The Unexpected Benefits of a Varied Life

This post originally was about using my liberal arts social science background as a physical science librarian. But a comment from “Bob” on my last post got to me when he mentioned some “dead ends” in his background. So here’s a roundup of ways I’ve tapped by wealth of experience to perhaps demonstrate the use of dead ends.

1) The history degree

My first tour of duty in academia was as a history major at a small liberal arts college and I wrote my thesis on Japanese militarism in China. Forward 18 years, I was asked to find an old Japanese patent that just didn’t come up in the Japanese Patent Database. But via a lovely non-linear insight, it struck me that there should be a year at the beginning of the patent application and it quickly clicked that the patent used the imperial calendar. The patent was retrieved quickly and the speed was due to this degree.

Also, I had a request for articles on Greek cultural life in America. Akron’s nursing program requires students to investigate an ethnic community and social sciences literature remains unfamiliar to most of the students. Although not as smooth as an actual specialist librarian, I at least knew to recommend an anthropology database and we found something a bit quicker than if I had not taken a few anthro classes.

2) Used Book Buying

For about five years. I worked as a book buyer at Powell’s Books and during that time purchased and priced around a million. From this job I was able to tell a coworker how to unslant a book’s spine and how to get out mildew smell. One of my liaison departments had a very nice book set donated to them and wanted an appraisal to decide if it was worth dealing with the administrative red tape to sell it (being useful is essential for liaison work).  Finally, dealing with customers at bookstore information shifts was solid preparation for reference shifts.

3) Janitorial

I can change toilet paper rolls like a champ.

4) Lab Work

My job as a research technician and lab manager has allowed me to talk shop with some of the students (giving advice on how to plate bacterial transforms is something of an eyebrow-raiser at the reference desk). Understanding lab group social structure and communication dynamics developed an understanding of the pressures facing my various user communities. Running a facility gave me experience in spending, budgeting and dealing with vendors. Also, being a former equipment manager certainly helps when the printers get jammed.

There’s more, but librarianship requires and rewards a broad skill set and may offer a chance to resurrect some of those career dead ends. That said, I’m not sad that my years of restaurant experience have lain dormant … oh, wait … I volunteered to help plan the holiday party.

But what about you? Please share your stories of unexpected value from allegedly unrelated fields, I’m really curious.

Author: Ian McCullough

Physical Sciences Librarian and Associate Professor of Bibliography at the University of Akron

4 thoughts on “The Unexpected Benefits of a Varied Life”

  1. I like this post a lot, Ian! The paths that we take on the way to librarianship are so varied and I’m eager to read other comments on your post.

    Before becoming a librarian I worked for the Government and Community Relations division of a private research university. It was a fun job with a crazy amount of variety including:

    Scheduling and guiding elementary through high school aged students on campus tours – This definitely helped with the instruction responsibilities in librarianship. Holding the attentions of a group of 15 college students is a lot easier than trying to entertain a group of 50 fifth graders.

    Hosting international visitors – This was a great experience in cross-cultural communication and research. You don’t want to host a group of academics from a country you know nothing about and look like an idiot!

    Developing /maintaining websites – This part is a pretty straight-forward translation to library work.

    Staffing a welcome center and providing campus visitors with information about the university and city – Again, this is very applicable to librarianship, specifically public services/reference work.

    There were a whole lot of other responsibilities but these were the highlights!

  2. After experiencing a case of academic library burnout, I took a position as Assistant Director of an Academic Resource Center, where I supervised tutors and taught a one-credit college study skills course. The experience was great for me, because it allowed me to really get to know first year students in a way that work in a library did not allow. I gained a better perspective of the challenges that many of our students face and learned that what might appear to be a research problem, might actually be a totally different issue, such as a writing or tutoring issue.

    I’ve since transitioned back into academic librarianship and initially I worried that this detour on my resume would prove to be a liability. Now, I see it as an asset. I’m more familiar with student support services and have come up with ways that the library can work with other campus services to assist students in being successful.

  3. I’m flattered my response started some new ideas. I guess I need to respond once again to make the circle complete.

    They said I would be fine working in a high school since I could handle middle school (although I was not a librarian, a special ed. assistant finds plenty to keep busy with). Now that I have high school experience, people tell me I am more than prepared for “just about anything.”

    The divinity career meant I did a lot of public speaking, counseling, teaching, dealing with the public, administration, and changing the toilet paper rolls as well. The divinity degree was history-heavy, so there is rarely something I haven’t at least heard of and can figure out how to find more of just about anything.

    Now if only I knew how to change my oil. An auto mechanic has some tremendous skills 🙂

  4. Thanks for the responses everyone. On Shaundra’s point, I’m not too surprised that your time in student support services informed and assisted your library career. It sounds similar to how I use my understanding of lab groups in my job. As a field, I think librarians are pretty open to an eclectic background and that having some other experience in higher education (student, technician, administration) helps tremendously.

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