“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of a library.” – Jorge Louis Borges
Joseph Cowley is a librarian and branch manager at the Locke branch in Toledo, Ohio’s library system. Joseph has been working in libraries for eight and a half years, originally starting in Kansas City, Missouri and ending up in Toledo. Merging his childhood dream of becoming a librarian and his adulthood aspirations of supporting his family, he worked his way through a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and years of on-the-job experience to climb the ladder in the library system. DEPCO’s discussion with Joseph is enlightening on the important and surprising roles libraries hold in our communities. Check out his interview below:
-When did you first become interested in becoming a librarian?
When I was five. I’ve always loved libraries. Whenever my family would move growing up, one of the first places we would find was the library. My mom and dad took us to libraries a lot. I always thought it would be really cool to work there. You get to talk to people about books all day! Librarians have had a really big impact on me. They’ve introduced me to impactful authors and stories. I used to be a really shy kid and librarians are very nurturing, especially to us shy book nerds. They had a really positive impact on me and I wanted to have that positive impact on others. I also wanted to help libraries survive my lifetime and into my kids’ lifetime. And hopefully their kids’ lifetime!
-What kind of education and training do you need to attain a job in your profession?
It depends on what you do and where you work. There are a lot of factors. Generally, you need to have a bachelor’s degree, not in anything specific. A lot of future librarians lean their studies toward related subjects like English literature, writing, history, psychology, etc. There are a lot of majors that can help prepare you. Your next step, depending on your goals and the library system you are in, is to get a master’s degree in library science or a master’s in library information science. There are some associate degrees in library science and bachelor’s degrees in library science in some programs, but they are pretty rare. I chose to pursue an MBA as well. In my MBA, the focus was in leadership and administration. I went for the MBA to make myself more prepared and more attractive for a management role.
-Where was your training and education?
I went to Park University in Kansas City for my bachelor’s. I double majored in English literature and United States history. I then pursued my master’s of library science at Emporia State, which is in Kansas. It was a hybrid program where I did a lot of work online and some intensive weekends on campus. Afterward, I got my MBA from Colorado Christian University with a focus in project management.
-What were outsiders’ opinions on you choosing two liberal arts degrees for your bachelor’s?
When I told people about it, they often responded: “Oh, so you want to teach. English and History? That’s obviously the only thing you can do with your career.” I had to explain what I was going to do with it and why. Especially the fact that I was double majoring. That ended up being a lot of work that last year, but it was a really good experience. I learned a lot, and through my experiences at Park, my master’s programs were comparatively easy.
-Did you work in addition to school?
Yes. I worked as a personal care assistant to individuals who have developmental disabilities during my undergrad. When I was working on my first master’s, I worked full-time as a librarian and part-time as a personal care assistant. I did somewhere around 100 hours of work and school a week.
-Can you explain the journey through your different roles in the library?
I first started as a part-time librarian in Kansas City. I did desk work, reference work, and helped with shelving. Afterward, I was promoted to a teen librarian. I worked on teen and tween programming. This new position also included outreach to schools around the area. At this point, the reality of my position was that it was very low pay. Unfortunately, it’s not too uncommon that librarians don’t get paid what they should. I had a full-time and a part-time job, and I was working on my master’s degree at the same time. I kept applying for management positions because I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I applied for assistant managers, managers, and basically anything that would open up in the library system. I got close a few times, it just never stuck.
I had almost finished my master’s degree and my wife and I were about to have our first child. I knew I needed to have a job where we could afford to support a family. I started applying to anything and everything and everywhere. We almost moved to Alaska at one point. We even got close to moving to Dubai. I probably filled out 70-80 applications over three or four months. It was nuts.
Toledo (Ohio) sent me an email and said “Hey, we’d like you to interview.” And I thought: “Oh, did I apply for Toledo?” I had sent so many applications I had lost track. I got a skype interview, they flew me in, and then I did a phone interview. They offered me the job as a teen librarian in a brand new location and I took it. The pay was much better than what I was making in Kansas City. There were a lot of technology aspects to this location. We had 3D printing, an audio/video recording studio, a Cricut machine, a coding machine, button makers, just lots and lots of resources for people to use. It was a great opportunity for me to learn. I worked in that position for two and a half years and got to do some really cool things. We did lots of programs with the schools in the area. We also had summer education opportunities for kids. I put together a career day where I reached out to various different professionals in the community and arranged for them to come to high schools to discuss their career path.
