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Panel discussion introduces students to library careers

People sitting behind a library desk.

By Raena Doty

Arts & Features Editor

National Library Week, celebrated in 2024 from April 7 to 13, is a chance for libraries to connect with and educate their communities. The Henry Whittemore Library hosted an array of events to celebrate, and invited students to join a panel discussion event titled “Library Careers Are for Everyone!” April 9.

The Massachusetts Commonwealth Consortium of Libraries in Public Higher Education Institutions (MCCLPHEI) hosted the event. Six librarians who work in or studied at Massachusetts institutions spoke about their careers and offered wisdom for anyone interested in library work.

Emily Alling, associate dean for library services at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, moderated the panel. She said MCCLPHEI hosted the event because they wanted to connect with future colleagues and give information to anyone interested in careers.

“We hope that hearing from our panelists tonight will help show you that there are as many paths to library careers as there are people working in libraries and help you envision yourself working in a library,” she said.

“I also encourage you to seek out the people who work in your libraries, who I’m sure would be happy to chat with you,” she added.

Jesselyn Dreeszen Bowman, a doctoral candidate at the University of South Carolina, said they started their career working on French Google Maps and pivoted in the direction of corporate tech life before they burnt out of that career and moved into a position as an assistant librarian, when they decided to get their master’s degree in library science.

They said their last job was as a public service librarian at a boarding high school, which meant they were in charge of the circulation desk, processing loan requests, creating programming, and more.

Bowman’s most recent project is their doctoral dissertation, which they said is about how trans communities in South Carolina access information “at a time of rampant mis- and disinformation about transness in the media.”

They said jobs as school librarians can be very physically demanding and they wish they hadn’t put so much stress on their body, and working at a boarding school can be very time consuming.

On the other hand, they said they highly value the ability of librarians to build relationships with students.

“It’s all the fun parts of teaching without the grading or having to discipline anyone, so you can swoop in and be the cool librarian,” they said.

Isabel Espinal, the humanities research services librarian at UMass Amherst, said she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her undergraduate degree in romance languages and Latin American studies, so she took a career aptitude test that recommended she work in a library. At the same time, a local library was advertising the need for bilingual employees.

She said every day looks different for her, but she spends a lot of her time responding to emails, attending events, and working with people to teach them how to do research.

Espinal said her library has several issues she wants to solve. One is that there isn’t a lot of space for books to be shown publicly, another is that a lot of students don’t feel the space is very inclusive, and the last is that there were several rooms in the library going unused.

To solve both of these problems, she wanted to create two community reading rooms - one focused on Indigenous peoples and culture, and the other focused on Latino peoples and culture.

She said some students of color at UMass do not necessarily feel like the campus - both the library and beyond - “meets their cultural needs.

“They don’t see themselves in the spaces anywhere, and so I feel like if we do this, we could even be a good model for other places on campus,” she said.

Sara Hertel-Fenandez, the library director at the Belding Memorial Library in Ashfield, said she worked at a library during her undergraduate degree.

She said, “The more I worked in libraries, the more I loved it,” and chose to stick out the career.

She said Belding Memorial Library is a very small library in a rural area open only three days a week right now and four during the summer, but the staff - made up of only herself and two part-time employees - “punch way above our weight in circulation and how much people use the library.”

Hertel-Fernandez said currently her library is working with a local county jail to give prisoners access to library resources like library cards and early literacy classes for caretakers currently in prison.

She said even though she works at a small library, she feels it’s important for her library to do this work “because so many carceral facilities are located in rural communities.”

Hertel-Fernandez said her job involves a lot of support for aging populations, which can be both challenging and incredibly satisfying.

“Thinking of them as an exciting population ... has been a real source of joy,” she said.

Oscar Lanza-Galindo, a consultant for leadership and management in the Massachusetts Library System, taught Spanish and math in a high school for years before doing his master’s in intercultural service leadership and management, and during that time he also worked in a library. His experience helped him to decide to pursue library science further.

He said two days in his job never look quite the same, and he’s able to take skills learned in his earlier jobs, as well as his undergraduate degree in journalism and philosophy, and apply them to a totally different field.

Lanza-Galindo added he’s currently conducting national-level research about leadership skills in today’s workforce and “rewriting that for a library environment,” but in a way that will benefit even people working outside of libraries.

He said he’s been challenged by trying to make the library field more equitable as a man in a position of leadership and also a person of color, and change is happening “but we still need more progress and more growth.

“I want my legacy to be something different,” he said.

Magda Morris, a young adult librarian at the Boston Public Library, said she worked in a library in high school and studied English literature during her undergraduate degree before she decided it wasn’t very useful to study literature for her career in libraries and switched her major to humanities and social sciences.

She said in her day-to-day job, she’s likely to encounter people of every age even though her position is geared toward teens, and involves a lot of programming, partnering with community organizations, and working with students in schools.

She said she’s currently working on a project called the Teen Youth Summit where Boston Public Library (BPL) and Boston Public Schools (BPS) are trying to increase collaboration between youth service librarians in the BPL with BPS librarians.

She said she loves working with teenagers and seeing them develop into working adults.

“One of my biggest joys about working with teens and the teen advisory board is watching them transform from these shy wallflowers to these really amazing leaders,” she said.

Morris added it can be difficult to be a woman of color in the field of librarians.

“BPL is a little different, but still has some of the same systemic challenges with both racism and sexism and other -isms,” she said.

Rachel Wells, the reference librarian at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, said she initially wanted to work at Disney World when she completed her undergraduate degree in public relations, so she went to drive a safari truck in Animal Kingdom.

She added after a year she found she didn’t like it as much as she thought, so she chose to pursue a master’s degree in library science after a family friend inspired her.

Wells said as a librarian at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, she works in the only publicly accessible part of the institute, which means she gets to talk to a lot of interesting people including researchers looking into baseball history and people in bars calling to settle arguments.

She said even though it may sound boring to a lot of people, she was very excited to undertake a recent project of creating a catalog of all of the library’s materials, which had never been cataloged in the museum’s history.

Wells added she loves the forward-facing part of her job, especially when people come to her to find out about family members who played baseball.

“I’ve had a lot of people cry in front of me, but for good reasons, which is fantastic,” she said.


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