By Alison Roth
When I joined ProQuest’s marketing team in 2013, I didn’t have any past experience working in the library industry. Still, I knew it was the right company for me. Libraries are in my blood.
My mom has been a public librarian for nearly 25 years. When I was young, she was a stay-at-home mom, but the moment she became reasonably confident in her kids’ ability to not burn the house down, she declared that it was time to pursue her real passion – books. She went back to school and became a librarian. And we didn’t burn the house down, although there were definitely at least two close calls.
When mom got her first job, I was too young to drive, so I became what I’d now call a library latchkey kid: I hung out for hours after school at the library until her shift was over, pretending to do homework while getting lost in series like the Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High. When I look back at that time in my life, what I mostly remember is that the library had really bad vending machines. But it clearly had a greater influence on me than I realized. I’m a parent myself now, and my 9-year-old son and I spend much of our free time at the local public library. (Note: while he loves to read, he’s usually playing Minecraft on one of the computers.)
Now a reference librarian at the Saline District Library in Michigan, my mom graciously offered to let me interview her for the ProQuest blog about her storied career. Oh, and by the way…our family is a big fan of library puns.
AR: Why did you decide to become a librarian?
Sandy Roth: I’ve always loved to read, and I have a bachelor’s degree in education, so library school seemed like a good path to starting fresh in a new career. I had a sister-in-law who is a librarian and I’d always admired what she did. And finally, I wanted to help school-age kids and teenagers write reports. That was something that overwhelmed me when I was young, and I wanted to be able to make it easier for them to find the information they needed to be successful in school.
In 1990, I started taking night classes at Kent State University. I went to school part time and graduated in about two and a half years. I believe we were the last class that graduated from Kent with the Master of Library Science (MLS) degree before they changed it to MLIS (Master of Library and Information Sciences).
AR: What types of library jobs have you held over the years?
Sandy Roth: I started my career substituting in a lot of different libraries before I got a permanent job. I’ve done almost everything – I worked at the reference desk for adults and young adults, and I worked in the youth department. I’ve worked in both urban and suburban libraries. I also spent some time at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, which is a regional library with a law and a business department. And then, after we moved to Michigan from Ohio, I got hired as a part-time adult and young adult reference librarian in Saline. I’ve been there for 17 years.
AR: What’s changed about the role of the librarian since the early 90s?
Sandy Roth: My role used to be to help people find information, but now that many people know how to find their own information, it’s more about helping them evaluate the quality of information that they find – making sure it’s authoritative, current and unbiased.
Now, instead of spending all my time answering patron questions, I spend a lot of time teaching classes on how to use the library and its services, like Ancestry Library Edition and digital newspapers. I also plan programs that bring in external speakers. You name it, there’s a speaker for it – we’ve recently done programs on the history of Michigan, saving for college, navigating government agencies and so many more.
The physical space of libraries looks completely different, too. When I graduated, half of libraries were still using card catalogs, although they were slowly being phased out. People used to ask me well into the early 2000s where the card catalog was, but I don’t get that these days. We also used to have an entire “ready reference” section with encyclopedias, almanacs, dictionaries and other reference books, but that doesn’t exist anymore – it’s all online.
AR: What’s one thing that surprised you the most about your career?
Sandy Roth: Some people come to the reference desk and – well, they say they need information, but really, they just need someone to talk to about their problems. They confide in you and tell you these amazingly painful and deeply personal stories. It’s incredibly touching and sometimes makes me teary-eyed. I wish I could do more to help…I love having an MLS but some days I wish I also had a degree in social work.
Also, I always thought that as a children’s librarian, you worked with children. Turns out, you don’t. You actually work with parents, which is a whole different story…
AR: What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you at work?
Sandy Roth: Oh, where do I start? Well, many years ago, on a really hot day, we were running a fan behind the reference desk to keep us cool. The fan was right next to the printer. All day, patrons were coming up to me asking for their printouts – and oddly they were nowhere to be found. Hours later, I realized that the fan was blowing papers right off the printer and onto the floor, so I had a whole day’s worth of patron printouts under my desk.
The other interesting thing that happens often is that people come to the reference desk to get help with things like taxes, medical conditions and legal troubles. I love helping them find what they need, but I sometimes have to remind patrons that I’m a librarian, and I’m not an accountant, doctor or lawyer. Sure, I can assist them in finding information about their symptoms, but unfortunately, I’m far from qualified to make a diagnosis!
…And then there was the time you checked out a book using my library card and lost the book.
AR: How could I forget? I tried to pay off the book and get it expunged from your account before you noticed it was overdue. But, librarians are too smart for that. Let’s just say I will not be using your library card again.
AR: What’s your favorite book?
Sandy Roth: Can I pick two? All Quiet on the Western Front. I love that book because it’s really the story of our family. My grandfather was an injured German soldier in World War I before coming to America as a Holocaust refugee. I also love Orhan’s Inheritance – it’s a work of historical fiction about the Armenian massacre in Turkey. It’s well-written and full of surprises, woven around the background of a tragedy. I think everyone should read it.
AR: So, last question: what advice would you give to future librarians?
Sandy Roth: If you’re interested in becoming a librarian, get involved with your local library. Try to volunteer, or even work as a circulation clerk, so you can get your foot in the door and learn how the library works.
Alison Roth is the lead business blogger at ProQuest. A former journalist, she enjoys AP style, direct quotes and a good Oxford Comma debate. She was inspired to become a writer many years ago by Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry, and is still influenced by his style to this day. You can follow Alison on Instagram at @five_speed