This theme of a nomad is so apt, now that I live and work in the Middle East as the Head of Cataloging and Metadata Services at the American University in Cairo. It was a long journey from being born in Phitsanulok, Thailand, then having to uproot to Chiangmai, Thailand after my father moved to our current family home. There, I attended Chiangmai University, where I got my undergraduate degree. After graduation, I got a scholarship to attend St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, and continued my journey on to Madison, WI, where I got my MLS. After graduation, I got a one year visa for practical training and got a job as an LC Cataloger at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. After the training, I went back to Chiangmai briefly to try out a teaching job, before deciding to return to Ithaca to marry and spend my life with Ernie, my husband. From Ithaca, education and the (travel) pulses in my feet (a Thai expression, equivalent to ‘wanderlust’) took my family back to Madison, WI for graduate school, then Atlanta, GA, where Ernie got his first professional librarian position and my daughter, Alyssa, was born. I took my family back to Madison, WI to continue my study in the doctoral program at UW-Madison-SLIS. My dissertation research took us back to Thailand to do fieldwork research in a Northern Thai valley district with a weavers’ cooperative. Due to the difficulty of village life on my family, we decided to return to Madison, even though my fieldwork was not completed. While I was working on my dissertation, I got a teaching position in London, Ontario, Canada, where I taught organization of information, diversity in librarianship, social science resources and scholarly communication for three years. After having difficulties completing my dissertation while teaching full-time in Canada, I took my family back to the U.S. and changed my career track to become a professional librarian and accepted the Catalog Librarian position at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. My last position prior to relocating to Egypt was in Lincoln, NE as a Metadata and Multicultural Services Librarian and Women’s and Gender Studies Library Liaison.
I see my life’s “itinerary” literally recorded on my mother’s wall calendar with one big page filled with my addresses and phone numbers over the years. This record on her wall calendar is a testament to my nomadic life. Although I hardly planned for my life to turn out like this, deep down in my psyche, I know this must have to do with my curiosity about the world, my yearning for adventure and new experiences in life. I love to learn and explore new things, ideas, peoples and places. I am not one who stays still, obviously. To travel around like I have done, however, requires one to love adventure and embrace differences. One has to be willing to learn and adjust to some drastic cultural differences, languages and general disruption of life routines. It is not too far off to say that it requires one to be both brave and bold. This is not something for the faint of heart. One needs to be resilient since there is much difficulty to overcome in living in a new culture. But the positive experience one will gain is far greater and worthy of all the troubles one may have to go through. I won’t trade this for anything else.
I am fortunate to have love and aptitude for learning languages. My native tongue is in Thai, but I have learned English, Japanese, French and German, although I do not retain much of these language skills. However, these learning experiences trained me in new language acquisition, which is very handy now that I am learning Arabic. Like learning any new language, you have to be dedicated and willing to give it time and effort. I told my Egyptian staff to give me a year to master the Egyptian Arabic language. I’d better keep my word.
Beyond overcoming the language barrier, one also has to manage cultural differences. Basically, though, if you engage with others with respect, dignity and compassion, and expend the effort to learn their cultures, you will overcome the differences over time and will learn how much in common we all have. We all share the basic human experiences of love, losses and joy in our lives. And I have applied the above principles in my new life in Cairo, Egypt, as well. I will be at AUC for the next couple of years. And I would like to share a bit of my experience of living and working in Egypt.
So what’s my normal in Cairo?
I came to Egypt at a time of uncertainty, after the Arab Spring that toppled Mubarak, and subsequently the revolution that toppled the Former President Morsi. The protests still continue, mostly after the Friday prayers at various squares throughout the governorates of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Fayoum and so on. Maadi, the suburb of Cairo where we rent an apartment, has seen some protest marches pass through, but we have not seen the violent clashes depicted in the media. In some way, we live in a bubble, not much affected by the unrest, so far.
