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#whylib: sharing our origin stories

Note/update: the #whylib origin stories are now being collected on this Padlet.  See the embed below.This weekend a new hashtag meme emerged as a result of a little Twitter conversation.

Sherry Gick wrote to explain

It happened during a casual Saturday morning Twitter convo, but I think it’s amazing!  #WhyLib is the new hashtag to use for TLs to tell their story…their journey to becoming a librarian.

The hashtag is quite active on twitter and we’re encouraging librarians to tell their stories this month as part of our School Library Month long celebration.

Our stories are unique. Our paths are different.  But we are all part of one big community/tribe that is strengthened by our journeys to arrive here.

It just so happened that this week I also faced one of those birthdays that kinda forces you to reflect.  So I was already thinking back to my origin story when the meme called to me.

There was never a moment in my life that I did not love libraries.  Our regular evening family trips to BPL for stacks of books for me and my brothers were the highlight of my week.

No surprise.  When I was 16, I got my first job after school as a page at that local branch of Brooklyn Public Library.

I can’t say that I loved shelving all that much, but I can tell you that I was seriously inspired by a young (and cute) library intern who fed me one book after another.  They weren’t the books that my high school friends were reading.  Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes transported me out of that insular Brooklyn neighborhood.   This young librarian’s trust that I could not only grasp, but fall for Japanese existential literature thrilled me.  I not only wanted to date him, I wanted to be him.

I was pre-med when I entered Brooklyn College.  This was expected of me as a first child in a lower middle class Jewish family with aspirations. My grades were fine, but the competition drove me crazy.  My bio classmates hid books in the library so others would not get to them.  Ben, my boyfriend at the time, was a math major who helped me with my calculus homework.  (It panicked me that I was getting Bs on exams.)

During one particular extreme calculus meltdown, Ben asked, “Why the hell are you doing this, Joyce?  You hate math and science.”  At the same time, to test if my interest in medicine was true, I volunteered at a local hospital where I helped change sheets.  I kinda hated that too.

My first Manhattan job during those two years at Brooklyn College was as a clerk in the Newspaper Advertising Bureau library, where I clipped trade publications as a current awareness service. I’d cut out articles, paste them on yellow paper and hand write subject categories on the top right of the page to distribute to the advertising men.  (Yep, they were all men, if I remember correctly.)  I’d later file and retrieve those yellow pages as needed when an advertising emergency struck.  (Picture a library on Mad Men!)  I loved feeling that I could make a contribution to the team.  I admired the librarian who ran the little library with such energy and devotion.

Those two early library positions created a pattern of happy library job memories.

After I graduated, as an English lit major from SUNY Binghamton, I did not pass go.  I went directly to library school, with the intention of becoming an academic librarian.

Jobs were tight when I completed the Queens College MLIS program.   But after a couple of brief gigs as a proofreader and a freelance book indexer (manual, with a long box of index cards) for the University of Pennsylvania Press, I landed my first official professional job at the Franklin Institute.  My task was to lead the staff scientists in building the first pre-internet online bibliography on carcinogens, a project funded by Stanford University. We developed a controlled vocabulary. We read and indexed articles. Assistants entered the data.  The work was designed to speed access to time-sensitive information for doctors and researchers who previously had to wait for news and research updates through the peer review and publishing process and then through the wait for quarterly and annual publications of the scientific and medical citation indexes.  That is when I discovered that information access is serious business.  And that technology could make a life and death difference.

That job was followed by a couple of dream jobs.  As the Readers’ Services librarian at the Franklin Institute, I guided patent searchers and explorations of our special collections and serious science journal research.   After that followed a series of other dream jobs as a children’s librarian and then an adult librarian/young adult librarian and branch head with the Free Library of Philadelphia.  I loved working in those communities.  I love planning just the right program.  I loved my storytelling and puppetry training and being on the film selection committee for a major public library.  I loved pajama story hour and preschool story hour and vacation reading club and those awkward early automation projects.  I loved kibbutzing with the senior citizens.  I loved building our Friends group.  I loved building community and making a difference in the lives of our community members.

When we moved out of the city, I had to leave the public library job I loved.  Largely because my kids were little, because Dennis traveled, because I needed hours to do after school activities and weekends with my kids.  So I returned to library school at Villanova University where I was forced to do my library degree from scratch again to get school certification.  (That’s right.  I have two library master’s degrees.  And supervisory cert too.)

I NEVER expected to fall in love with school library work in the same way I loved public work.  I enjoyed working with little ones for a couple of years, but my background in research better prepared me to help and teach older kiddos in a deeper, richer way.  When I landed in a high school library, I knew I was home.  You know the rest of that 25 year story.

The fabulous UNT IMLS-funded program allowed me to get my Ph.D.  And now, I am honored to be on the Rutgers faculty and able to help others begin their own origins stories.

Why not tell about your own journey to becoming a librarian and share it with #whylib?

Check out:

Andy Plemmons’ story

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Thanks so much Joyce! We always encourage our students to tell their stories, but have too often neglected our own. I’m looking forward to reading many inspiring stories this month from amazing TLs around the globe. Thank you for sharing YOUR story!

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