Stressors and Strains

The next week or so will be light for updates from me as the time has finally come for me to pack up and move to my new home in Austin, TX. As I pull my books from their cheap IKEA shelves, I am thinking of how I will organise them when they emerge from their boxes in a week. Should I go with Dewey Decimal Classification or Library of Congress? Or invent my own system like Sir Robert Cotton?

A week from today I’ll be attending the UT iSchool Orientation, getting advised, registering for classes and starting out the next phase in my life. It’s an exciting time to be me, but it’s also pretty scary.

Like many students, I need a job to support myself and the life to which I have become accustomed. My lifestyle isn’t extravagant, but I do have some expenses and a cat to feed, not to mention myself. The worry about leaving a stable paycheck behind and launching into the unknown to pit myself against all the other incoming job-seeking iSchoolers is causing me a good deal of stress and I hope to wind up as lucky as I’ve ever been and land the perfect job.

It all starts today, with my first job interview. I won’t say where for now because I’m highly superstitious and don’t want to jinx anything, but I’ll let you know how things go. With any luck it will give me even more interesting things to blog about.


In The News: Creating A Book Museum

Internet Archive founder wants to collect every book ever published

Brewster Kahle, the fellow behind the Internet Archive, is in the process of gathering together every book ever published for safe storage against a future where the prevalence of digital media has utterly devalued physical texts… The Associated Press describes the undertaking as something more akin to The Svalbard Global Seed Vault than the Library of Congress — these books aren’t being saved for lending, they’re being stored for the future.

I think people have been predicting the death of printed books since the Kindle was first announced, but the sort of hysteria that is implied by this article seems a bit over-the-top to me.  Does Kahle honestly think there will be some kind of bookpocalypse in which every library in the world will suddenly decide to destroy their books and go digital only?  I can’t imagine either the Library of Congress or the British Library or, indeed, my own UT Health Science Center library would do such a thing.  As much as my library has been transitioning towards eJournals and eBooks, we are still receiving many printed journals and books and have no plans to stop doing so.  Khale is proposing is proposing the antithesis of a library: a book museum, some sort of repository for curious, redundant objects that future generations can come ogle and examine to get an idea of how more primitive humans lived.

“Can you believe they actually printed every single word on paper?  How quaint!”

One of the most haunting things I have ever read is James D. Griffioen’s Story of the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository.  In it he writes, “Someday the books will tumble from the shelves at the Bodleian and there will be no one to replace them.”  Do I think this is realistically possible?  No, not in my lifetime.  Not as long as I am there to stop it.  Like the last Vestal Virgin, I will tend the flame until Rome falls down around my ears.  But obviously people think that this sterile electronic digital world without books is where we are headed as a society.

I’ve been accused by people of living in the past because I own both a Kindle and an iPad and use neither to read books.  In fact, my Kindle sits unloved in its box, used only occasionally by my mother when she can’t get Large Print editions from the library.  I’ve tried to like using eReaders.  I have really, honestly tried.  While I can recognize their utility in some circumstances for some people, I personally do not like using them.  I need the feel and smell of paper to completely my reading experience.

Right now I have a 100 year old book tucked inside my purse (one of that same set of Dumas novels I have mentioned before).  I don’t want to be part of a society that needs warehouses and museums for books like that because all other physical books have been destroyed.

Advice And Experience, Or Perhaps Advice Vs Experience

Mr. Library Dude posted this insightful piece containing advice to future librarians/library school students and it’s got me thinking about a lot of different things as I stand here on the cusp of a new education and career.

Why I Chose UT: Does Prestige Matter?

The first thing that struck me was the focus of the piece on encouraging future librarians to not rely on the strength of the name of their university.  This is a contentious and contradictory bit of advice in my opinion, and although I agree with it in principle, I must also admit that it directly contradicts the advice I have received and taken in my education so far.

I got my undergraduate degree in English from the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA).  Certainly when I graduated in 2007, UTSA was not well known for its English department and not very well known in general.  When I told people where I went to university, I got a lot of “what’s that?” questions from people who didn’t understand that UTSA is a separate institution from the better known UT-Austin.  When I went to apply for graduate schools, I felt very discouraged because I knew that I would be up against kids from better known and more respected institutions.  It didn’t help that I only got into 2 of the 12 programs I applied for — and although I know the entire graduate school process is dependent on a certain amount of random luck, I have always wondered if my application got tossed because I was up against people from “better” schools.  I have always been proud to be a Roadrunner, but the question is still there: if you had two applications from 4.0 honors students with equally exceptional academics and extracurricular activities, would you choose the one from UT-Austin or UTSA?  I don’t know what I’d do in that situation, and I don’t know if that happened to me.

