The fog of misunderstandings

Rice University, Houston, Texas, USA - Statue ...

Rice University, Houston, Texas, USA – Statue of founder William Marsh Rice with Lovett Hall in background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I look back upon my rocky career path in the library world, I see working relationships marred by a strange fog of apparent misunderstandings.  More specifically, at being spurned and rejected, seemingly without reason, by people I assumed I was getting on fine with and being painfully mistaken about that assumption.  To this day I still couldn’t tell you with accuracy why some of these professional associations went south or otherwise failed to bloom.

Firstly, there was the Library Science professor I had for a certain build-your-own-database course.  My project was unique and interesting, I followed the rules and I recall I got either a low “A” or high “B” on the project itself.  This was also the semester my marriage finally fell apart, and I had to move back home with my parents and get my old job back with AIG, Inc., which I managed to do.  I get the vaguest impression my professor somehow disapproved of my divorce, or that my ex-wife got to him and told him some outrageous lies, but in any case, when I asked this professor to be one of my job references after graduation (and this was a fairly important, foundational course in the library science curriculum, mind you), he politely but flatly refused, without further explanation.  It was bizarre, and it threw a real monkey wrench into my immediate post-graduation job searching efforts.

Similarly, for my cataloging practicum at the Fondren Library of Rice University, living as I was back in Houston after my separation and pending divorce, I was assigned to one of the senior catalogers there who handled much of the German language materials cataloging.  I wasn’t perfect, but I learned valuable lessons under the wing of this senior cataloger.  I think she found me a little frustrating to deal with and train, but she showed a good deal of patience and for the duration of the practicum was a very kind mentor.  I learned a great deal from her and from my side of things it was a very positive experience.  It was also a joy to be able to catalog so many German language materials from a variety of disciplines, including history and philosophy and not just German literature.  I also enjoyed chatting with the Slavic languages cataloger, a kindly Polish woman slightly my elder in age.  We parted on good terms, or so I thought.  But when I later asked my mentor to be a job reference for me in my post graduation job search for my first professional library position a few months later, she politely but flatly refused.  Once again, I had an unexpected, rather formidable obstacle thrown in my way of what I’d hoped would’ve been a fairly straightforward job search proposition.

This rejection in particular was a painful rebuke that I still don’t understand to this day.  Painful because I didn’t see it coming, and painful because it stood in such contrast to how I viewed our working relationship and the progress I’d made under this woman’s tutelage.  This was meaningful work that I lived to do.  This was how I wanted my library career to be going forward as a cataloger, still filled with the heady idealism of having recently read Sanford Berman’s works, etc.  I wanted this kind of intellectual stimulation and rewarding work to do, using my expertise in German language and European culture to make scholarly works in the German language findable and otherwise more accessible in the library catalog for all interested persons.  I got to eventually do a fraction of this kind of work much later in my career, but always as a side project and never as my “main thing”.  My foreign language expertise and interests have largely been wasted and under-utilized or just not needed in most libraries where I have managed to find work for pay.  My practicum was genuinely FUN.  Most of my other paid jobs since then in library land have been far less so.  It’s a real shame, for the profession and for myself and my self-esteem as a library professional.

Nowadays, with the adoption of Resource Description and Access (RDA) as a (in my view) ill-conceived replacement for AACR2 (Anglo American Cataloguing Rules, 2nd edition), I feel shut out of ever doing active cataloging work in libraries ever again.  I’m out of practice, philosophically out of step with RDA, and my heart’s just not in it anymore.  My confidence as a cataloger was completely shattered by my penultimate and pre-penultimate bosses consecutively.  I’ll get back to this momentarily.

I continued to happily work for AIG, Inc. while I continued my job search for actual professional librarian jobs around the nation.  I had promising phone interviews that alas did not progress to the next stage, and much later I had one that did, even flew out to the university located in South Carolina, had a positive interview experience, and was only informed later that the position had gone to someone else, but at least had the satisfaction of knowing that I had been in the top 4 finalists granted an on-campus interview.