I continuously applied for management positions when they came up. Finally, I was promoted to assistant manager of the children’s department at our main library in Toledo. I was directly over five staff who were teen librarians. We had a teen area, teen desk, video games for teens, and other resources for them to use. I was there for about nine months and then the pandemic hit. Many staff who could retire chose to due to fears and health concerns. They had to shuffle people, and they moved me to the acting manager of the Locke branch, which is where I’m at now. I was the acting manager during the pandemic, and about a year and a half ago they interviewed me for the official branch manager position and I got it. My branch has six library staff, a public safety officer, and a custodian.
-What’s your favorite thing about working in the library?
Getting to know people. You often become similar to hairdressers and bartenders; people tell you things. Sometimes you find yourself in the role of a semi-counselor. You get cool snapshots of people’s lives. You build those relationships with varying ages. I’ve built some really good relationships with some older folks. There’s one older woman who has followed me around the county. We have a good relationship, and she trusts me to help her. She even gives me Christmas cards every year. You get to know people who you never would have in your own life.
-What has been your coolest/most fulfilling experience working in the library?
There are a lot of really cool things you see in the library. There are people you have big influences on. I was the volunteer coordinator at my first position in Toledo. It was a very connected community there. In the summer, I would have somewhere between 60-80 volunteers between the ages of 11-17. I got to know a ton of kids and do some semi-mentoring. I’ve had multiple volunteers of mine go on to work in our library system. Some of those kids are now my coworkers, which is awesome.
-What would surprise people about working in the library?
A library is one of the few safe places that teens and young adults can go that doesn’t require them to pay money to be there. Especially in lower socioeconomic areas, but really everywhere, there are some teens who don’t want to be home after school or can’t be home after school for various reasons. You get to know some kids really well because they are there all the time. You get to build relationships, you get to give guidance, and you get to be a safe adult during after school hours. You fill a really interesting role. We don’t have expectations like homework. For us, as long as there are no behavioral issues, we don’t care what they do. They can just hang out.
When I left my full-time job in Kansas City I had developed a Teen Advisory Group where teens who came a lot would help me come up with programs they wanted to see. They also helped set the tone for things, for example, if other teens were acting up, they would say “Hey, quit it. Don’t do that here.” It was huge; they were self-modulating. There was one kid in that group whose home life wasn’t great. He was in the library all the time and he was an awesome kid. When I left, it was really hard because I couldn’t be as connected to him anymore. I told my co-workers to look out for him and to make sure he still felt comfortable coming to the library. There’s so much of that kind of need in juvenile, teen, and young adult lives and the library can help fill it.
-What advice would you give to any interested in pursuing your profession?
Gain experience working with people. Build up your customer service skills. It also depends on what kind of librarian you want to be. If you want to be a children’s librarian, get experience working with youth in various capacities. Volunteering is always a good opportunity. Also, make sure you understand the profession. A lot of people have a strong misconception about what librarians do. Some think we read books all day. As fantastic as that would be, that is not the case! Talk to a librarian and get an idea of what we actually do. It’s helping people with welfare applications, sending faxes, employment searches, looking over resumes, doing programming, teaching skills, and building relationships. It’s a varied career, and mostly involves helping others. Understand what the library system actually does, and figure out where you want your role to be. Also, having technology skills is important. You will use the computer every day, and libraries will be using technology more and more as time goes on.
Joseph lives in Toledo with his wife Meghan and their three children. Ohio is the tenth state that he has lived in. Joseph loves his job and his family life. When he gets time to himself, he reads, plays video games, and participates in what he describes as “various forms of treasure hunting.” Joseph enjoys thrifting and looking through places like Facebook Marketplace for items of interest. Whatever he collects from these endeavors he keeps, gives as gifts, or restores and sells.
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