by Tim Johnson
Curator of Special Collections and Rare Books and E.W. McDiarmid Curator of the Sherlock Holmes Collections
In early 2013 the annual call went out from Wendy Lougee, University Librarian, for professional development leave proposals, otherwise known in academic circles as sabbaticals. Having been at the University for seventeen years, I thought it was time I applied for such a leave. My only other extended leave, granted in 2001 under different circumstances and partially supported by the University’s Modern Greek Studies Program, was a five week intensive summer program in Greece conducted by the Freie Universität (Free University) of Berlin. In those five weeks I attempted to learn (at a beginner’s level) modern Greek. This time I had something different in mind.
Longevity does not guarantee acceptance of a leave proposal. University Libraries policies on these types of leaves are clear in their purpose and expectation. “Professional development leaves are provided as an opportunity for Professional and Administrative (P/A) staff to enhance their professional knowledge, skills, and performance related in a substantial manner to the individual’s role or potential role in the University Libraries. These leaves are designed to bring benefit to the individual, the unit and the institution. Leaves of this type are not entitlements and do require approval.” The approval process is not easy, nor should it be. My application went through a number of revisions and discussions before it was finally approved in January 2014. My proposal called for a twelve week leave, June 9 to August 29.
Once on the other side of the approval process, and with my project in hand, I felt a weight of expectation and a desire to make full use of this time. I realized that I was enjoying a benefit not available to many in the workaday world. It pleased me that the University understood the importance of such a leave, or as it is stated in the call for applications: “Professional development is a strong value of the University community, and the Libraries support this value to the extent possible.” I was (and am) thankful to my colleagues and a university that makes such a leave possible.
The overall goal of my sabbatical was to complete at least one article deemed appropriate for publication in a peer-reviewed professional journal. My chosen subject was the closing of the University of Minnesota Library School, of which I am a graduate. For the last two years I have been researching and drafting a book-length manuscript on the closing. Following presentations, discussions, and consultations with colleagues, academic publishers, library/information studies faculty members, and administrators it seemed wise to focus attention on an article-length treatment of some of the issues raised by the Minnesota closing (which occurred in 1985). It also seemed prudent to attempt to put the closing into the broader contexts of library education and higher education. I spent the first weeks of my leave reviewing and reading the literature; the latter part of my time I wrote and read some more.
It was a productive twelve weeks. I completed an extensive literature review on library education and library school closings. The review covered 3,338 citations to books and articles related to library education, library history, historiography, and higher education. As a result of this review, I read fourteen books and 149 articles during the course of my leave. A final draft article on library school closures of 12,516 words was completed. This article went to six readers for review and comment—two library educators, a history professor, a publisher, editor, and LIS graduate student. Some reader feedback has been received, with the remainder expected later this fall. I plan to submit the article for publication before the end of the year. A second article, not related to my major project, was drafted and submitted to editors at American Libraries in response to a general invitation received on social media. A third article, still in its early stages, was begun as follow-up to a panel presentation I made at this summer’s Association of College and Research Libraries/Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Preconference in Las Vegas. The article’s focus is on potential futures in special collections, rare books, or archival work for early career professionals. I hope to finish this article by early winter and submit it for publication.
My choice of venue for all this reading and writing was the highly acclaimed University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. The Arboretum is about eleven miles from my home and offered an ideal setting away from those distractions of domestic life: an urge to mow the yard, weed the garden, or wet a fishing line in one of the state’s alluring lakes. The Arboretum’s Horticultural Library provided the perfect environment for quiet, uninterrupted work. When not working in the library, I often set up at an outdoor pavilion, picnic table, or bench near one of the trails. To clear my head, or ponder some reading, I took to the trails and stretched my legs. The Arboretum was a perfect place to spend my leave. Two other venues saw the balance of my work: home and a lakeside cabin near Garrison, Minnesota. I rested and exercised—in the fullest sense of those words—during my leave and came away physically, emotionally, and intellectually refreshed.
The feeling of peacefulness or rest inspired by the Arboretum fed a more timeless sense of sabbatical, one that I cherish and honor—“of the nature of a Sabbath or period of rest.” The Oxford English Dictionary informs me that the word “sabbatical” entered the English language in 1599. But the ethical or justice issues associated with this word have a much longer heritage and ancient use. The academic use of the term sabbatical continues to carry this premodern sensibility, if in a slightly altered form. A sense of release and freedom, of letting the land of everyday concerns lie fallow, was palpable. At the same time, a new sense of daily discipline laden with different expectations was unmistakably evident. There was vitality in this newfound tension between release and responsibility that I found invigorating.