Normally, my day starts with a bus ride provided by AUC, from a square in Maadi to the American University in Cairo, located in New Cairo. My ride starts at 8 a.m. and lasts for an hour on a good-traffic day. I get on my return trip at 5:15 p.m., arriving in Maadi between 6:30 to 7 p.m. or later, depending on the traffic. With free WiFi on the bus, I usually get some work done on the way to work. I enjoy working with my 8.5 FTE Egyptian staff very much. However, I do have some personnel issues to work through; most recently is the death of a new staff member who was so promising with his multilingual skills and a master’s degree. His death is a great loss for the whole library. As for other issues, we also have a tighter budget. It is a direct impact of the current political unrest in Egypt that hurt the economy and businesses. Other issues are the need for training, the documentation of cataloging procedures, quality control and efficiency in our process, to name a few. In many ways, we face similar issues other university libraries in North America and elsewhere are wrestling with; from e-books and e-videos, patron-driven acquisition, tightening budgets, the need to repurpose library space, redesign the liaisons’ responsibilities, and so on. In all, it has been a busy time since I started my current position at AUC on September 1st this year.
Although I’m no newbie to adjusting to a new culture, I still found myself being surprised by the differences. For example, I found learning Arabic, especially learning how to write from right to left, to be a huge strain. It goes against my writing habit as a right-handed person accustomed to writing from left to right to switch to reading and writing in Arabic from right to left. I also try to accommodate staff’s praying and fasting schedule especially during Islamic holidays, from Ramadan to the Eid al-Adha. I also had to learn about Islamic funeral rites due to the loss of a member of my staff in a tragic car accident. Another surprise is how the numbering of floors of buildings start with the ground floor, as in the British system. Or a work week starts from Sunday and ends on Thursday. TGIF no longer works as an expression for the joy of resting from the work week! And oh, the Cairo traffic! I dread crossing the streets here with the fast and unruly driving, certainly not suitable for a faint of heart. I also found the communication style to be more personal and face-to-face, with less emphasis on work e-mails.
I have to say that I love my new job and the great opportunities to practice my leadership skills. I hope my experiences at AUC will pave the road of my career toward library administration. The University also provides great benefits, from a furnished apartment owned by AUC (I do pay rent), free bus services from Maadi to New Cairo, and generous salary and benefits. The Faculty Services also organizes weekend trips around Cairo and outside of Cairo. Our recent trip was to the Red Sea at Ain Sokhna, a resort town, with visits to the Coptic monasteries dating back to more than a thousand years old. Next week, we will go to Islamic Cairo, a well-known historic area of central Cairo, and I will post the photos from the trips on my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/joyjanjao
Last but not least, I hope to visit with you all at the ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas in 2014. See you again soon, insha’ Allah (in God’s will, a very common expression in Arabic language).
Anchalee (Joy) Panigabutra-Roberts
Head of Cataloging and Metadata Services
American University in Cairo
New Cairo, Egypt
Editing assistance provided by Jaena Rae Cabrera and Melissa Cardenas-Dow.
American University in Cairo http://www.aucegypt.edu
American University in Cairo Libraries http://library.aucegypt.edu/
American University in Cairo Press http://www.aucpress.com/
AMICAL (our consortium) http://www.amicalnet.org/
The day I took my U.S. naturalization oath five years ago, I was disappointed by the judge’s demand that everyone should speak English. It was like being asked to willingly leave an important part of your identity behind. When I was younger, I may have agreed with him, but the idea of losing a language that shaped who I am was devastating. I still remember that moment from time to time when I think about language and identity.
A few weeks ago, a friend posted on Facebook an interactive map from the Washington Post titled “Mapping where English is not the language at home.” The map illustrates the growing number of non-English language households in the United States. The 2011 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, also the source of the Washington Post map, reported that more than 60 million of the U.S. population spoke a language other than English at home. This information reminds me of my parents’ house, where we communicate in at least three different languages in a single conversation. Instead of speaking completely in English, my dad and I sometimes talk in Tandaganon, a language that my mother does not really speak. At the same time, my mom and I will converse in Bisayan and English. My siblings and I talk in English since they do not know either languages. All the language switching is confusing to other people but it all makes sense to us. It is normal. Basically, we are a normal immigrant family household.