In the end, although I agonized about that question during the long and hellish two months in 2007 when I received rejection after rejection, it didn’t matter much because I got into my top two choices: Western Michigan University and Oxford.  This was a no brainer: I’d wanted to go to Oxford since I was a kid.  I will admit that I went to Oxford as much for the “et in Arcadia ego” Brideshead Revisited-esque experiences as for the fact that it is home to professors that I admire and wanted very much to work with, but I didn’t necessarily go because I thought having Oxford on my resume would get me any job I could dream of.  It is, perhaps, very ironic that I spent my entire time there being told that an Oxford degree is not the free pass to professional success that it was once, only to find out after I left Oxford that this is, in fact, the case.  I’ve had three corporate jobs post-Oxford and all three of my employers have told me they interviewed and hired me because they were impressed by my Oxford education, including my manager at the UT Health Science Center library.  Quite literally my last marketing boss told me when he saw my application he said, “We’ve got to at least interview her — who turns down an applicant from Oxford?”

So in my career so far, having a degree from a #1 school really has made a difference in my life.

When I started applying for library schools, I chose the ones that had programs that fit what I wanted to do: archives and preservation.  I ended up getting into (again) my top two choices: Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and UT-Austin.  A lot of factors influenced my decision to turn down Illinois and go to UT: my family has a tradition of being Longhorns (I will be the third generation to go to Austin after my dad and grandfather) and my dad has been waiting for one of his kids to go there since I graduated high school; I already owned a lot of Longhorns shirts; UT-Austin is the #1 program for Archives & Preservation in the US; it’s my “in-state/cheapest” option; and my mentor advised me that having UT on my resume next to Oxford would make my applications really stand out, especially to people in the UK (where I hope to work).

Yep, I was told something that directly contradicts Mr. Library Dude by someone who was on the committee to hire his college’s archivist.  (The archivist my mentor hired, and with whom I keep in touch, also told me the same thing.)  I don’t know who’s right, Mr. Library Dude or my mentor.  I’ll be sure to ask my future managers whether my education at top programs influenced them at all, but in my experience so far I’d have to say Mr. Library Dude may have different views from other hiring managers and that while I am sure that having a degree from a top library school probably won’t guarantee me a job by itself, I do not think it will hurt me and I am glad that I had luck on my side and am able to go to a school that fits my ambitions, interests, and budget.

In the end, as my friend Matt pointed out when I posted this to my facebook, “Prospective students need to be aware of what type of library they want to go into and find a school that offers a specialization in that type of librarianship” and I think THIS is the most important thing to be aware of.

Experience: Why I Was Afraid Of My Corporate Background

After Oxford I took some time off — I’ll be starting at UT after a three-year educational hiatus.  At the time, it was the right decision for me to leave academia, but when I was applying to library schools I worried a lot about what that time off has “cost” me.  I worried about being in classes with people four years younger than me.  I worried about having lost my ability to think critically.  I worried that having taken a winding path to this point will hurt me in the long run.  I worried about not having enough library experience (at the time of my applications, I hadn’t started my current job in a library and had a year’s experience from eight years before).  Everyone told me that having no “real” library experience would be okay, and that I shouldn’t feel guilty or afraid of my corporate work experience — and that was true.

What makes a “professional” librarian?  Or a “professional” anything?  In the corporate world I learned how to dress, how to behave in a workplace, how to interview well, and the basics of business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketing.  It turns out that those skills are just as important as knowing how to catalogue books.  I’m not saying I don’t think my current library work experience is worth anything, I am just saying that there are a lot of transferable skills that can be learned outside of library work experience, and not everyone is lucky enough to get the opportunities I have.  I know that while I will do everything I can to get more library experience over the next two years, I will also find opportunities to grow professionally in other ways if I can’t and I hope my future employers won’t disregard me just because I wasn’t lucky enough to get a plum internship.  Especially with library budgets being cut left and right, there may not be as many opportunities as there used to be.

Marketing And Self-Promotion: What Works?

