Earlier this year, I volunteered to do a queer career profile for students at MPOW.
Just before writing my responses I came across this queer and careed: practice career cacooning article about how this time of job uncertainty and anxiety might also be a time to prepare and reflect on your career path:
“Inspired by the caterpillar’s process, cocooning describes a time in your life in which you are strongly encouraged, or more likely forced, to wait — to sit, get comfortable, pour yourself a cup of tea, and prepare for the transformation that is taking place in you. Many of us are being forced to deal with career cocoons right now: cocoons of job loss or career anxiety or general helplessness as we navigate working from home or virtual job searches for the first time.”
It reminded me that COVID-19 had brought similar feelings of grief, loss, uncertainty and anxiety to ones I had following the death of an amazing supervisor and mentor around the time of a large restructure that led to much reflection and soul searching and creativity.
I was reminded of this time in my life again even more recently when another amazing supervisor and mentor I had who helped me through it, Leesa Wheelahan, co-wrote this article on the future and history of higher education and work with Tamson Pietsch. This particular extract from the article reminded me of conversations I had with Leesa that helped inform my decision to become a librarian:
“People need to live in safe, inclusive communities and they need to be able to have a say in the kind of society we share. People, after all, are more than job seekers. People study and go to work so they can sustain themselves and their families and because they find these activities meaningful. They do not study and go to work because it contributes to the creation of markets. This may be the outcome of their activity, but for most people it is not the purpose of their lives. An education system focused on skills misses this bigger picture, in which the whole person is developed for an occupation, which is part of a broader network of occupations in society. Occupations are composed of many specific jobs. They are underpinned by both theoretical and practical knowledge. Occupations have histories, face ethical dilemmas and are part of a complex web of other occupations that work with each other.”
It connects to my queer career experiences and responses (slightly edited) and I thought I would share them here in case it helps anyone in the sector or in another sector navigate COVID-19 induced job (and life) uncertainty and anxiety.
I think they also relate to this month’s GLAM blog club theme of risk and the wonderful Jenny Scott’s thoughts on the topic and offering of inspiration to our sector:
“It is a risk if we don’t promote diverse stories, if we don’t address the less-than-savoury pasts of our institutions, if we don’t produce exhibitions and texts that actively engage with the manifold, nuanced, and often dark histories of this country.“
You can listen to some related thoughts (and reading/listening/viewing recommendations) from me and Anne Rowlands in this Transgender Warriors interview.
I feel like librarianship, particularly the people I’ve met, studied and worked with since becoming a librarian, helped me emerge from a cocoon, find my (genderqueer butterfly) self and community, and given me resources, confidence and connections to take risks, think creatively, share diverse stories, and challenge the status quo and fight for a more fair, just and inclusive society. There’s much more work to be done! ALGA has been like a beautiful queer cocoon that I retreat to when the mainstream GLAM sector (and world) becomes too much, recharge, and then re-emerge to join the fight again with renewed hope.
How has your queer identity influenced your career path?
Growing up with a gay dad and later realising my own queerness helped me discover the power of stories, information and online communities and I’ve found a career where I spend my time helping connect people with stories, information, and communities, and advocating for social justice and inclusion. I first studied psychology and sociology as I knew I wanted to help people and understand, question and change systems in some way, but wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to do that for a long time after I finished studying. I thought about going down a social work or teaching path, but after some grief-induced soul searching in which I connected with librarians and others at work, I realised that librarian jobs sounded like a good combination of those two paths, my interests and experiences. So I started studying a Masters of Information Management where I found a wonderful community of information management students and future librarians and archivists.
It feels like starting my librarian career was very intertwined with realising my nonbinary gender identity as once I’d largely stopped questioning what I was going to do with my life, I started questioning everything else, particularly gender. Studying to be and working as a librarian has not only helped me find my community, but also helped me feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have before.
I am also delighted that I get to work with so many of my trans and queer academic heroes (or queeroes) by day and some of this work has led to my volunteer work with ALGA by night where I’ve met and worked with even more queeroes (and found some in the archives).
Have there been any challenges in your career related to having a queer identity? If yes, how have you approached these challenges?
The biggest challenges relate to the many systems we use in libraries and the large bureaucracies we work in and with that make any change in them very slow. In particular, many libraries use a number of classification systems that were developed many years ago in the US and attempt or claim to be universal and neutral but they have extremely problematic legacies of heterosexism, cissexism, sexism, racism, and more discrimination. I’ve also come across many people in the profession who argue that librarians are and have to be neutral and therefore shouldn’t challenge discrimination or fight for social justice but all that this myth of neutrality does is perpetuate the unequal and discriminatory status quo.
However, there are also many queer and trans people and allies in the sector who have been challenging that myth and advocating to change the systems we use (and improvements have been made). Connecting with these people in archives/from history, on Twitter, and in real life has helped keep me going. It’s also been very empowering working with ALGA as our collection is of our communities, by our communities and for our communities and items are described in our own words. Our collection is more diverse than our name suggests and we’re working on changing the name.
One of the things I am most proud of doing at work is how I’ve helped make time and space for critical, creative and collective reflection with colleagues on our practices and sector. I also enjoy creating book displays in the library and sharing shelfies on social media to amplify LGBTIQ+ voices that sometimes get lost in the stacks due to inadequate and sadly sometimes harmful classification.
Do you have any advice to other queer people interested in starting a career in your industry?
Librarians can be found working in local communities, schools, universities, government departments, law firms, hospitals and state libraries or using their skills outside of libraries in a diverse range of roles from children’s and youth services to research data management. The thing that tends to unite us is not that we love books and reading, but more that we help people in whatever communities we are part of connect with information, stories and each other in different ways. So any experiences you have related to customer service, events management, teaching or tutoring, media and communications, creative work, academic skills support, research assistance, student advocacy, and activism will be extremely helpful for work in libraries.
I also highly recommend connecting with ALGA – I am a bit biased but think it would be an excellent gaytway to the field and a good opportunity for you to see if you like doing this kind of work at the same time as connecting with queer people working in the field.
Finally, I’ve also always been a union member, but only relatively recently started to get actively involved in union organising and it’s been great and empowering, so I highly recommend it. Building solidarity and caring and fighting for workers’ rights is more important than ever in these times.