In this essay, I write about my own language journey through some of my life stories. I ask, “Who am I?” in the Tandaganon, Tagalog, Bisayan, and English languages.
Sin-o sa ako? When I was five or six years old, I moved from Davao City to the town of Tandag, Surigao del Sur with my lolo and lola (grandfather and grandmother). Tandag is on the Pacific side (Eastern) of the second largest island of the Philippines, Mindanao (blue pin on map: http://goo.gl/maps/XYNXp). Coming from Davao City (green pin on map), also in the island of Mindanao, where Bisayan and Tagalog are widely spoken, I had to learn Tandaganon to be able to completely understand the people around me. In a way, I was learning a new language at an early age. Tandaganon has a lot of similarities to Bisayan. “Good” is maayo in Bisayan and madayaw in Tandaganon. Some words are unique to the area. “Tomorrow” is ugma in Bisayan and silom in Tandaganon. In case you are wondering, in Tagalog “good” is mabuti and “tomorrow” is bukas. I consider Tandag as my hometown. So, I have a great affinity for Tandaganon. I definitely do not want to lose it.
Sino ba ako? Many people in the United States assume that the Philippines has only one language, Tagalog (or Filipino). This is completely far from reality. There are at least 181 languages and dialects spoken in the Philippines. With that said, I think Tagalog and Bisayan are the two dominant languages in the country. With all the languages I learned and studied, Tagalog is by far the most difficult for me to learn and speak. Hindi ako magaling mag Tagalog (I am not good in Tagalog). I still remember the time I received my report card that had my Tagalog class as the lowest grade. Ugh! I guess I am a little disconnected from Tagalog. Once in awhile, I do wonder why I find Tagalog difficult. Maybe it is because I grew up in southern Philippines where majority of the people speaks Bisayan. It could also be an act of pride not to speak Tagalog, a language mainly spoken in the northern Philippines. Historically, there is much political friction between the northern and the southern Philippines. I do remember that some television stations in Cebu City, a southern city, played the Bisayan version of the Philippine national anthem. It is definitely an interesting thought that I would like to explore and understand, especially the dynamics of language, politics, and identity in the Philippines.
Kinsa man ko? I studied high school in Cebu City (red pin on map: http://goo.gl/maps/XYNXp), a few islands away from Tandag, north of Mindanao. Cebu City is the second major city and oldest city in the Philippines, after Manila. Bisayan is the language of Cebu. As a student at the University of San Carlos Boys’ School (Go, Carolinians!), all of my subjects were taught in English, except for the Filipino (Tagalog) language class. I remember the school implemented a policy that all students should speak only in English or Tagalog while on school grounds with the intention that we should all be “professionals.” Bisayan had no place in school. Yes, my beloved native language was not and, possibly, still not considered professional or acceptable in school. Well, wa na nadugay (that did not last long). All of us students did not follow that rule, or if we did, we made fun of it. We pretty much continued with our daily conversations in Bisayan. I am sure the school administration gave up enforcement at some point.
Who am I? English is a required language course in Philippine schools. In fact, it is now an official language of the Philippines, together with Tagalog or Filipino. Since the very first day of school, I have been doing my A-B-C’s but that did not make me a perfect English speaker and writer. When I immigrated to the United States after high school, the move brought me new challenges with the English language. Even though I learned English early in my life, I was so self-conscious about how I sounded, how I phrased words, that I ended up timid most of the times. I was definitely afraid of sounding stupid. I do not say this often but I still am very self-conscious about my writing, even with simply updating my Facebook status. I, or someone else, always find mistakes with grammar, spelling, etc. Yes, I know English but, of a completely different sort. I remember learning English in the Philippines, where long, complicated sentences are considered better. But then, when I was in college here in the United States and taking a rhetoric/composition course, I was taught to be succinct and concise. I still struggle.
One of the many questions that I often get asked as an immigrant is, “What is your native language?” I always find this question difficult to answer. I think I find it difficult because I don’t have just one. Both Bisayan and Tandaganon are very significant to my childhood. These two languages shaped the way I think about my hometown, my culture, and my identity. If I have to choose just one, I will probably choose Bisayan as that is the language I learned first, but only because it was the first. However, Tandaganon, a language I learned from an early age, is much closer to how I define myself as a Filipino. Does your native language have to be the one you learned first? Or could it be the one that you associate with the most?