The other bit of advice that Mr. Library Dude has that relates to my experience is his exhortation to market oneself.  I recognize the growing power of the online presence.  I mean, I’m setting up this blog, aren’t I?  But in my past experience my “online presence” hasn’t really helped or hindered me that much.  I had a LinkedIn and a twitter going into my first round of post-university job applications .  I also had it going into my second.  And my third.  Aside from my last marketing boss and coworker trying to look me up on Facebook (and being shocked when I wasn’t a scantily-clad, blonde party girl after viewing the wrong profile and assuming it was mine), I don’t know of any way my “online presence” has influenced my employers.  Maybe that’s different now, and I know many medievalists who have high-profile blogs, so I ask:

  • How do you promote yourself?
  • What social media/online resume services do you use?
  • How do you balance public (online) and private personas?

The last interests me because while I will happy connect with people on LinkedIn, Google+ or Twitter, my Facebook is strictly for family and close friends.  Sorry, I won’t connect with you there unless I have actually met you in real life and really care about keeping in touch with you.

I also have a “gamer” persona that I have used for the entire decade plus of my online experiences, after my parents said I couldn’t use my real name for my AOL screen name at the age of 14.  I still do a lot under that other name, including playing World of Warcraft and hanging out on forums with my online friends.  Should I try to keep that a secret or own up to it?  Should I keep my identifies disparate, or unite them?  I guess it’s similar to the blog I once read that asked if the skills learned by raid leading in Warcraft could be claimed on a resume, to which I say: why not?  Is learning how to effectively manage a team of people with unique skills and personalities by working through Blackwing Descent really that different from being a shift leader at McDonald’s?

Becoming a Medievalist

My story of becoming interested in medieval English history may not be unique: I blame it all on my mother and her copy of Anya Seton’s novel Katherine, which tells the love story of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Katherine Swynford.  (Most people who have known me for a while know that I am still a self-confessed John of Gaunt fangirl, more on that later.)  It fired my imagination with its descriptions of fourteenth-century life and I began working my way through the English history section of my local public library and made it through just about the entire Dewey Decimal 942 section and as much of the 920s as interested me.  I fell whole-heartedly in love with medieval England and spent my money on scholarly biographies and works of history.

When I went to college, however, I had no idea that you could turn a love of reading fiction and history into a career outside of publishing, so I enrolled at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) in a course focusing on professional writing and editing.  It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I met one of the people who changed my life: Dr. Mark Allen, my mentor.  My first college-level exposure to medieval literature came in the form of what those of us who met (and became close friends) in that class affectionately refer to the “King Allen” class.  It was a course on Arthurian literature which spanned the first brief mentions of Arthur in the Welsh Gododdin up to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  It was an eye-opening experience, not least because a good friend persuaded Dr. Allen to give us weekly hour-long sessions in medieval studies, which continued for me for two years until I graduated.

I remember being generally quiet in these sessions to begin with — I thought Dr. Allen was (and is) the bees knees and it took me a long time to get over being intimidated by him.  I do remember the first time I corrected him: we were discussing the Morte Darthur and Thomas Malory and he had incorrectly drawn a genealogy of the major houses of the Wars of the Roses.  After that it wasn’t long before we were discussing Chaucer and Dr. Allen found out just how much I knew about my beloved John of Gaunt and the fourteenth century.

These sessions introduced me to palaeography and codicology.  One of my favorite things we did was transcribe from facsimile and years later when I went to Oxford, I thanked Dr. Allen every time I had a transcription class with Dr. Ralph Hanna because I rarely had much trouble.

What started as an informal tutoring on medieval studies eventually made me realize that medieval literature was It for me.  It was What I Wanted To Do When I Grew Up, and I took it very seriously.  As a student in the UTSA Honors College, I had the option of writing a senior honors thesis and in the fall semester of 2005 I asked Dr. Allen to be my advisor.  I didn’t have a topic, but I knew I wanted to do something medieval.  Over the next year, Dr. Allen did a lot of hand-holding for me as I flailed about in the great sea of medieval studies and tried to find my own niche and voice.  Eventually I wrote about medieval English literary patronage but it was only after Dr. Allen encouraged me to write about what I knew and loved that I decided to write about John of Gaunt.  I still remember very clearly the night I “cracked” the problems I was having with my thesis and was able to perfectly articulate my theory.  Which is odd, considering my moment of inspiration came after an evening at the Flying Saucer and a lot of beer.

It was all downhill from there.  Thanks to Dr. Allen’s encouragement, I became a fully paid up medievalist and have enjoyed continued throwing myself headlong into books of medieval history and literature ever since.  Some day I hope to conserve medieval manuscripts and study them to discover the unique histories of these beautiful codices — but I’ll leave it to other medievalists to interpret what I preserve.

