August 2017 | Volume XXXV. Issue 4 »

Thoughts of an Accidental Librarian

July 17, 2017
Robert P. Doyle, Illinois Library Association

Remarks made on Saturday, June 24, 2017, in accepting the John Phillip Immroth Memorial Award at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference.

I became a librarian, as maybe some others in this room did, in a less predetermined or predictable manner. In other words, I never thought of becoming a librarian. After finishing college, I was back to working third shift. Driving a forklift. Attempting to pay off my college education. Each night my fellow workers on the assembly line and I played a game called “Dodging Bob,” as I drove down those aisles. Everyone is a little slower on third shift and thus, we played a number of games to stay awake. When the whistle blew at 7:00 in the morning, we walked across the street and the Aber Guts and PBRs were lined up. (For those unfamiliar with these terms: an Aber Gut is a brandy shot topped with peppermint schnapps and it is followed with a chaser of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. I know everyone is very jealous now and wishes the Hyatt was serving Aber Guts and PBRs here tonight. Or, maybe not.) 

Days were nights. Nights were day. And, I was lost. After working two jobs on campus during the school year, four summers, and now almost a year after graduation working at the same factory, my undergraduate education was finally paid, but I needed some direction. At the same time, a good friend, Jim Vaughan, decided to scrap law school and enroll in library school instead. And, I thought, well, I’ll try it, too.

Three thoughts went through my mind immediately: 1) what a great way to select a career, just do what someone else is doing; 2) oh, my God, I have to go back to school again; and 3) I’ll become a librarian, I mean who needs money? So I guess you could call me an accidental librarian. 

It has been a surprising and wonderful profession, one that has provided me with a number of incredible and unexpected opportunities. As Michael Furlong mentioned in his introductory remarks, I have had the opportunity to work on the local, state, national, and international level—another total surprise.

The American Library Association (ALA) has provided many opportunities and enabled me to see the country and the world. More importantly, I have been proud to work for an organization that has truly helped many.

When I worked in ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, there were a lot of calls from librarians who were afraid that they’d lose their jobs if they stood up to the principal, the library board, or the mayor. We were able to give them support and help—from small steps like just listening, to providing information specific to their situation, all the way to providing them with legal counsel so they could defend free expression in the court. That important work continues today.

While working at ALA, I also had the opportunity to establish a Fulbright program for librarians with what was then the United States Information Agency to reestablish the International Relations Office. I had first-hand opportunities to talk about our nation’s First Amendment, the freedom of expression:

  • in Romania as they were drafting their own constitution;
  • in Moscow, in 1991, as the tanks rolled down the streets during the dissolution of the Soviet Union;
  • in Cuba, in 1993, when all flights were cancelled back to the U.S.; and 
  • in China, in 1996, a really ironic experience having freedom of speech meetings and presentations in that country.

The experiences were many and varied, some disturbing, many mesmerizing, and all opening my eyes to things I would never have discovered working third shift or driving a forklift, nor even things I imagined when I decided to go to library school.

  • I saw pervasive poverty in Havana, and libraries ravaged by war in too many countries.
  • I saw the expansive Serengeti plains, and the blue-green Great Barrier Reef.
  • I saw determined Illinois librarians successfully defeat nineteen attempts at mandatory statewide Internet filtering legislation (more than any other state in the nation, I believe); and thwart three attempts to change the state’s obscenity laws; as well as stave off several challenges to user privacy laws.

Everywhere, I met remarkable people who have taken tremendous risks, accomplished worthy goals, and demonstrated great courage.

I can close my eyes and see those friends—across the U.S. and all over the world.

As I reflect on these and other remarkable, rewarding experiences that have sprung from my accidental librarianship, I have two thoughts.

First: Experiences like the ones I’ve been so lucky to have are available to everyone in this room who wants them. But you have to pursue the opportunities and make them happen. Our profession—and, if you believe the stereotype, our personalities—might not lean toward the risk-taking end of the spectrum, but I’m here to say: Go for it! Become active in your state library association, or in the ALA. Freedom of expression, literacy, diversity, public programs, public policy, digital content—whatever you’re interested in, there are opportunities to learn and to help.

And second: Even if your job hasn’t required you to travel the world, or the U.S., or even drive your own state from north
to south to east to west, in the end we all share something in common. The one thought I’ve carried with me throughout my career, and the one I’d like to leave you with is this. The fight to make information available and accessible to everyone is what keeps this profession, and all of us who practice it, relevant and vibrant. It inspires us and motivates us, because we have been the beneficiaries of free and open access to this world of information, a right guaranteed to us by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The freedom we are granted by those forty-five words opens our minds, enriches our lives, and takes us to places we never imagined. It’s our job to make sure everyone else has that same opportunity.

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