When I look back at all the moments when language made a significant impact on my life, I smile at the good times and cringe at the bad ones. Mostly I smile at all the memories language has given me thus far, good or bad. Questions about language and identity are common to have and experience. All of us, whether monolingual or multilingual, have journeys in many languages.
Until next time, y’all! Now that I live in the southern state of Georgia, I expect to learn a new variation of the American English language. I am looking forward to it.
Paolo P. Gujilde
Coordinator of Collection Development/Assistant Professor
Zach S. Henderson Library
Georgia Southern University
Commission on Filipinos Overseas
Ethnologue – Philippines
US Census – Language Use
SIL Philippines; Partners in Language Development
My earliest memory of something being both Asian and Latino and cool was when Kogi BBQ hit the L.A. food scene with its Korean taco truck in 2008. For those unfamiliar with Kogi, their short rib taco is where it’s at—“two crisply griddled homemade corn tortillas, double-caramelized Korean barbecue, salsa roja, cilantro-onion-lime relish and a Napa Romaine slaw tossed in a chili-soy vinaigrette.” It’s fantastic and pretty much genius. Growing up Japanese-Mexican in California, the seemingly natural interplay between Asian and Latin American flavors is something that my family and I have known for years.
A couple of years before Kogi blew up the L.A. food truck scene, I moved to Irvine as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed freshman entering the University of California, Irvine as a biology major, mostly because that seemed like the thing to do. The reality was that I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I switched majors four times, trying to find something I loved, something I felt passionate about. I finally found what I was looking for when I took a class on United States intervention in Latin America, which was basically a history course on all the stuff conveniently unmentioned in high school history courses. This was also the breakthrough moment of my life when I discovered how little I knew about the world around me. At this point, I decided that I needed to experience the world firsthand and learn about world history and culture for myself. In 2005, I packed my bags for a summer archaeology field program in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile.
Back to food. One of the first meals I had when I arrived in the city of Iquique in Chile was at a chifa restaurant in the city’s small Chinatown. Chifa, originally from Peru, refers to Chinese cooking that incorporates locally available ingredients. That summer, I had my fill of arroz chaufa (fried rice), tallarín saltado (chow mein), sopa wantan (wonton soup), and, quite possibly my favorite, aeropuerto (airport)—a glorious mix of chow mein and fried rice. Heaven. Aside from good food, my first chifa experience forced me to realize how naive I had been regarding the various Asian diasporas around the world. In school I had learned about Japanese and Chinese immigration to the United States, but it had never occurred to me that there were other immigration options aside from the US. Up to this point in my life, I didn’t even realize that it might be normal to have both distinctly Asian and Latin American roots.
My trip to Chile also marked the end of my four-year undergraduate experience, and I still didn’t have a clue about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. At this point, my dad advised that I pursue a graduate degree in something that I loved and that I would find my path along the way. Thus, I enrolled in a Masters program in Latin American Studies at San Diego State University, which allowed me to travel to other countries within Latin America, including Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, and Panama. This decision also enabled me to continue to explore established Asian communities in Latin America and experience how their food has adapted local ingredients and, in cases like Peru, become recognized as a an integral part of the national cuisine.
Food is a powerful and subtle way in which communities share their culture, history, and identity with others, essentially a catalyst for storytelling. Food connects us. Food helped me find communities and experiences similar to mine and sparked my curiosity into further exploring my own cultural identity in a global context. I feel incredibly blessed to live in Southern California and experience various forms of shared, borrowed, and blended food cultures, like Kogi’s Korean street tacos, reflective of our immigrant culture. As an academic librarian, I constantly refer students to tangible resources within the library and electronic sources to facilitate their research. At the same time, I couldn’t emphasize firsthand, real life experiences enough. Food is a good place to start.
