i dream of being possible

a cynical letter to a new marginalized librarian

I’m writing this inspired by Cecily Walker’s call for feedback about what advice marginalized people would give to young librarians (or aspiring ones).

This is the cynical version. My next one will be a positive one.

My advice to marginalized people considering library school…

Don’t go. Particularly if you live in the USA, just don’t go. Knowing the extreme cost of school in America, it really just isn’t worth it (especially since I think librarians, on average, earn less money in the States than Canada). Considering the current job market (not only just in librarianship but in many fields), the payoff just isn’t worth it­– especially if this is about money (for many people it isn’t and that’s cool).

I come from a single parent, poor most of my life, Asian immigrant family. While my dad (on this account) was cool and didn’t really pressure me to do something practical like engineering (which is what most of my cousins have as degrees). But I know this was the case for many of my cousins and for many poor, immigrant families. Our families tend to push for the professional type of degrees: engineering, doctors, lawyers, etc., because they have a good payoff for money spent/invested.

And honestly? I know I used to think that this didn’t matter (which is why I have a BA in Chinese and Philosophy), but it kinda really does. It isn’t everything… but it also isn’t trivial. If this is a concern of yours, don’t go to library school.

If, like me, you have/are getting a humanities degree and don’t really know what to do with it (and this is why you are considering library school), I honeslty think you are better off (if you have the right grades and ability) to get another undergrad degree in engineering. Or maybe going to a vocational school and getting some kind of diploma (medical technician? idk, something that you think you can do without feeling miserable). Go for a cheaper option. With something more likely to actually get you a job (with health insurance, if you’re American).


As much as I love what I do…

All of the same, general structural problems that apply in all fields, also apply to librarianship.

So if you decide that this is what you must do, nothing else will make you happy, here are some tips.

  • If you have a non-anglo name? Change it
  • Be aware that the “darker your skin, the greater alienation” you’ll experience. And that most poc in Canada report job searching and workplace discrimination as the main source of racial discrimination.
  • If you have a non-trendy accent (ie, not from a romance language or the UK, etc.), you should probably get rid of it.
  • Don’t have a visible cognitive or learning disability. (Since we provide services for ‘those’ people, we can’t also be ‘those’ people)
  • Don’t have a visible physical disability. (Since all librarians work with books, if you can’t lift/move/etc, you can’t be a librarian.)
  • Make sure you’ve been working in libraries for at least five years before you graduate. (If you’ve just graduate, be sure to get your five years of experience before bothering to apply for entry level positions).
  • If you must be marginalized, try to only be one at a time (ie, no intersections of oppression).
  • Make sure to be the ‘good,’ ‘respectable’ type of marginalized person. The kind with gumption and a can do attitude, while pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.
  • Don’t list any experience with Queer organizations
  • Don’t be too poor to self-fund yourself to the ALA conference so you can network and stuff.
  • I think you get the point, by now.

Remember: this list isn’t actually specific to librarianship. A lot of these things are what you’ll have to contend with in the labour market in general. And it is unlikely that this is something I really have to tell you, since a lot of us already know what the deal is.

One thing, though… Don’t be fooled (as I was) about the somewhat inherently liberal nature of libraries and think that this means that they’ll be substantively different than any other sector. They won’t. It is a largely homogenous field and all of the above are still factors.

If you’ve already graduated… you have an uphill battle ahead of you. Beyond the sort of general dourness of librarianship and the, admittedly, not-so-great state of the economy/field, you have all of this to contend with. And, unfortunately, most of these things you can’t change (and some of the ones you can? Like your name/accent/trying to hide disabilities… you shouldn’t have to.)

And. The thing is, is I really do know that much of this won’t be a surprise. As optimistic as I was in library school (and my classmates can tell you that I was very optimistic), I was not really surprised about any of this.

Except, one of the reasons why I’m saying it anyway, and this is the important take away from this post/letter:

If you are struggling and having a hard time of it, it isn’t your fault. You are up against some significant and challenging structural barriers. And not succeeding right away does not make you less of a person. Nor does failing, if this happens to you.

Also… if you do change certain things and make certain compromises in order to side step some of these barriers, don’t be ashamed. You are not to blame. This system is to blame. We’ve all been there and made what compromises we’ve had to. Surviving is nothing to be embarrassed about.

I wish you the best.