An International Student’s Long Road to Librarianship 

This week at #AsiaNow, we are pleased to offer our readers a series of posts on library careers in area studies. The four series authors will convene on Monday, March 22 at 3:00pm Eastern Time for a panel at the AAS 2021 Virtual Annual Conference, “Ask a Librarian!: A Discussion of Alternative Careers in Japanese Studies.” Please join them to participate in this important conversation, which will build on the essays published at #AsiaNow.

Photo of library bookshelves
Image by ElasticComputeFarm from Pixabay

By Ayako Yoshimura, Ph.D.
Japanese Studies Librarian, University of Chicago

Wanting to learn about other cultures by living within them, I came from Japan to the United States to pursue higher education; and before I had completed my bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison I was already certain that I wanted to advance to a graduate program in folklore. I aspired to become an inspiring university teacher just like my folklore professors, James P. Leary and Ruth E. Olson—although I was at the time only dimly aware of what professors did in addition to teaching. So I next enrolled in the master’s program in folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland (one of only two anglophone institutions in North America with full graduate programs in folklore). While there I ended up shifting my research focus from belief and narrative to material culture, as my interest in an academic career strengthened further. Yet this was also a period during which I faced some difficulties. The library at MUN lacked the sort of robust Japanese studies collection necessary to support the type of research that I wanted to conduct. I also experienced the challenge of living in a small city with limited access to the kinds of Japanese groceries that I needed. 

After completing the master’s program I decided to take a respite from academia, and I returned to Japan to gain some non-academic work experience as a means of confirming that my career interests lay in academic folkloristics. This brief absence from academia having reaffirmed its importance to me, I returned to Wisconsin for an independent doctoral program. All was good, as I was taking purposive steps toward my career goal. However, during my second semester back at UW, my long-term partner passed away suddenly, and I needed to take in his aging cat. This precipitated a change in my priorities: I knew that I would not be able to leave for Japan to conduct the field research that was essential in my discipline, and that I would need to find a new way to fund myself after my four-semester teaching-assistantship ran out. The following winter Ruth told me about a newly-created graduate-student position in the university library: half-time Japanese studies bibliographer. Before I could learn much about the position requirements, I found myself at the job interview. I managed to assert that my interdisciplinary background in folklore had equipped me with the versatility necessary to excel in collection development and reference services (and, further, that I was familiar with the library’s internal systems thanks to having worked for five years as an undergraduate at another campus library). A week later I got the position, and that was my serendipitous introduction to the profession of Japanese studies librarian. The opportunity had arrived out of the blue, and I seized it solely for financial reasons. 

A Self Examined, a Career Reimagined

I enjoyed working in the library, but I was not yet thinking of it as a career (despite the generous encouragement of my library supervisor). During the next five years I continued to cultivate my scholarly credentials by being active in academic organizations and by publishing articles. The cat passed away, and I was eventually able to complete my fieldwork in Japan. Finally, while writing my dissertation, I took the time to ponder my career choices again. I found myself feeling depressed at the prospect of pursuing a professorship, as by this time I was fully aware of the onerous process of applying for—and retaining—a tenure-track position. I also found the task of grading arduous—to the point of diminishing the joy and reward of teaching—even though some students had expressed gratitude for my careful attention to their work. It was difficult to admit to myself that I might not want to become a professor after all, because this felt like a renunciation of all that my teachers had instilled in me. Moreover, I was disheartened that the academic dossier that I had so diligently built might go to waste. 

I felt lost for many months, and found it painful to be in the dissertation-writing phase without clear prospects beyond. On many occasions I contemplated my likes and dislikes in the scholarly domain. In terms of academic work, I enjoyed mentoring, tutoring, lecturing, researching, writing; and I disliked grading. In terms of public outreach work, I liked everything from presenting at events and curating exhibits to coordinating the events and even cleaning up afterward. 

I sat myself down to lay out crucial factors that would inform my decisions:

a) The only type of tenure-track position that seemed worth all the effort and energy was a folklore position. But I had seen only one such job that I could have applied for in the past ten years or so, and it was not even at a location that I was interested in moving to. So this was not a realistic path.

b) A job as a regional folklore specialist (for example, with a public or private folklife agency) might have been a possibility, but my chances of getting one appeared slim because of my lack of long-term personal experience with local cultures.

c) I was still sure that I liked the academic environment, because I had always been able to survive life’s tribulations by turning to my research—even though after the loss of my loved ones I understood better the value of maintaining a balance between personal happiness and professional aspiration.

d) I also concluded that staying in an Anglophone environment would be the best way for me—a North American-trained folklorist focusing on Japanese vernacular culture—to contribute to international folkloristics.

e) Yet, on the personal front, I remembered my experiences in Newfoundland: where I lived mattered, and so did the kind of library collection (and foodstuffs!) that I could access. 