Next time: how I went from collecting old books to studying archives and preservation.

In The News: The Cuthbert Gospel

British Library seeks £9m to buy oldest book in Europe

Library launches appeal to purchase 7th-century Cuthbert Gospel, which it has had on loan since 1979.

A £9m appeal has been launched by the British Library to buy the oldest intact book in Europe, a palm-sized leather-bound copy of the gospels buried 1,300 years ago in the coffin of Saint Cuthbert…

I don’t think it will shock anyone to know that this story makes my heart smile and that I am super excited that the book will reside part of the year in Durham, where it was discovered in St. Cuthbert’s tomb.  It’s an exciting opportunity for the British Library to acquire another British national treasure for the enjoyment and education of all.

When I shared the link with my mother, she commented on how surprised she was that in the photograph the librarian holding the book was not wearing gloves.  That got me thinking about wearing gloves and what the rules are.  I don’t claim to know what the generally-accepted practice is — in my experience of working with manuscripts at libraries in Oxford, London and other UK libraries, I never had to wear gloves.  This seemed odd to my mother, but since the librarians of the Duke Humfrey’s Library didn’t require me to wear gloves when handling my beloved fourteenth-century MS Digby 166, I never stopped to think about why I wasn’t wearing gloves or whether I should be.

I suppose the exact whys, wherefores, theories, and debates will be something I study at the iSchool.  Until then, this article on misconceptions about white gloves from Between the Covers brings up some good points, many of which I agree with (loss of dexterity is due to gloves is a MAJOR annoyance for an iPhone-a-holic like me, and the primary reason why the only gloves I wear are Brora’s fingerless cashmere wristwarmers).

My Life-long Love Affair With Books

To introduce myself to this, the wide wide Internets, I thought I’d start out my blog with a few posts about who I am and what my background with books is.  I hope this helps you all understand the perspectives I bring to thinking and talking about books as physical objects and repositories of knowledge.

I think the love of books and reading is genetic. Just like some people are right-brained and some people are left-brained, I think that the capacity to devour books (… figuratively) is something you have or you don’t. My parents are both voracious readers. My great-grandmother and namesake, Lydia Stark, was also a lifelong reader and I like to think some part of her love for books came to me with her name and the few books of hers that I have.

To be honest, I never really stood a chance, even if I had wanted to. I grew up in a house full of books. Even though the overall number of permanent denizens on the shelves is less now than it was when I was a kid, I still think of my parents’ house as bursting with books. My grandparents also had countless numbers of books on hands for those hot summer afternoons when we were forced out of the pool for fear of sunburns. I was constantly being read to or encouraged to read, and the love of books seeped into my skin and bones and has never left me. I hope it never will. By the time I was in high school, I was semi-famous among the faculty for being the only student reprimanded for reading too much.

But many people can claim to be great readers and not really be interested in the rare, delicate codices I adore with heartfelt passion (and spend far too much money on). What I want to talk about for my next few posts is why I want to do what I want to do; why I want to repair broken bindings and read medieval scrawls.

It all began with this book: The Two Dianas, Vol. II by Alexandre Dumas.

My mother discovered this book among the many volumes in the family library when I was 14. It had belong to that same Lydia Stark I mentioned earlier. Being a second volume, it began in the middle of a story that captivated my mother and I and caused us to learn about and hunt down (thanks to the kindly interlibrary loan librarians at the Chapel Hill Public Library) every other book in the roughly chronological series of historical romances produced by Alexandre Dumas. There are many: at least 26 (27 now that Dumas’ lost adventure has been published) that span French history from François I to Napoleon. I read them all over the course of one summer — to say that I devoured them is a bit of an understatement. I know at the time I could read one in a day, and even now that I read more slowly and think more thoroughly it doesn’t take me that long to get through them.

Occasionally as we were interlibrary loaning books in the series, we would get a copy that was part of the same series as our Two Dianas. This was always very exciting, but as this was the early days of Internet shopping and probably pre-Amazon, (and I was a 14 year old with slim financial resources) I never seriously considered trying to find the rest of the set until one day it fell into my lap thanks to For $214 (plus shipping), I bought the entire set of 25 novels published by P. F. Collier & Son in New York in 1910 that matched my single, orphaned volume.

Thus began my personal rare book collection and my fascination with books with crumbling spines and rubbed gilt titles.

Next time I will talk about my undergraduate degree, exposure to palaeography as a discipline and how I became a medievalist.