Cynthia Mari Orozco
Loyola Marymount University
Los Angeles, California
Nikkei food stories in English, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese
Digital exhibition: “Gourmet Intersections: Asian-Latino Food Crossings,” Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center & Smithsonian Latino Center
Nikkei identity, history, and experiences
Eating Identities: Reading Food in Asian American Literature – Wenying Xu
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food – Jennifer 8. Lee
Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States – Andrew Coe
Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America – Linda Furiya
Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Through Time – Emiko Oknuki-Tierney
Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen – Donia Bijan
Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America – Gustavo Arellano
Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food
Food and Culture: A Reader – Carole Counihan, Penny Van Esterik
Depression became a normal part of my everyday vocabulary when I was twelve. I remember Newsweek did a cover story on Prozac back then. Upon reading the article, so many things began to make sense. At some point during elementary school, I suddenly became very shy. It came to such a state that simply greeting other kids was agonizing. Saying hello and good-bye to my neighbor’s daughter on the short walk to and from the school bus stop was painful. Before this time, my mother used to say I was outgoing and tiao pi, or mischievous. This made my grandfather remark that it was hard to believe I was a girl because I acted so much like my Uncle James, whom I adored, when he was young.
I don’t know what caused me to become so reticent and tongue-tied in public. This crippling shyness remained with me throughout elementary school, leaving me isolated and silent. It was not uncommon for me to go days without speaking more than a few words. Perhaps because little Asian girls were (and are still) expected to be shy, my silence was not considered a problem by anyone. I didn’t cause any “trouble.” And yet, a part of me knew that whatever it was that was holding me back wasn’t because I was Asian. I saw other Asian kids, including my sister, who had no problems talking and laughing in public, who weren’t afraid to go outside, who acted like normal people. This made me wonder what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t change. I developed suicidal ideation, although I didn’t know that was what it was called then. I became convinced that my life was hopeless.
Learning about depression made me realize that what I was experiencing had a name and that it was a condition that affected many people, not just me. There was help available through medication and counseling. This was further enforced in my mind when I went to college and had many friends and classmates who were diagnosed with depression and other mood disorders. They had received treatment at the campus health center. In fact, it was harder to know someone who wasn’t on anti-depressants than to know someone who was. Even though I was in a relatively safe environment that did not stigmatize mental illness, it was not until I had my own health insurance that I was able to get the treatment that I needed. When I first tried to broach this topic with my parents, they reacted with anger, disbelief, and ultimately, denial. To my parents, depression was not something that existed and anti-depressants were dangerous to take. I, too, harbored fears about going on medication that had so many side effects (really, if you look at the list of side effects, you wonder how in the world this is supposed to make you better). I was also concerned that the medication would “change” me, that I would be somehow cheating by not suffering enough. However, as one therapist pointed out, taking medication isn’t “cheating” or getting an “unfair advantage” — it just tries to help you be at the same level with others.
Although I have no wish to give to Big Pharma for the rest of my life, for now, I’ve come to accept that my new normal is to be on medication, possibly for a long time, and to see a therapist on a regular basis. Perhaps I’m fortunate that I’m one of the ones who have responded positively to medication, despite my lingering skepticism about the psychopharmacology industry. I probably would be worse off than I am now without treatment. Although they still ask when I can no longer take my medication and if I’ve tried going off of them, my parents have since come to understand that I am receiving treatment, even if they don’t entirely understand depression and still distrust medication. My former therapist was right though. Medication doesn’t bestow any kind of special advantage, nor did it turn me into a zombie or a former shell of myself, as I had feared. It only brings me as close to being “normal” as I can be. Perhaps in the end, that is all that I can expect of it.
