Inspiration for the Rest of Us

My life was changed by a purple pencil

…and the person who believed in me more than I did myself.

Karla Strand
Sep 22, 2019 · 5 min read

Six years ago, I took on the position of Gender & Women’s Studies Librarian for the University of Wisconsin System. This is a story about how that happened. But more importantly, it’s a story about believing in yourself and how one act can change the course of your life.

To do the story justice, I have to start at the beginning.

And that beginning for me was a pencil.

I received this pencil at the table of the UW System’s Women’s Studies Librarian at the 27th Annual UW System Women’s Studies Conference in 2002 (a conference that is still going strong, by the way). It was the first time I had presented at an academic conference. As an undergraduate at Carroll College (albeit a “non-traditional,” single-mothering one, with a full-time job and four-year-old son), I was there to provide a student’s perspective of embodiment and the use of visual imagery to teach gender. I was so excited and honored to be on the panel with three of my most respected Carroll professors.

I was studying history and women’s studies at Carroll at the time, determined to finally finish my Bachelor’s degree. After Carroll, I planned to earn advanced degrees at UW– Madison and become a professor of history and/or women’s studies. Before I could take that path, however, I was offered a full-time support staff position in Carroll’s Todd Wehr Memorial Library. Like most librarians will say, I was a voracious reader and loved books and libraries. Despite this, I had never thought of pursuing librarianship as a career until I began working in the library at Carroll in 2003. After graduating from Carroll that year, I immediately began pursuing my MLIS at UW-Milwaukee, completing it in 2006.

But this is a story about a pencil…

Women’s Studies Librarian? I had no idea there was such a thing. What a fantastic job. Women’s studies and books??

While still having no designs on librarianship, I walked away with that pencil and kept it for many years. I knew little of the current Women’s Studies Librarian, Phyllis Holman Weisbard, so I went to that website, followed Phyllis’s posts on email lists of which we were both a part, took notice of the events we both attended, and read the publications of the Office of the Women’s Studies Librarian.

In 2013, I was shocked to see that after twenty-two years, Phyllis was retiring. I must have looked at the job description posted by the search committee for hiring her successor, but I didn’t seriously consider applying. By this time I had spent nearly eleven happy, fruitful years at the Carroll Library. I was serving as the Interim Associate Director and enjoying being Diversity Librarian — a position I had created with my former director six years earlier — and I had many amazing partnerships with colleagues around the campus and community.

Two weeks later, though, a Carroll alumna with whom I wasn’t familiar contacted me on Facebook. She encouraged me to apply for the position of Gender & Women’s Studies Librarian, insisting that while it would be a vast change from Carroll, the position would be a perfect fit for me. I was so taken aback at this gesture that I had to apply. I was nervous and thrilled when I received a request for a phone interview and then an in-person interview.

Because it had all unfolded so auspiciously, I decided to go through the interview process being as transparent as possible. I thought, “If they see the real me and think that I am a fit, then it is meant to be.” So while I was uncertain whether or not it was the right thing to do, I shared with the search committee the story of the purple pencil and the message from the unknown student, both of which had made such a big impact on me.

I cannot adequately express how ecstatic I was to be offered this position. While it was difficult to leave Carroll, a place full of people and experiences so important to my professional, academic, and personal development, I knew I had to jump at the opportunity for this, my dream job. It was serendipity.

And so, I began this amazing journey in October 2013, and haven’t looked back. I’m the fifth Gender and Women’s Studies Librarian since the original position of Women’s Studies Librarian-in-Residence was created in 1977. Before Phyllis, there was Sue Searing, Linda Parker, and Esther Stineman (later, Lanigan). Building on the work of these trailblazing women, I am able to fulfill my own mission of exploring the role of libraries and information in the empowerment of women and girls throughout the world.

Oh, and that “unknown” alumna…her name is also Karla. After I accepted the position, I bought her a cup of coffee as a small gesture of my enormous gratitude. I learned an amazing lesson in believing in yourself from her. I kept thinking that if a stranger had more confidence in me than I had in myself, I have some work to do! And I have been doing that work ever since.

I am grateful, too, to Phyllis, Sue, Linda, and Esther, for building this office and position into the force for change that it is, and for, as Phyllis aptly put it in her final column in the Winter–Spring 2013 issue of Feminist Collections, passing on to me “the opportunity to have the best job in women’s studies librarianship — and in [our] view, in librarianship as a whole.”

Photo by Karla Strand of two piles of books and a glass jar with purple and white pens and pencils in it.
Photo by Karla Strand of two piles of books and a glass jar with purple and white pens and pencils in it.
The purple pencil in its natural habitat. (Photo by Karla J. Strand.)

This article is adapted from the original, published in Feminist Collections, volume 34, numbers 3–4, Summer-Fall 2013. Karla is currently working on a book that will detail the unique history of the Gender and Women’s Studies Librarian at UW in full.

Karla Strand

Written by

Librarian, book reviewer, freelance writer: Ms. Mag, Pulp Mag, The Startup, Fearless She Wrote. Views only mine.

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