroy mission. Though, I would love to find my college essay where I believe I called myself “electic.” ;)

  11. LAV said,

    November 16, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    Heh. Good luck to you in the home stretch, PW! If you ever find that essay, let me know – “electic” is a great misspelling!

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