Saturday, December 05, 2015
We've been working on some info materials for the library the past few days about Aesthetics of Research and it got me thinking a little bit about the project and how it's sort of changed my attitude about "day jobs" and creative work and such..
15 years ago last week, I moved from Rockford, where I had been working in an elementary school library for peanuts. It was a cocktail of all sorts of things. Highly fulfilling in the way that I felt I had the possibility to mold young minds into readers. Creative in that I was able to develop all sorts of initiatives to get kids really excited about books. Autonomous in that I was pretty much in charge of the library with a district librarian who appeared once or so every month to check -in and order materials for us, but otherwise left to my own devices. But also stressful in the way of dealing, in a more limited way, with the things teacher's everywhere deal with. It was my first real job, though, and I was grateful to be doing something in the sort of place I felt passionately about. Over a year and a half, I forged great relationships with teachers and the principal, and it was hard to leave, but necessary, mostly since I was only making less than 8 bucks an hour, limited to in-school hours, and wasn't needed over the summer. I was living with my parents at the time and was feeling stifled financially, so wound up, in one of my moments of frustration sending off my resume to a Tribune posting for a circ job at Columbia.
Somehow, I actually managed to get it and found myself trading Harry Potter mania for 9 year olds for, well, Harry Potter mania for 19 year olds. The job, which proved to be a lot of clerical work and desk hours and nice in the way that it was the sort of mostly unstressful save the odd difficult patron, the kind of work you showed up for and did what you needed to do, but didn't take home. Over the years, tasks shifted and I found myself involved with different things that involved varying levels of responsibility, but mostly I was content. I also worked with all sorts of cool people that made even drudgery and routine a lot of fun.
It was the sort of steady, stable of work, most importantly, that allowed me to do everything else I wanted as a side hustle. Writing, publishing, getting my MFA, starting the press, making art. I have all sorts of artistic impulses and ambition, but Taurus that I am, I can't thrive without stability, without knowing that I can pay my rent, buy groceries, have health insurance. And Columbia is an amazing place to be, of course, probably more than any other academic library would. It surrounded me with the environment I needed, with the sort people I needed to be around--artists, writers, creative people.
And of course, it was a library. The church I spent most of my life worshipping, from the excitement of being a 5th grader checking out Beverly Cleary books to my college days holed up on the second floor of the RC library with bad vending machine coffee, writing and reading everything I could trying to be smart and pretentious. It was amazing and almost inevitable that I would end up working in one and actually getting paid to be there.
Nevertheless, there was still this weird disconnect between my working life and my creative life, and perhaps one I did not even notice until there was less of it. A couple years back I found myself sitting in a meeting listening to the new CCC president, who was talking about the role of libraries, and particular art school libraries, and the way that he hoped students could be guided into thinking of the library not only as a place they could get resources for papers for classes, but also ways in which the library could function as a generating-point for their artmaking. It was a moment of resonance with my own work, particularly my writing that depended so much on resource and materials--projects like GIRL SHOW, that had found me interlibrary-loaning books from everywhere on sideshow and circus history. In the number of art how-to books I checked out in an interest to self-teach myself as a visual artist. I filed it away and few months later, another person in the department suggested that we start an exhibit series devoted to showcasing finished artwork with a list of sources and inspirations that went into forming that work.
In addition to just it generally being a really cool idea and something to put on the walls we stared at everyday on the 1st Floor, it was also an attempt to help a listing ship of print materials, whose circ stats were waning due to a number of things--new catalog systems that seemed to preference articles & periodicals over print materials, e-books, the internet in general. We found ourselves in a building filled with shelves and shelves of materials and resources that were vastly underused compared to what they could be.
It was a slow roll out over a couple of years. First one exhibition, then another. The introduction of our small works vending machines. The introduction of the blog. All along, we were fine tuning our mission and means of execution. Suddenly, there was less of a disconnect between working life and creativity. Sure, I still spent much of my time at work processing reserves, shuffling excel files and dealing with circ desk trivia, but I also got to do some really cool stuff at the same time--develop blog content, plan readings/discussions, set up displays & exhibits, design promotional materials. In many ways, this stuff mirrored and built on what I was already doing outside of work with the press, so I felt like I was actually using things I'd learned, just in another environment and even better, getting paid while I did it. And maybe it's the investment factor that's changed. For 14 odd years, I really wasn't all that invested in the place I spent 8 hours every day and that gave me a paycheck.
For the first time in 15 years, I don't just roll myself to work out of routine and financial obligation, but with a growing sense of excitement--a need to get to work and dig in. We were really gaining some traction by last summer and for the first time, I feel like we are really having an impact in the things we were doing, exposing people to the possibilities the library offered for artists and creating a community that connected creative people with other creative people and the resources they needed. A few weeks ago, Aesthetics hosted a selection of Columbia related publishers, authors, zinesters, illustrators for the Little Indie Press Festival and it was really sort of amazing, the ways people connected and networked. Even though the turnout was small compared to what I hope it becomes eventually, I got really excited by the synergy and the future possibilities.
There's so much more we're working on for the spring semester, so many cool ways to connect Columbia artists with the things we need, for the first time in 15 years, I'm excited about my day job.