Welcome to Sonya Schryer Norris, author of the Katherine Philips research blog series with a new guest post.
Radicals Become Librarians
by Sonya Schryer Norris
In 1991, during my sophomore year of college at Michigan State, I planned to live on a commune after graduation. We’d count up loose change to buy Sharpies for placards and draw lots for who was taking the Subaru into town for the 25-lb sacks of rice and 50-lb sacks of beans we subsisted on. In my fantasies, the commune was a decommissioned military base. We would have barracks. We would have courtyards. We would have abandoned gun turrets to keep watch for people who might try to sneak up on us in the middle of the day. We would not, of course, have guns.
It was always a desert military base in my day dreams.
Finally, it occurred to me that even 25-lb sacks of rice cost money and besides, I didn’t know anyone who had enough cash or credit with which to purchase a decommissioned desert military base. I looked into existing communes but too many smacked of cults and fortunately that frightened me. I moved on.
During my junior year, I found a passion for an actual profession. I began an independent study under the direction of Marilyn Frye, a feminist philosophy professor. I was interested in how slavery is represented to the primarily white visitors of three plantations that operate as modern-day tourist attractions. At these plantations, the official message did not acknowledge more than the rudimentary facts about the generations of slaves who lived, loved, worked, suffered, and died on those grounds. The subtleties of their lives and history was intentionally hidden.
I traveled to Washington, D.C. and northern Virginia several times that year to observe the practices at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Robert E. Lee’s Arlington, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. When I visited Arlington, a young white woman in a hoop skirt greeted visitors on the front porch, while a young black woman staffed the bookstore located in former slave quarters. It was visually and psychologically jarring.
My approach was to take the tours repeatedly. The first time I would just observe, the second time I would ask questions, and the third time I would challenge the guide about the experiences of the slaves who lived there. I brought up Sally Hemings at Monticello and asked whether she had children by Jefferson. It was a widely discussed possibility – among scholars and lay people everywhere. Everywhere but at Hemings home. The tour guides protected Jefferson and obfuscated, rather than exploring, Hemings experience.
I spoke to the directors and curators of these museums. One was open minded and curious about the historical figure whose life she helped portray. Another was brash about protecting her charge’s reputation and equated his manliness with the fact that he was a slave owner.
I decided I would spend my career educating white people who went to a plantation hoping for a pleasant afternoon of hoop skirting history with some hard-nosed truths. As I would only make about $8 an hour, it satisfied my college activist mind that said becoming financially comfortable=BECOMING THE MAN. I decided I would work at Monticello. I love Monticello. It’s located outside Charlottesville, Virginia, just over the mountain from the Shenandoah Valley where I was raised. I had even stealed myself to do it in the dress and pumps that appeared to be the required dress code, although I couldn’t walk properly in heels. I imagined myself a tour guide cowgirl, riding roughshod over white adults who would all be less well-informed than I felt at that moment.
But when I told my family that I planned to take my college education and become a tour guide, the response was non-committal. Actually, their response was more like deadly (and I do mean deadly) silence. My grandmother, who loved me dearly, couldn’t help but laugh. I thought they were doddering fools who couldn’t see how I would be single-handedly saving the world. White privilege and youthful exuberance were a common pairing among my classmates. Nevertheless, I adjusted my sights. I decided to start telling people that I wanted to be a museum curator at Monticello. Then! I could decide what the other tour guides would say about slavery. That someone might have instructed the tour guide me about what to tell the tourists had not occurred to me until I completed this career dream evolution.
That perhaps I, as yet another well-intentioned white person who had spent more time developing my opinions about the black experience in America than listening to African Americans was not suited to present Monticello to the world had not occurred to me either.
However, my family would stop tittering as museum curator is a perfectly acceptable career goal and one of those stupid career aptitude tests said I was well-suited to it. Ah, privilege delivers options at every turn.
On the same test, library science came in second.
Like many an English major, my first job out of college was fast food. I stayed in the chilly but familiar climes of Michigan, dreams of Monticello dormant but my interest not discarded. After about eight months, I moved on to a non-profit which was the start of improving the impact of my workaday life. I stayed on the lookout for a calling. A vocation. It was OK to sling hash to make ends meet, but I was watchful for a profession to put my heart into.
For our honeymoon, I wanted to revisit the plantations I studied and see what had changed in the preceding decade. By 2002, I found that some important things had. At Mount Vernon, the lives of the enslaved members of that community were discussed openly and often on the tours. They were named, along with their occupations and how they resisted bondage. At Monticello, there were enormous photographs gracing the visitor’s center of dozens of Jefferson’s descendants of every skin shade, side by side. A family portrait. Actual price lists of his slaves at the time of his death were discussed and we were invited to consider what our own worth would have been valued at on the auction block. The message had been updated.
That trip was a reminder of my youthful plans to become a museum curator. And I hadn’t landed far off. By the time I married, I had four years in as a paraprofessional at the Braille and Talking Book Library. I’d found joy in library work.
Most of our patrons had lost their sight at the end of their lives. I provided Readers Advisory service to a population that often needed a little friendly conversation along with a Danielle Steel or John Sandford title. Just a few kind words in a life that for most of them had grown more challenging due to vision loss. I spoke with patrons and ordered them bestsellers, non-fiction titles, Braille cookbooks, and print books with a Braille overlay that they could share with their children. It didn’t just meet their needs for a kind voice and a book: it satisfied my need to make a difference in people’s lives. Because we did.
I’ve long considered myself a feminist, and it was natural for me to gravitate toward librarianship. I made a conscious decision to enter a woman-dominated profession for important reasons. If I was going to spend 40 or 50 hours a week of my working life in intense interactions with other people, I wanted the majority of those people to be women. I wanted to invest myself – my emotions, my intellect, my personal and professional development – with other women. To build community with other women. To build up other women.
I wanted to be a bright spot in their professional worlds and I take pride in doing that. In my current position, it is literally my job to go out into Library Land and be helpful. It’s my job to learn what librarians need, and then to fill those needs. I pay attention to them and use my skills, both technical and interpersonal, to make their jobs easier. It’s awesome.
As most woman-dominated fields are not as financially lucrative as male-dominated fields, I was willing to take that pay cut. As it turns out, I didn’t have to. As a state employee with a Master’s degree, I do just fine.
I considered going into IT when I was younger. Staring at the looming landscape of that male dominated profession, I realized that in numbers there is Power. Mores. Culture. I try to be careful with the primarily white female culture to which I belong, and to realize that it can be just as much of a club over someone else’s head as the IT world looked to me 20 years ago.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I dislike men. I shouldn’t even have to say that. I’ve been married for 17 years and choosing my husband Scott as my life partner was one of the best decisions of my adult life. I enjoy most of my male colleagues very much. But we’re not in a post-misogyny, post-feminist world. We don’t live in a country where gender doesn’t matter. I have chosen to reduce the level of sexism I have to face by surrounding myself with other women. It’s a strategy to shield myself from one prevalent form of prejudice that I am particularly sensitive to.
In the end, I found my calling, and I live it everyday.
Follow Sonya at WordPress where she blogs as the Snake Lady Librarian. She is currently unwinding her Library School Diaries where she recounts paying her dues to join a female-dominated profession including nearly dropping out over a book report, falling in love with the polar bear book, learning public speaking on an elliptical trainer, and crossing the country during her last semester in three vegan vignettes.