Thursday, June 01, 2006

Balancing Life and Librarianship

The first thing you should know about me is that I'm the daughter of a librarian. Mary Lillian Howley Callinan is the original Callinan the Librarian. She inspires me personally and professionally - and has a fan club of former colleagues across the Northeast. Growing up as the daughter of a librarian made me pretty passionate about the profession.

My mother received her undergraduate degree in librarianship from Marywood College and had a choice of positions upon graduation, unlike many of her classmates in the late 1940s. She worked in a variety of libraries for the next 12 years as a reference librarian and a library manager. She met my father at Fort Monmouth, where he was the editor of the base paper and she was the helpful librarian who tracked down the facts he needed for articles.

On the first Friday in October in the last year of the fabulous fifties, Mary Callinan closed up the lovely public library in Red Bank, NJ, went to the beauty parlor to have her hair done on Saturday, went to mass Sunday morning and to Riverview Hospital that afternoon. The future Callinan the Librarian was born shortly after midnight, arriving exactly on her due date. My brother Denis arrived two and a half years later, a few days early - show off!

Mom did not return to librarianship until I was five and Denis was three when we moved from New Jersey to New York and found ourselves a few miles from St. John's University. St. John's needed a rare books cataloger, and thanks to her solid liberal arts education, Mom had enough knowledge of Latin, French and German, combined with her library training, to convince St. John's to hire her on a part-time basis. Callinan the Librarian was back.

Now mind you, this was 1965. The women's movement was barely beginning to percolate. Many women were at home, working women were single and, to the extent that there were some women balancing work and family, they certainly weren't talking about it! Mom was no exception. Because her work was so independent by nature, she could work flexible hours and still be around when we weren't in school. Then there were Saturdays.

Mom put in a good chunk of hours on Saturdays. Some weeks that meant Daddy was Mr. Mom for the day. Other weeks, we went to work with Mom. As much as we enjoyed adventures with Daddy, the Saturdays we went to work with Mom were my favorites. We'd head to the children's literature floor in St. John's library, where Mom would deposit us in adjoining carrels, find a nice education major studying in the stacks, ask her to keep on eye on us, and then descend to the bowels of the library to catalog rare books. She'd come back up to check on us a few times and take us to lunch. The hours I spent in those carrels or sitting on the floor between the stacks, feet up on a shelf and nose in book, remain among the fondest memories of my childhood.

I understood that what Mom was doing was unusual, and as my awareness of the world grew, I realized that she was able to be a working mother, in part, because of her career choice. Librarianship offered the kind of flexibility that supported balance.

Becoming a librarian was always in the back of my mind, but I was a good student at a women's college at a time when good students were pushed into law and medical school. The week after I submitted my law school applications, I realized that I didn't want to be a lawyer - I wanted to be a librarian. The following week, after my last final, I went to my college library, found the books and journals about librarianship and discovered that I could still go to law school, quite a relief since I didn't really have a Plan B. I'd get my MLS after law school and become an academic law librarian.

Decision made, I spent the spring trying to explain my new plan. I got a lot of flak, but the winning argument was my expectation that librarianship would allow me to balance career and family in a way seemingly impossible in the law. I pursued my plan, with a lengthy, but happy, detour into private law librarianship, and spent the last eight years at Georgetown, raising children and working flexible hours.

My personal life experience serves as evidence that librarianship can be a career in which you can balance life and work. Unfortunately, I know other librarians who have not been able to achieve this balance and have been forced to chose life over librarianship. I also know a lot of librarians who are so swamped at work, they've essentially been forced to choose librarianship over life. I started my consulting company to try to address this imbalance by redistributing work and labor virtually and am optimistic that we can make a small contribution to the problem. But this is a bigger issue than a few librarians can solve.

So I pose these questions for discussion:
  1. Does librarianship still offer opportunities for the life-work balance we need and deserve?
  2. If not, how can we as a profession cultivate that balance to retain the current generation of librarians and attract the next?
  3. If we as a profession embrace work-life balance as a principle, how can we publicize this commitment to increase our standing in the marketplace?

Let the discussion begin!