I’ve always scoffed at mid-life crises. The number of dads out there buying Porsches and dying their hair gives me a lot to scoff at. Nevertheless, I’ve been feeling kinda old lately. At first, I thought it might be my daughter finishing up high school this year, or the fact that my son has the hair that I always wished I had, or the fact that my wife has not a single grey hair and looks better than the day I met her. More likely it’s my lingering fear that professionally I would one day become what I once beheld–that old crank in the corner talking about the old days of libraries and what life was like before Google and mobile phones.
I graduated from library school in the summer of 1996. Before the internet bubble had burst, before its full potential for libraries was even partially realized. As I impatiently awaited word from numerous academic libraries about the prospect of entry-level employment, I did what many new library school graduates had done, and what fewer continue to do–I approached a vendor. I thought I had struck gold…until I talked to my faculty.
The looks I received were like those of parents whose children leave home to live in a foreign country, decline to take over the family business, or decide to marry outside the faith. Genuine concern was expressed about my decision. No one had told me about “the dark side” of the profession (to be fair, no one had told me I was training to be a Jedi, either). It never occurred to me that my move would be equated with selling out, selling my soul, or worst of all, leaving the profession before I had entered it. There were only two dissenters among my esteemed Jedi masters. One who said, “Good, maybe you can do something useful.” The other, my first library mentor, was more cynically realistic, pointing out that I was thinking way too much and reminding me, “It’s your first job out of library school, it’s gonna suck no matter what it is.” *
On Monday, August 19, 1996, I started my first job out of library school at Innovative Interfaces. Even though there were many aspects of it that made my mentor’s words prophetic, I’ve never regretted the decision. My new mentor at III was one of the smartest librarians I’ve ever met, Steve Silberstein, co-founder of III. Jerry Kline, the company’s other co-founder and last private owner of III, showered his staff with advice about the library business, much of which has come back to me more poignantly in later years. I learned more at III in 2 weeks than I did in a semester of most library school classes. I made my first professional contacts, a few of whom remain my very closest friends today. When I left III and made a name for myself in the industry, my library school even invited me to come back to give a lecture. All was forgiven regarding my questionable career decisions.
After our brief stint in California and the birth of my daughter, I spent an awesome 9 years at NCSU Libraries. There isn’t enough space here to say how much that meant to me. Suffice it to say that I worked with some of the best people in the industry on some of the most exciting projects. My Ohio colleagues will back me up that I say (too often) that all good things in libraries have some lineage back to North Carolina.
And now almost 9 more years at OCLC. From small private academic as a paraprofessional to for-profit vendor to large research library, to non-profit cooperative. My time at OCLC has been the most rewarding. That MBA I planned to get before I was 40 was essentially earned on the job. I was given the reins of the biggest project of my career, managed multi-million dollar business lines, traveled the world, and I’ve worked with the smartest most dedicated people in our industry…at OCLC, OCLC’s partners, and among the worldwide OCLC membership. And my new role developing new communities of users is a dream job that now also includes managerial responsibility for the OCLC corporate library. I’ve been thinking about adding “Library Director” to my resume now (though I can take nothing away from the wonderful Kem Lang, who actually directs and runs the library).
It’s been a great 20 years! I hope no one looks at me like the crank I once feared. To those who would call me a bit prickly, I remind them that I earned the nickname “Mr. Crabby” in my mid-twenties. If I’ve cranked about libraries, it’s been in an effort to improve them. I’ve endeavored to rock the boat forward. My secret to success was a sincere earnestness for libraries to be successful. I started my career with that perfect combination of ignorance and arrogance. The former will invite ridicule from the profession’s old guard; the latter might get you noticed over the din and disruption that is often present in our profession. I was lucky. I was able to transform ignorance and arrogance into curiosity and ambition, a much better recipe for long-term success in this business we call libraries.
No mid-life or mid-career crisis for me. Instead, I’m looking forward to the next 20 years with excitement for what’s to come.