What seemed ideal to me was a position in which I would be able to continue with both academic and public outreach work, because I had long admired my folklore teachers’ commitment to education and community service, and theirs was an example that I sought to follow. What they were doing with their academic and experiential expertise in Wisconsin folklife, I would do with my Japanese cultural background. But I would need to stake out my own turf. What profession would satisfy these conditions and criteria? Looking around and observing what full-time librarians were doing at Wisconsin, I gradually realized that librarians could have the same kind of commitment and do the same kind of work as folklorists. Then it finally registered: a job that I had already had—Japanese studies librarian—was the one for me.

A Folklorist with a Day Job as a Librarian

I consider myself first and foremost to be a folklorist, but one with a day job as a librarian (echoing what Jim Leary once said: “I am a folklorist who has a day job as a professor”). I am happy working as a Japanese studies librarian, because it enables me to utilize my folkloristic training on the job. 

My primary responsibilities as Japanese Studies Librarian at the University of Chicago include selecting materials to add to the collection (collection development); offering instructional and reference services (public service); and creating bibliographic records for acquired resources (cataloging). I feel empowered by the daily assurance that my academic training in folklore has prepared me well for the job.

Firstly, that training impels me to think internationally and interdisciplinarily. Folklore is connected to a wide range of disciplines within the humanities and social sciences: languages, literatures, history, art history, design studies, religious studies, psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, geography. Reading works in multiple fields and understanding their varied discourses has helped me assist people with wide-ranging research questions, and has inspired me to think creatively in developing the library collection. Moreover, in my mind, Japan is part of the world—hence, a part of global studies, rather than just a part of East Asian studies. I actively collect materials pertinent to Japan’s relations with areas beyond East Asia. I love the fact that at my institution the Japanese collection is a part of the main library, rather than being sequestered in a separate building. Working in the same building makes it easy for me to collaborate on projects with other area-studies and subject specialists. I have thus far been able to organize two exhibits—on poetry and on food culture—in cooperation with several colleagues. I value an environment that allows me to engage my academic interests beyond Japanese studies. 

One of my collection-development philosophies is “tomorrow’s primary sources today.” As a folkloric ethnographer I am wont to take an interest in contemporary issues and quotidian matters. In disciplines that scrutinize the past, scholars use as primary sources diaries, newsletters, and popular-press publications, which tend to survive thanks to private collectors and packrats. But rather than leaving to chance the future availability of this material, I proactively seek it out now. That is, I try to collect what may appear today to be ubiquitous and trivial, so that in the future it might be useful as primary source material. Some of what I collect may not be used until after my time—and that is fine by me, because I myself have benefitted from what librarians before me have accumulated.      

I feel fortunate that while tending to my primary responsibilities I can still find time for both academic and outreach work as a folklorist. Alongside my research and publishing, I can organize or participate in outreach activities, working with local cultural communities. Folklorists function as “cultural brokers” who bridge different communities in the service of cross-cultural understanding. It is important to me professionally to serve the public by sharing my research findings through exhibitions (e.g., see “Nikkei South Side”) and public presentations (e.g., on kimonos), and by facilitating similar opportunities for students and others (e.g., the “Deemed Inadvisable” event and video recording, with generous support from the Library and the Center for East Asian Studies). I enjoy working at a large research library in a city with a substantial multiracial and multiethnic population. Here I have access to excellent library and archival resources and a population to serve, and I can exercise my commitment to education and community service in a way that makes me feel that I have indeed found my own turf.  

More Posts in This Series

“Ask a Librarian: Re-thinking Professional Contributions in Area Studies — Introduction,” by Rebecca Corbett, Ann Marie Davis, Regan Murphy Kao, and Ayako Yoshimura

“Changing Careers But Not Gears — My Path to Librarianship,” by Ann Marie Davis

“A Circuitous Path to Finding the Right Career,” by Rebecca Corbett

“Playing a Critical Role in Achieving a Bigger Goal,” by Regan Murphy Kao