ASSOCIATES (vol. 1, no. 2, November 1994) -

Table of Contents

                       A MATTER OF DEGREES
                          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
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
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 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!