ASSOCIATES (vol. 1, no. 2, November 1994) - associates.ucr.edu
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A MATTER OF DEGREES by Michelle Laws Library Assistant I Astronomy Department Peridier Library University of Texas at Austin When first asked to write about my coming to the US and gaining library work, I was quite taken aback. I am only a person, getting along as best as she can, same as we all are. My story? Well, maybe. Going away and thinking about it, there might be one or two things I could say about changing countries, mid-swing. So, I will do my best to amuse, or entertain, or educate. You will have to decide. I am an Australian citizen, born and bred. I met my husband at a three-day book convention in Dallas, where I stopped on the way to a cousin's wedding in Germany. We were inseparable for those days. He ignored his many friends and work, and followed me. Why, it wasn't until months later that I even found out that he knew anyone at that convention. We parted, as lovers must when they live 9000 miles apart, making no unreal promises or expectations for the future. When I arrived home from my travels my family greeted me at the airport with wide grins on their faces as they brandished multiple love letters, waving them in my face (they knew the items were love letters because of the big red love hearts all over the front and back and scribbled testaments of affection). I was torn between embarrassment and secret glee. The correspondence continued, with my mailbox being greeted by two to four letters a week. 40 page missives were not uncommon. He visited me six months later and I took holidays to show him a little of Victoria. I visited him in Austin six months after that, and in my last week there, he proposed (his mother and sister said that if he hadn't done it soon, they would have done it for him....). The astute among you may be wondering at this stage, what any of this has to do with a library support staff issue? Be patient and you will be rewarded, my friends. You see, I am by education and vocation, a library worker. At the time we met, I was happily working in a public library as a Library Officer, in acquisitions. In my own time, I was completing a Bachelor of Business in Information and Library Management. My husband-to-be, had just gone back to school on a scholarship, to gain his Masters in Library and Information Science. That painful decision of 'who moves?' was made reasonably quickly. For a variety of practical and personal reasons, I decided to make that big move. His school kept him six months longer than mine, his book collecting habits made him less portable and I felt I could fit well into his world. Huge decisions were being made at this point. I was shedding my life, as if I were joining a convent. Selling off and giving away car, furniture, books, clothes, personal effects--anything that wouldn't fit in a few suitcases. Plus traveling interstate to be interviewed by the US consulate in Australia, after having fulfilled their medical, legal and economic requirements. Saying farewells to job, friends, family and the land, my husband planning a large wedding without me, while hoping that my visa would be approved (there is a six month lag on visa approval, during which you are supposed not to be making any plans that would assume the visa will be issued...Ahem.) Certain assumptions were made at this point, by me. I assumed when I arrived in the US, that I would be able to translate my work, that my degree would be completed, that I would begin a new job at a new level of employment, as a librarian. My fiancee warned me that the standard education in the US for librarians was a masters and made constant vague threatening statements regarding my going back (to school) to get my masters. 'Ho, ho, ho', thought I. After five years of study, part and full- time, my burn out level was high. I had heard through friends of friends, that Australians were working as librarians in the US, at job swap type situations. Besides, if I had to, I thought that I would work in some country library that would be more eager to get help and would therefore accept my degree, that I could still commute to from suburbia. Why, mine was a four-year degree in Librarianship and my husband's only two. Any employer would see the obvious advantage here. Right? The laid-back Australian attitude of 'she'll be right, mate' may have had some play here. I arrived in Houston airport on Christmas Eve, 1993, and was married fifteen days later. I had been waiting so long for my visa and it had come through on such short notice that my fiancee and I had begun to make jokes about getting married by proxy, with my bridesmaid standing in for me. I got it, then literally had two weeks to give notice at my work and to try desperately to get plane tickets in this Christmas rush period. Which, of course, I couldn't have booked, because I didn't know when I was leaving. At immigration in the California leg of the journey, I was directed to wait in a room with a little Swedish boy, who was being sent back on a return plane because of some irregularity in his visa, and with a South American chap who was being rather vigorously interrogated by customs officials. While I was sitting waiting in customs, airport security were so worried about my, as yet, unclaimed luggage that they began to search for bombs. I emerged from that little back room hours later to find six female security officers standing over my opened suitcases, admiring my wedding dress. The wedding was wonderful, with guests from Germany, England, France, Australia, California and Louisiana attending. Then the guests dissipated, leaving us to reality. Two unemployed newlyweds. And we began to search for work. As one month passed, then two and three, our expectations of what work we would be doing, steadily decreased. My husband began to realize that the one thing his masters (MLS) degree had taught him was that he did not want to work in libraries. Sweet irony. For I was noticing the little disclaimer in every advertisement 'required : ALA-approved masters degree'. I was desperately wanting the work that only my husband was qualified for. My frustration level rose as I examined the alternatives possible for me in an Austin job market. 