Electronic Resources Librarian
Texas A&M University
APALA President, 2013-2014
NAAPIMHA (National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association): http://naapimha.org/
Friends Do Make a Difference Campaign: http://naapimha.org/friends-do-make-a-difference/
Raising Awareness About Mental Health and Suicide Prevention in the AAPI Community: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/05/10/raising-awareness-about-mental-health-and-suicide-prevention-aapi-community
Suicidal Thoughts Among Asians, Native Hawai’ians or Other Pacific Islanders: http://www.samhsa.gov/data/2K13/Spotlight/Spot118-suicidal-thoughts.pdf
The It’s Ok Campaign: http://itsokcampaign.org/
Chai (Counselors Helping South Asians/Indians, Inc.): http://chaicounselors.wordpress.com/
Asian American Mental Health, Ramey Ko story (by a friend of mine): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvvlLdHS1FA&feature=youtu.be
The month of May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. I will start off with that. What I want to say is that I follow the creed of financial expert and television personality, Ms. Suze Orman: “People first, then money, and then things.” I live by that order and almost always execute it in anyway I can. I don’t know if that’s normal. People don’t usually give up their time for others to an extreme, or do they? I volunteer in homeless and soup kitchen shelters because I want to. I help my friends or anyone in need of my “brain” or “time” because I want to. When people need my support, I am willing to sacrifice or “invest” my time on their behalf.
It’s kind of infectious, you see. I do my best to empower people around me because that’s what I seem to be good at. I love inspiring and motivating people to do their best because I believe in them, I see that they can do their best, and they deserve to be recognized for that. They, in turn, do the same for others.
However, this is ironic because I also see that I am unable to empower or inspire myself. I am constantly discontented and largely dissatisfied with myself. I see, all too clearly, how my life turned out differently from my own vision, which was largely borrowed from my parents. It seems that I have set an almost impossibly and invisibly high bamboo ceiling of expectations that no one can see or break, even myself. I don’t know, maybe it’s how I was raised: a defense or survival mechanism?
The drive to succeed and be “overly” or “super” ambitious is quite a common “gene” in Asians and Asian Americans. It is not a totally exaggerated stereotype in popular culture. There’s some truth to it. We were natured and nurtured to be workaholics of perfectionism, or at least in the eyes of our parents.
Like most Asian immigrant parents raising Asian American children, my parents expected my “academic and behavioral perfectionism” as forms of “normalcy” or “normality” or “normativity.” It is normal to get 100s in calculus exams, write perfect essays on literary epistemology of Victorian novels, and to greet and pay respects to your grandparents, even after the derision and irrelevant criticism you receive from them. On the contrary, it is not normal to refute your parents’ wishes, not normal to not go to Ivy League schools, not normal to not go to law or medical school, not normal to not be perfect.
Anything less than the ideal perfection is an insult to your family history and reputation. It questions your identity, the very essence of who we are. I learned to cope with that the best I could. The ever-present voices in my mind say: “You are not good enough. You will never be good enough. Now get back to work. Don’t waste any more time.” Those voices belonged to my parents, but I have now “embraced” them as my own. Maybe I like playing librarian because helping people allows me to escape from my own personal misery, self-loathing, and defeatist attitude?
From time to time, I think I did something right with my life at one point, though I did not fulfill my parents’ expectations. I didn’t go to Ivy League schools. I am not a doctor, lawyer, or investment banker. I am not making six figures now or having children at the moment. Those factors are not important to me, but somehow I feel I am missing something here. Maybe I feel like a “loser” because I’ve disrespected my parents and that makes me lack something–self-dignity, perhaps?
Is it normal to feel lost or strayed from your parents’ idealization of your life or am I simply living a normal life beyond the confines of my parents’ expectations? I don’t know and I don’t think I really want to know.
Amy Chua’s work, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, sparked a lot of anger and debate over the years. The infamous Tiger Mom. Yes, my parents were indeed Tiger Parents. I don’t need to say more about that.
If I have kids in the future, I’d drive them insane, too. I am not here to put the blame on my parents. They are who they are. They probably went through a similar hell with their parents, too, for all I know. I don’t pry, but I do theorize: is there a perpetual cycle of parental condescension from one generation to the next? Maybe or maybe not. It also doesn’t help that I think like an American, but embrace my Chinese cultural roots. I am an amphibian. I can switch my mind from Chinese to American to Chinese again, but I do not share the same mindset with my parents.
This reflective essay is not supposed to heal or relieve myself or anyone else’s emotional burdens from their childhood roots. It is to illustrate that we may or may not share similar life experiences. Our parallel memories and experiences define who we are and our relationships to our parents and to each other.