Part of this vitality was found in the almost daily reflections I had on the nature of librarianship as a profession. Some of the many articles and books I read during my break speculated whether we could use “profession” or “professional” to describe our work. I believe it is a profession, even if I might choose “vocation” to describe my own entry into this world thirty-three years ago. It is a world that wrestles with many of the same issues it did decades ago: recruitment, appropriate education or credentialing, accreditation, job markets and placement, continuing education, academic freedom, censorship, image and stereotypes, public support and funding, advocacy, technological impacts, values and ethics. Through all the permutations and experiences there remain a set of core values. Part of my questioning and pondering during this break from routine revolved around this question: what are the profession’s core values?
On a cabinet in my office is taped a single sheet of paper with what might be described as my modus operandi: Collect stuff + Describe stuff + Preserve stuff + House stuff = Accessible stuff. It is, I readily admit, a simplistic motto. Each action word is freighted with decades, if not centuries, of thought, careful study, conversation, writing, and resolution of what these activities mean in the context of life in this profession. At the same time, this maxim describes much of what I do as a librarian/curator. I am a creature of my culture and responsible for the stewardship of a small portion of this cultural estate. How I go about my task is informed by who I am, my training and experience, institutional goals and priorities, political and economic realities, professional and governmental initiatives, and much more. My professional core values live in this milieu. In them I live and move and have my being (or at least part of my being).
I was called to this profession following a year’s contemplation after college and from an answer to a question I received from a very helpful reference librarian who opened many doors for me as an undergraduate. My question: how can I do what you do? Her answer: the American Library Association (ALA) Directory pages listing accredited programs, an exhortation to closely examine each program, and an invitation to apply to the programs of my choosing. I am forever indebted for her answer. Living, as I was, in Michigan at the time, some might argue with my final choice of program, given the ultimate demise of Minnesota’s library school. But Minnesota did what I asked it and demanded it to do. I learned my craft at the feet of someone once termed a “young turk” and “more radical than many of the established leaders” in the profession. I practiced with some of the best subject bibliographers and archivists in the business. I watched a library system at war with itself while learning the basics of lobbying legislators, administrators, and regents in our attempt to save the program. My education as a professional happened both within and beyond the classroom. It was a valuable experience. I have no regrets.
Reflections on the profession of librarianship are, in some ways, autobiographical assertions. The profession is to us as we are to the profession. In the first quarter of my career I was professionally active, primarily on the state and local level. Living and working in Chicago for sixteen years provided an added bonus of additional professional activity and conferences, especially with both ALA and the Society of American Archivists headquartered in the city. The second and third quarters of my career were quieter on the professional front; my wife and I were busy raising a family. Family responsibilities did not allow for wide professional engagement; my priorities were different, my activities local. I am now in the final quarter of my working life. An empty nest, increased income, and fewer external obligations provide the opportunity for greater professional involvement. The sabbatical became one of my launching pads for reentering professional space.
My sabbatical created a new professional interest: library history. Like my choice of Minnesota for a graduate program, some might question this newfound attraction and relevance of a sub-specialty in a field increasingly dominated by technology. My answer might echo the words of Sherlock Holmes: “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.” In my case, it is history in the blood. My academic training outside of librarianship—undergraduate and graduate—was in history. My sabbatical brought with it a new resolution: it was time for me to become involved in ALA’s Library History Round Table.
Much of my reading during the sabbatical was in library history; it relates to my questions about the closing of the program at Minnesota. Among the many passages I read, these two quotations are a good sample and indicative of why I have become interested in this part of our profession:
- “History haunts me with a sense of lost opportunities.” (Louis Shores)
- “Historical study develops practical and political skills needed to assess what is going on today and to prepare for the future: it builds immunity to the destabilizing effects of future hype and current happenstance….The more we are confronted with the new, the greater our need for the wisdom and understanding that come from historical knowledge.” (Barbara L. Craig)
I intentionally left the question of professional core values to the end. What are those values? The American Library Association has a page on its website that addresses the question. But for me the answer comes back to the reference librarian who directed me to the profession in the first place. Her example, wisdom, expertise, presence, excitement, guidance, and much more were all the convincing I needed that this should be my profession, my calling.