1. Sweet-talking an employer, through resume, cover letter and interview. Ha, ha, ha. I never even got to interview stage in a librarian position. Even my husband rarely did. Not in Austin. 2. Get my degree accredited by the ALA. Contacting the American Library Association led to my receiving a formal letter stating that they recognize that my degree is accredited by the Australian Library and Information Association (ALA equivalent) and qualifies me there for recognition as a professional member. Nothing more. They will not accredit my professional degree, though they will recognize the school and the program. 3. Return to school. Checking with the library school in Austin, I am told that none of the classes I have just finished would allow for a reduction in the two years of study to get a masters degree, except that I might be exempt from all the core classes I have already taken, and do 'interesting' subjects instead. So I could spend two years studying non-library subjects (because I have already completed them to their satisfaction), but still had to 'put in the time'. This idea is anathema to me. 4. Work in a field other than libraries altogether, in a fresh start. Nope, that doesn't work, either. The University of Texas at Austin has 50,000 students enrolled in it. They need to work while they are there, and when they are finished, often decide to stay here to get that first job and experience, or for good. This results in a constant willing workforce. It pushes up the difficulty of getting any job and pushes down the pay levels. Getting into a job in which you have experience is difficult enough, let alone one in which you have none. Besides, library work is not only my profession, it is my vocation. 5. Find a position as a para-professional library worker. This is not so easy. A library school is pumping out students with a masters degree who are eager for experience in libraries, both during and after their courses. Qualified masters degreed librarians working as library assistants is not uncommon here. Well, after a few months of looking, I lucked into option five. A Library Assistant 1 position was advertised at the university and I jumped on it. This 3/4 time position was needed to be filled immediately. Since it was the end of semester and the library students traditionally hired in this job were going home for the summer, I was really the only candidate. The employee leaving was pressing for someone to teach before she left the state and they overcame their original strong reluctance to hire this foreigner with a strange degree who wasn't a student at the school. I applied the logic that hiring me might mean the end of their high staff turnover (due to students constantly graduating) and that everything those students were going to learn somewhere in their courses, I had already learned. Did no good. Having graduated my classes with distinction didn't matter, nor my grades, nor did being asked back for an honors year. I was hired because I was the only applicant in the first few days and was willing to start immediately. I was asked in the interview by the business administrator interviewing me, 'Why on earth would I want to work in a library?' He really meant it, too. At this stage I was beginning to wonder myself. So, for the last six months I have been running a small, specialized library. I am the sole employee, though I supervise work-study students and have just advertised for and hired 2 library students willing to come in and help out for no pay! (That "needing experience in Austin" thing I was telling you about.) I budget, write reports, organize Library Committee meetings, set goals and objectives, order, process and catalogue technical books, journals, conference proceedings, etc. for the library and the faculty. I provide reference services, arrange binding, make up displays....you get the idea. For now this job suits me fine, though in Australia I earned twice the hourly pay, for much less responsibility. And I am qualified for so much more. In the meantime, the differences between Australia and the US have been fun to explore. I have discovered a fondness for Diet Doctor Pepper, learned that I may not use the word "skivvy" to describe my turtleneck jumpers anymore, or "rubber" for an eraser. Found out that marriage is a generally rather wonderful state to be in. But I have also learned that you have to be very, very careful to investigate fully the job market of the area you move in to. Although the Australian dollar is in comparatively poor shape and unemployment is higher, I would have at least been qualified to practice my trade there. But I haven't give up. Alternative certification for teaching might move me back into a library.....who knows? I won't stop trying to find a way and I won't stop working in libraries. In the meantime, have I told you the story about how my Australian bridesmaid met one of my husband's best friends, they now say they are in love and she is visiting at Christmas.......? The saga continues!