by Bacilio Mendez, New York Chapter, Legal Division
When I began library school, dare I say, in earnest, I had grand notions of one day being either a performing or visual arts librarian/archivist–it just made sense; I had majored in modern dance at Oberlin College and, at the time, was working as a junior fashion editor at JCK Magazine. I thought that I had found my niche.
So there I was, chugging along, half-way through the graduate degree program at Pratt Institute’s School of Information and Library Science (SILS), minding my own business, when the magazine job which I was incredibly thankful to have landed, as it helped fund one-third of my degree, suddenly wanted to send me abroad to scout the latest in watch and jewelry trends at BASELWORLD – The Watch and Jewelry Show. I was ecstatic! (Who wouldn’t be?) But with the time difference, phenomenal jet-lag, and a tight editorial deadline looming, I completely missed my registration time for the following semester.
On my way back stateside, I recall sitting in a Swiss airport and thinking I could always sweet-talk my way into “something better,” as I nonchalantly registered for Contemporary Issues in Law Librarianship. I clicked “add” simply to have the hours necessary to qualify as a full-time student so that I could get my financial aid and didn’t give the class a second thought.
Later on, when it became clear that I was not going to be able to “drop” the class and that I was stuck, I figured that I would keep my head down, grit my teeth, try to do my best, and deal with getting my first mediocre grade in graduate school. Once the class got going, however, I never gave the performing/visual arts a second thought. I could get more into my conversion, but I digress. I have another story to tell.
The first library conference that I attended was a requirement for students in Contemporary Issues in Law Librarianship and just happened to be held on the campus of a very prestigious law school that shall remain nameless. It was my second year of study at Pratt SILS and, as I hinted at earlier, I had only just discovered law librarianship as a career path. I had stumbled into law librarianship, but wanted to fully immerse myself so I went to this conference wide eyed, bushy tailed, and ready to take feverish notes.
I was astounded by how knowledgeable every speaker at the conference seemed, how long every panel title was, and within minutes was convinced that I had found “my people.” That is, until the last session of the last day.
The Director [hereinafter, TD], of the law library of the prestigious law school, was schedule to give a talk on library security, which I thought would focus on loss prevention, but ended up turning into TD spouting on about the greatness of the prestigious law school’s prestigious library. I forgave the posturing and puffery as simply what library director’s tend to do, but after a few minutes I found that TD was not one of my people, was someone that I would never count among my people, and even considered nominating TD to be brought before the council that I knew in my heart of hearts must exist simply to strip librarians who have lost their way of their library cards.
I actually found myself wanting to hiss during TD’s lengthy speech because of the air that TD took when speaking about the “homeless issue” that the prestigious law school had and how the worst part of TD’s job was “dealing with” said “homeless issue.” At one point, TD even went into great detail about how offended he was by one homeless “patron’s” odor [I would like to point out that TD actually made "air quotes" around the word "patron" several times when speaking so they are used in the previous sentence to demonstrate TD's disdain, not my personal feelings for homeless patrons.] and how happy TD was when the winter months “shooed the problem away to a local shelter.” What I would have given for a tomato at that very moment.
Now, as I have made exceedingly clear, this conference was being held on the campus of a prestigious law school. At this point, you may, as I was, be asking yourself: “If this is such a prestigious law school, such a hallowed institution, how does a homeless person get into the law library to begin with?” A brilliant question…which went unasked. I, myself, was both too unnerved and too aware of how “inappropriate” it would be to call out TD, on their own campus. To this day I regret not seizing the opportunity, but thankfully there were enough comrades in arms giving me knowing, and calming, sideways glances for me to know that TD was to be pitied more than vilified.
To further compound my annoyance, TD actually answered the very question that was giving me an ulcer. TD pointed out that part of the prestigious library’s brilliant security plan was that no one could gain entry to the library without being a current student, faculty member, or the holder of an alumni id card which carries a substantial yearly maintenance fee.
I was livid, but still held my tongue. Instead, I wrote on the panel comment card something like the following: “Perhaps TD should be more concerned that graduates of your prestigious law school are HOMELESS and less concerned with ‘library security.’ My guess is that homeless patrons would rather not smell, be characterized as the worst part of anyone’s job, or BE HOMELESS AT ALL. A little compassion and empathy would go a long way on both sides of this equation!”
Having since worked alongside pro se litigants at both the King’s County Supreme Court Law Library of the New York State Unified Court System and the Law Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I think back on TD’s talk on “library security” quite often and I laugh because TD’s short talk taught me more lessons than any graduate school class could ever hope to impart.
I learned that:
- the job of a law librarian–public access, academic, and corporate alike–must be viewed as equal parts librarian, social worker, and therapist (or hair stylist, if you prefer).
- compassion and empathy are often more useful, and perhaps more often employed, than knowledge of the law and that when that is forgotten it is time to no longer be a law librarian.
- law librarianship is not for the faint of the heart, for those that need constant praise, or for the TDs of the world.
- law librarianship should be left to those more like Aisha A. Harvey, Chip Ward, Linda Tashbook, and Joshua Jackson.
- I have to be more fiercely protective of the patrons I serve than the profession itself because without them there is no profession.
- to be Future Ready, we must all realize that the problem is not the homeless.
Bacilio Mendez II is a graduate of Pratt Institute’s School of Information and Library Science where he served the King’s County Supreme Court Law Library of the New York State Unified Court System as the 2010 Nathan R. Sobel Law Library Fellow. Bacilio currently attends New York Law School, is the sitting Chair of both the SLA-NY & SLA Legal Division Diversity Committees, and is also Co-Chair of the SLA GLBT Issues Caucus.