My first actual librarian job was in nearby Galveston, on the Texas Gulf Coast, at an institution of higher learning affiliated with one of the major state universities.  I think the interview went well, but I was VERY surprised to actually be offered the position, which I gratefully accepted.  I ended up working there for 6 months (probationary period) and even got a positive review at the halfway mark (3 months) without any substantive recommendations for how to do my job better, etc.  My mother felt I should’ve been more proactive in asking my boss what I needed to do, etc, and in hindsight I can see her point, but it’s not like I didn’t think of that at the time, and at the time I didn’t want to seem to be a fool who had no idea how to do his job, so I pressed forward and did the job as *I* though it should best be done.  But this turned out to be not to my boss’s liking after all, and my contract was not renewed beyond the 6 month mark, though my dismissal was dropped on my head without warning like an anvil.  I literally did not see it coming.  I also felt like I was undermined by my boss when I sought to get some training on our ILS system from the vendor but had this option nixed by boss who felt it was unnecessary.  She was wrong, of course, but what could I do?  Again after the fact my dad says I should’ve just paid for the course anyway out of my own wallet, but I felt like that was going to far and might look like insubordination to boot.  I foolishly had faith in “the system”.  Most ironic of all, I was sent away for a vendor-sponsored conference in Chicago, Illinois in early 2006 and it was THERE of all places that I finally got some of the training I’d been desperately needing to get over some substantial obstacles in my workflow…I came back feeling refreshed and ready to attack those problems anew and really make progress.  I was fired the very next workday after the conference.  Rather anticlimactic, to say the least.

I lucked out one last time and managed–again–to get my old job back with AIG, Inc, and fell back into working for them and resumed my library job search.  I attended a local library conference at Rice University, to keep my skills fresh, make contacts, etc.  I worried that failing so spectacularly at my first professional library gig doomed my chances of ever getting a 2nd library position.  I obviously wasn’t getting any letters of reference out of that Galveston gig.  My former director said that she felt that I had the raw intelligence to do the job, but that my work wasn’t up to her standards and so no, in good conscience she could not extend me a letter of reference going forward.

Imagine my surprise when I applied to a certain university in northern Texas on a fluke, was granted a phone interview followed by an on-campus interview, then extended an offer just before Christmas of that year.  It was like the best Christmas present ever, at the time.  I felt like I was in heaven that first year as a working librarian, enjoying all four seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall) in glorious colors up in Denton, Texas.  I got a positive first year review and everything was just peachy.  I felt like I could see myself working for this place for the next 20-30 years and retiring.  I indulged in the local cultural scene(s), watched a lot of anime on nights and weekends, founded a local atheist meetup since the campus alternatives weren’t really convenient for my needs.  The Denton Atheists Meetup continues to this day, and I’m quite pleased with that fact, even though left north Texas for the last time in late 2009.  I’m glad to still have a few casual friends up there I stay connected to via Facebook.  Once again, my dismissal came like a shot out of the blue, dropping on my head like an anvil.  Technically I was bullied into resigning, but clearly I would’ve been fired, probably before Christmas anyway if not shortly thereafter.  I was clueless that I had also completely expended the patience and understanding of the Electronic Resources librarian, who hated me despite always smiling and being polite in my presence, a demeanor I interpreted at face value and paid the price for so doing later.  I would rather be told directly that I’m annoying someone and getting on their last nerve as it’s happening rather than have them suppress their true feelings only to blow up at me later without warning.  But I was not yet diagnosed with Asperger’s yet.  I had no idea why things kept happening this way in my life.  It’s only after my diagnosis in 2010, looking backward, that everything makes a lot more sense in the rear view mirror.

I know I’ve touched on some of these topics and stories before, but I wanted to re-visit them because I don’t think I discussed some of the misunderstandings that beset me as early as library school, before I even had my ALA-accredited Master of Library Science degree in hand.

My diagnosis in 2010 made the difference that allowed me to retain my current job in libraryland owing to being able to wave the threat of action under ADA, unlike all my previous positions.  The main thing I did until my penultimate boss was fired was just survive working for a low-grade psychopathic bully.  Life has been so much better since that day and I thank my lucky stars for how lucky I am, comparatively speaking, to where I had been up to this point in my library career.  It’s still not quite where I want to be, but it works for now.  I also hear from AIG survivors that have left more recently (and who relay the words of those few who remain there) that working conditions have just gone to hell and the company is a shadow of its former self.  There’s really no going back anymore, even if I wanted to.  My salary now is higher than it was when I started AIG, but still not quite where it was my best year there when I left, but rents are now higher than they ever were in the late 1990s and early 2000s when I first began to work for AIG and could afford a place on my own near the loop.  I used to feel myself to be less of a man for living at home with my folks, but they need me now more than ever, and living like this is increasingly common for men in their 20s and 30s and for Aspergian men, like me, well into their 40s too.  Another facet of life for the declining American middle class, whether on the spectrum or not.