Yesterday was my final day working for the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System.
My 32 years doing library work was a second career: I spent the first seven years of my working life toiling in the vineyards of the mental health treatment (and mental health services administration) arena. And although since earning my library degree I’ve worked nowhere else except AFPLS, my career there unexpectedly zigged and zagged among several very different assignments in that sprawling institution.
I started out at the Central Library, hired into the system’s telephone reference service (this was before the Internet era), then earned a promotion into the Humanities Department, was then transferred (in one of several reorganizations of Central’s services) into the sciences/social sciences/business/government department. By then I had come to realize that improving library collections (rather than, say, answering reference questions or planning programs or supervising other employees) was by far my favorite part of the job. (A close-second favorite job responsibility was creating procedures and publications aimed at making libraries easier to use.) Although working directly with library users had always been a common thread in every library position I’d occupied up to that point, I was gradually persuaded to seek a promotion into the library system’s collection coordinating office; I ended up working there for five years. I found that figuring out ways to make selecting library materials and more convenient and/or efficient for the hundred of so people throughout the library system who did that job was even more suited to my temperament and talent than serving customers was.
That satisfying responsibility came to an abrupt end, however, when the library’s trustees decided to begin micro-managing the library’s operations and another “reorganization” of the Central Library – this one, unlike the earlier ones, definitely fueled by the racist agenda of its orchestrators. This same raft of trustees hired a sociopathic library director and deputy director, who began systematically eviscerating the organization’s ability to function rationally, humanely, and efficiently. (Up until this institutional crisis and its decade-long aftermath, most of us working at the library had plenty of evidence that working conditions and services for library users were incrementally improving; from that time forward, working conditions and customer service became increasingly more dysfunctional, and the institution has yet to recover from the damage done to its administrative infrastructure.)
In any case, I was one of many employees who found themselves obstructing the agenda of the havoc-causing trustees and their henchpersons. Before a successful but polarizing and energy-sapping multi-million-dollar discrimination lawsuit ended the reign of nonsense, I (along with many others) was exiled from the Central Library to an assignment in a branch library, and my fantasies about a career path at Central were permanently demolished.
The next nine years I spent as the assistant manager at the Ponce de Leon Branch Library (the branch that serves the neighborhood where I lived then, and where I still live). For various reasons, that involuntary transfer turned out to be a Very Good Thing for Cal – mostly because the smaller scale of the place presented me with a do-able (vs. a thankless and no-longer-doable) job, and a work arena well off the radar screen of the principal actors involved in the toxic dramas going on at the Central Library. Ponce was, however, a challenging work environment – gone forever were the days of a quiet cubicle and my five-year break in coping daily with the relentless needs and demands of The Great Unwashed Public. Nevertheless, I felt very productive at Ponce, and would have been very happy to have spent the rest of my working life as assistant manager there.
But that assignment, too, was not to be my final one: the county government’s hiring freezes resulting from the meltdown of the national economy eventually forced library administrators to begin a round of involuntary transfers of librarians to libraries whose managers were retiring otherwise exiting the institution. One spring day three years ago, I found myself uprooted from my Perfect Job at Ponce – perfect in the sense of being allowed maximum freedom to do collection development projects under the supervision of a supportive and talented boss – and plunked down at a branch across town whose manager had suddenly retired.
Which is where I’ve been working for the past three years – and in a job I never, ever wanted: managing a library. That final involuntary transfer to the Peachtree Branch Library, however, also resulted in some unexpectedly pleasant circumstances: a smaller facility and collection (and therefore one easier to make rapid, visible improvements in), a smaller staff to supervise, a new and interesting set of neighborhoods to serve (and explore). True, my daily commute was twice as far and the people I was serving were not my own neighbors, but the reduced stress and the other employees’ team spirit (and openness to certain changes I felt necessary to institute) were certainly features of the new assignment that I have enjoyed.
So much for the outline of the unexpected trajectory of my career as a library worker. The main thing I wanted to record here is how odd the leave-taking has felt. Even yesterday’s send-off retirement party wasn’t enough to completely dissipate the sense of unreality that has surrounded my decision to retire, and to leave behind my full-time work life sooner rather than later. As one of the people at yesterday’s send-off said to me, for some people retiring is sort of like graduating from college – you know it’s a major turning point in your life, but you have very little inkling of what the Next Chapter is going to bring, or what it’s going to feel like. (And as another person told me recently, leaving the library yesterday can’t feel very different from all the times I’ve previously left it temporarily: only after I’ve not returned for a bunch of days in a row is it going to dawn on me that this hiatus is not just another day off or just another vacation: the full reality of retirement can’t sink in at least for several weeks.)
In any case, for someone who routinely dreads most social occasions, the send-off ritual that my staff planned for me yesterday was full of pleasant surprises. Almost every one of my Favorite Colleagues or Favorite Former Colleagues dropped by, and their making that gesture was very touching, as were the emails I received once the official word had gone out about yesterday being my last day on the job. There was a cake and a huge, impressive, and delicious spread of homemade food, there were decorations, cards, even presents! I realize that these are the usual things that are done at these events – but never before has it been me who was doing the leaving, so I was quite astonished by everyone’s generosity.
Aside from the continuing surreality of the retirement-commencing experience, I have remained intrigued with (and, yes, at times a bit anxious about) the prospect of The Shape of Things to Come. Meanwhile, I’m trying to focus on enjoying the affection from and gratitude I feel for some of the library folks I spent so much time with over the years.
I’ve also been mindful these past few days of the affection I feel for the profession I was so fortunate to stumble upon all those decades ago. It was probably not until about the middle of 1979, as I was earning my library degree at Emory University, that I realized that I might have found a congenial (vs. a spirit-depleting) life-long calling. It is wonderful to have been part of a collective institutional effort that does so little harm in this world, a profession that manages to consistently bring so much help and joy to so many humans, and in so many different ways.
All things considered, I have been one lucky wage-earner, both in the amount of work I was able (with the help of some gifted and integrity-possessing colleagues) to do, in terms of the achievements (and personal satisfaction) that some of those efforts produced, and in the rewarding relationships with some of the folks I worked alongside during that hugely important chunk of my time on the planet.