If this somehow made you question or at least made you concur with what I had written, then I’ve said what I needed to say. I’ve “contexualized” my “normal life” experience and perspective to best fit the reader’s needs and understandings of life, or at least the life that I have. It is and isn’t normal, depending on when you ask me.
So far, life as a librarian is quite a “normal” life because I like the work. I get to help people (anyone, really) in an extraordinarily (non-social, work-like) way: I empower and encourage them to read, research, and think differently about things beyond their own horizon.
Raymond (Ray) Pun is a writer, librarian, and thinker in New York. He has written essays for The Huffington Post, Colleges and Research Libraries News, World History Bulletin, Business and Finance Bulletin, and more.
Asian American Biography edited by Helen Zia and Susan B. Gall
Asian American Psychology: The Science of Lives in Context edited by Gordon C. Nagayama Hall and Sumie Okazaki.
Asian American Youth: Culture, Identity, and Ethnicity edited by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
The Asian American Movement by William Wei
Asian-American Pacific Heritage Month: History and Resources at The NYPL by Raymond Pun
It’s a Mad World.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “normal” as conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern. It seems that this definition of “normal” could easily be applied to librarianship in many different ways. We instruct, conduct reference interviews, create library policies, catalog items, create metadata standards, gather circulation stats, and develop collection assessment plans. For most of us, we feel like this maybe our normal, because we may answer the same reference questions, teach the same workshops, and take several iterations to complete a project until our world of information is normalized or until a new set of standards, policies, and plans emerges that requires implementation. As a result, our profession may appear to be normal or even seem neutral to people outside of our profession.
In “The Myth of the Neutral Professional,” Jensen (2005) states, “A claim to neutrality means simply that one isn’t taking a position on that distribution of power and its consequences, which is a passive acceptance of the existing distribution” (p. 30). Does this “myth of the neutral professional” apply to the field of librarianship? Unfortunately, I think so. We have accepted the norm with respect to library employment. In the blog Hiring Librarians, it has been noted that months to year-long job searches are common (Weak, 2012). It is not unheard of for recent LIS graduates to take paraprofessional positions, continue internships, volunteer, or work other jobs in different fields (Vincent, 2013). Traditional librarians will have to contend with the advent of digital libraries and possibly the full automation of technical services. I think it will be the norm that coding and technical skills will be part of the job description for librarians. INALJ (I Need a Library Job) blog advocates “walking the line between computer science and library science will afford you more opportunities, and better your chances of landing a position” (House, 2013). Again, I believe we have accepted this norm of library employment and job duties. Do new librarians and recent LIS graduates have a place in today’s world of librarianship?
In hiring practices, most entry-level reference library job posts require a combination of library experience and technical skills. A recent ACRL article published in November 2012, written by Detmering and Sproles, compiled a literature review on job advertisement analysis. Results show entry level positions were mostly in academic libraries. In the article, the authors cite Reser and Schuneman’s study of job ads from 1988. Reser and Schuneman found only 20 percent of positions were classified as entry level and there was a trend for librarians to acquire more specializations and to hire from outside the library field. Also, librarians needed to have practical experience and tech skills. More recently, about 49% of job ads stated project planning and implementation, 26.6% included supervision and managerial duties, and 54.7% required technologically focused responsibilities (Detmering and Sproles, 2012). These findings illustrate entry level job ads put an emphasis on tech skills and practical experience. As one job applicant said, “you can’t get a library position because you don’t have experience and you can’t get experience unless you have a librarian position” (Detmering and Sproles, 2012, p. 543).
My normal has echoed the very same thing, a circuitous, hopeful journey to being gainfully employed at an academic library. It has been over two years since UNC-Chapel Hill conferred my MSLS. I have submitted countless applications, attended over 20 library interviews, which most notably included a UC Santa Barbara Library Fellowship interview via Skype, a University of Maryland Data Research Librarian Fellow phone interview, and a University of Southern California GIS Fellow Skype interview. I have yet to find full-time library employment. Since graduating from library school, I have been underemployed as a temporary library assistant, worked in private industry, and volunteered in different libraries.
