Before I returned home from ALA Annual 2017 in Chicago, I put my headphones on and walked to a local coffee shop to pick up some coffee beans and then back to my hotel to pick up my luggage. On my walk, I reflected on my conference experience.
There were a lot of ways in which this ALA Annual Conference was like all of the ones that came before it. I had a lot of meetings and attended some sessions, including the one where Rachel gave a great presentation using the idea of a playlist as the core upon which the talk was built. A talk after my own heart, that one.
Unlike the ALA Annual Conferences that came before it, this was the first time that I felt my mid-career status so strongly. Mid-career is one of those big stretches of professional time between when you are new and when you are at the end of your career, so in some ways it isn't a particularly helpful designation. But I saw very clearly at this particular ALA Annual Conference the ways in which the next generation of cataloging professionals is starting to move from being the "future" or cataloging to the "now" of cataloging. I am really happy to such a thoughtful, engaged, activist cohort of catalogers is coming up behind me to challenge the systems and structures currently in place.
I had this strong sense of feeling unmoored at this ALA Annual 2017 that I attributed to so clearly seeming my mid-careerness. I think that happens to us mid-career types as we move away from our libraryland niches into management or as we come to a moment of reckoning with our burnout. There is a moment, I think, where you realize that you have drifted very far from where you started out and, in some cases, where you mean to be.
As part of my reflection process, I thought about who I wanted to be at the beginning of my career. I wanted to be good at cataloging and to be an influential leader in my library. And I could also see threads, even back then, of wanting to build a Unified Library Scene. In my earliest days as a baby cataloger, I wanted to understand the behavior of library users and what catalogers could to to clear the way for library users to find the information they needed to be successful. In my earliest days as baby cataloger, I was talking and listening to my public services colleagues and trying to cultivate relationships built on areas of mutual concern. But I also didn't recognize the power of my own voice in creating change. I didn't present or write for the first twelve years of my career. In the past three months, I've presented three times at two different conferences. Even though I'd been writing in this space, I didn't feel like I had anything to say that people wanted to come to a session to hear. In the twelve years that I wasn't writing and presenting, I've seen people come up beside and around me to be emerging voices in libraryland. And, real talk, even when those voices had strong messages that need to be shared, I couldn't help having a little bit of FOMO about when it was going to be my turn.
But even after reflecting on who I wanted to be and who I am now, I'm still not sure where I want to go next. I made a joke recently about how I don't have a research agenda because I'm such a dilettante. As a person enamored with thinking about things, my attention often bounces from one idea to another and I rarely stay quiet long enough to dive deeply into a topic. If you ask my mom, I've always been a dilettante. She will regale you with tales of half-finished projects and half-cooked ideas. Even with the things I care deeply about, for example running, I have to work very hard not to get bored and move on to new things. It took me a lot of processing in recent years of therapy to accept that how I am is normal, even if it's annoying to the people around me sometimes. I have learned that I work best when I work closely with a details person who can help temper my big ideas-ness with their follow through.
In some ways, the next act of my career will be directed by my starting graduate school in August. Being a full-time library worker and part-time PhD student will limit how much I will be able to do in ALCTS and how much I can travel to attend conferences. But who I will be as a cataloger and a mid-career library worker seem still very much up in the air.
One of my biggest takeaways from ALA Annual 2017 is that I want to be more intentional about how I live my life and how I do my work. I want to focus less on becoming a person that people believe to be influential and, instead, try being a person who quietly does the work. Someone tweeted in recent weeks about how they wanted to focus more on being the kind of person who does what they say they're going to do. And I sort of feel like that's where I need to be, too. I want to embrace that part of me which dreams big, but I also need to be a person who either follows through on those ideas or lets them go to be realized by people more qualified or passionate than me who can see them through. I need to spend less time talking and more time making space for others to talk and for my own quiet reflection. I need to make space to find a place to drop my anchor in the midst of my mid-career feelings.
Maybe you need to hear that it's okay to feel unmoored and in transition. Maybe you need to know that it's okay to reflect quietly and plan your next move. If you need permission to live intentionally, consider it given.