In October 2010, I accepted a temporary library assistant position at University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology and the position ended three months afterward. So, I decided to continue my journey to find full-time library employment in January 2011. During my employment search, I received several phone interviews. After several months, I received a rejection letter that stated, “we were greatly impressed with your background and qualifications, and we enjoyed talking with you to discuss the position. It was not at all easy to make a decision. Given the impressive strength of your resume and your accomplishments, we think it is very likely that you will be offered a challenging position elsewhere in the very near future.” The near future could not come soon enough.
In July 2011, I moved in with my grandmother in Los Angeles, California to save on food and rent. I continued my job search and settled for employment outside of librarianship. I accepted a data analyst position at LA Yellow Cab and started full-time employment. I began to hit the ground running with quickly learning new taxi cab terminology, taking on projects, and acquiring new technical skills. After six months, I decided to leave my position because I was not fulfilled and did not feel it was in alignment with my career interests. So, I started my library job search again and I felt I was not making any progress.
At the end of May 2012, I moved to Santa Barbara to take a break from my job search. It was a much needed break and I felt rejuvenated. I began to volunteer as a computer coach at Santa Barbara Public Library in August 2012. I was very fortunate to be part of a progressive volunteer program and acquired much needed practical customer service and instructional experience. Due to financial constraints, I moved back in with my grandmother in November 2012. Currently, I volunteer at East Los Angeles College Library, Pacifica Radio Archives, and work as a part-time tutor. I am very grateful for the continual support and practical training that I have received from my supervisors. Both volunteer opportunities have proven to be invaluable library experiences, which I hope will lead to full-time employment at an academic library.
I want to urge APALA members, library professionals, and hiring managers to not buy into the “myth of the neutral professional” and to defend our profession. As library schools continue to turn out new library graduates into an already saturated job market, I want to pose some questions. Do library schools need to curtail student admission? How can library schools better prepare librarians to enter the job market? What qualifications do new graduates really need to become employed? Do the job descriptions for an entry level academic library position realistically meet the skills and qualifications of new library graduates? There are post-MLS programs or library fellowships to further develop new librarians. Do we have enough of them? How successful are these programs? I believe these are important issues that we currently need to confront as a profession. I hope APALA members will seriously consider them as future topics of discussion, both verbal and written.
I also want to encourage my fellow job seekers to continue on their arduous journey to become professional librarians. l leave you with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, from his article “Returning Home” reprinted in Your True Home (2011). It has provided me with much inspiration: “Your true home is the here and now. It is not limited by time, space, nationality or race. Your true home is not an abstract idea; it is something you can touch and live in every moment. With mindfulness and concentration, the energies of the Buddha, you can find your true home in the full relaxation of your mind and body in the present moment” (p. 1).
Graduate of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
School of Information and Library Science, 2010
Chu, M. (2009). Ageism in academic librarianship. Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship, 10(2). Retrieved March 19, 2013, from http://southernlibrarianship.icaap.org/content/v10n02/chu_m01.html
Detmering, R., & Sproles, C. (2012). Forget the desk job: Current roles and responsibilities in entry-level reference job advertisements. College & Research Libraries.
House, N. (2013, Mar.18). Skills in need: Why coding and technical skills can benefit our job hunt. INALJ. Retrieved from http://inalj.com/?p=12916
Jensen, R. (2005). The myth of the neutral professional. Progressive Librarian, 24, 28-34.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. (2011). Your true home: The everyday wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh. Boston: Shambala Publications.
Shaffer, C. (2011). Best practices for hiring academic librarians with faculty status and rank. The Southeastern Librarian, 59(3). Retrieved March 19, 2013, from http://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1403&context=seln
Vincent, A. (2013, Mar. 6). Re: Making it work: Surviving as a librarian employed in another field [Web log comment]. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Retrieved March 19, 2013, from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2013/making-it-work/#comment-36092
Weak, E. (2012, Sept. 14). Further questions: How long did it take to get your first library job? Hiring Librarians. Retrieved from http://hiringlibrarians.com/2012/09/14/further-questions-how-long-did-it-take-to-get-your-first-library-job/.