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Uprooted, Nomadic, and Displaced: The Unspoken Costs of the Upward Climb
by
Posted On December 13, 2022
Interviewees: Jason Alston, Tracy Drake, Joyce Gabiola, Jamillah Gabriel, Michelle Ganz, Twanna Hodge, Christal Young

Peer reviewers: Courtney Chartier, Nicollette Davis, Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, Makiba Foster, Petrina Jackson, and Kathryn La Barre

Katrina Spencer's headshot

Author Bio: Katrina Spencer works as the librarian for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She loves studying foreign languages, trying/eating/cooking new foods, and reading. Find more of Spencer’s writing at up//root, Vinegar Hill Magazine, Hack Library School, and McSweeney’s, or visit her personal website, katleespe.com. For tips on navigating the academic librarianship job market, check out her content on TikTok: @katleespe.

Abstract: As LIS workers ascend the ranks of their professions, particularly in academia, many find ourselves moving about the nation on epic and unanticipated geographic journeys. City people move to rural towns, and folks from the country get to know cosmopolitan hubs. Each move, while presenting new professional opportunities, also brings new landscapes, new challenges, and new encounters—some welcome and others not so much. This article aims to chronicle testimonies of these journeys and to better inform LIS graduate students about the professional plains they will soon come to know. For some, the displacement is a blessing, opening delightfully novel horizons. For others, the disorientation brings about a slew of discomforts—among them, a lack of predictability.

Note: When I started interviewing LIS workers for this piece, it was without any formal qualitative or quantitative methodological training. I wanted to shed light on a professional phenomenon of what I will call “hypermobility” or “nomadism” of the professional kind that exists among some of the most ostensibly successful folks in our field. My interviewees’ intimate testimonials made the work into ethnography. I am deeply indebted to them for allowing me access to their thoughts and lived experiences. I will also share that I have assumed that the folks who work in the highest echelons of our profession—the deans, the assistant university librarians (AULs), the directors, the “heads,” et al.—would have an extraordinary amount to say about the topics touched on herein. However, my expectation was that they would also have the least amount of freedom to do so in a public forum, and I therefore did not ask them to participate.


“I’m always on the run.”

—Lenny Kravitz

In some fields, developing professionals expect to move around geographically. Displacement is part of the tradition, and training opportunities demand relocation. For example, many medical doctors fulfill their residencies in locales other than those where they’ll choose to practice medicine or develop their own practices. Pre- and non-tenure-track professors are on the move more than any of us would like to admit, largely as a result of “contingent” or limited-term employment. And some corporations, having a variety of regional headquarters—think of expansive companies like Exxon, Walmart, or the fictional Dunder Mifflin—may allow employees to make moves according to their career trajectories and desires.

Academic librarianship’s penchant to take its employees from coast to coast, however, seems minimally discussed. It is quite often a requirement to move to enter the profession and to move again to pursue career growth. From the time I was in graduate school, for example, to now, I’ve lived in Illinois, Wisconsin, Vermont, and Virginia. Each locale has introduced me to new flora (rhubarb, Japanese cherry blossoms) and fauna (Asian lady beetles, boxelder bugs, camel crickets), but as a California native, I cannot say that the Midwest, New England, or the “New” South ever formed part of my dreams.

While I have gotten my feet wet teaching others to scour library catalogs, building research guides, and developing attractive displays, I find myself uprooting more often than I had ever anticipated. My father, after all, worked for one company, Safeway/Vons, for 42 years, and my mother for the Los Angeles Unified School District for the entirety of her career in the same city in which she was born. My mother’s refrain for the past 13 years that I have lived in absentia has been, “I’ll be glad when you come home.” I have not lived within 1,700 miles of home since 2009. I cannot come home—not in the way that she means and not as easily as I thought I might. For one, the home I knew from 1984 to 2009 is not quite the same place I left. But certainly, more salient to this piece, as Reed College archivist Tracy Drake (one of my interviewees for this article) said, “I have to go where the job is.”

Ctrl + F: A Place of Her Own

The stories of people like Twanna Hodge, a well-known name and face in the world of LIS and ALA, both inspire me and give me pause. When Hodge started her LIS journey, she studied in the state of Washington, took a residency in Utah, accepted a position in the Virgin Islands, was hired in upstate New York, and then moved to Florida for a role as a diversity, equity, and inclusion librarian. She started her doctoral studies in Maryland in fall 2022. Did you catch all of that? Are you a bit dizzy? That means that in less than 10 years’ time, she will have lived in six locales, each distinct regionally, culturally, and professionally.

Twanna Hodge tweet; transcription underneathTwanna Hodge tweeted on June 1, 2022: I’m ecstatic to share that I will be attending the University of Maryland, College Park PhD program in Information Studies this fall! From @UVI_edu BA to @UW_iSchool MLIS and now to @iSchoolIUMD for a PhD! Repping @USVI

Hodge is well-loved within our profession, is known as a frequent collaborator within ALA, and is a Spectrum Scholar. She represents the very best of what we have to offer. My question, however, is whether the field is offering her rewards that are sufficiently compensatory for the journey she is taking and the sacrifices she is making with regard to the incessant uprooting she is experiencing. I cannot help but wonder about the costs associated with the ongoing uprooting some of us—perhaps especially the most ambitious—are experiencing. Is it a blessing or a curse to find one’s self in demand every few years all over the nation? Hodge told me that she always knew she would reside on the “mainland” (the continental U.S.) because St. Thomas, the island where she was born and raised (a U.S. territory), is but 32 square miles with a population of about 45,000, according to the 2020 census. She knew that she would make an exit, but could she have anticipated the several professional pit stops along the way? When I asked her if she imagined an end in sight to the interminable moving, she said no, but that she hoped the stretches between moves would become longer. Hodge’s desire is to one day own a home and have a place she can call her own. I hope that her LIS journey will allow her to fulfill both her professional and personal goals.

Even when we are single, child-free, and without dependents or pets and choose to move in pursuit of cheaper rent, increased square footage, or the pursuit of a mortgage, the upheaval that ensues can become unwieldy in scope. (See @amymaurercreel’s TikTok for a darkly humorous take.) How much do movers cost, and where does the money come from to pay them? How many boxes are needed? Has the walkthrough with the landlord of the rental unit been scheduled? Will the deposit be returned? Will the furniture fit in the new place? Has the snail mail been forwarded? Have the prescriptions been transferred to the new pharmacy? Does the new grocery store carry the [fill in the blank] I like? How am I going to get my desk upstairs? Who will reassemble my bed? Where will guests park? What are my neighbors like? What is my new commute to work?

The questions and decision making can easily overwhelm, even for the most planful among us. Now imagine doing it six times in 10 years. Is there compensation enough to make up for the discomforts and disorientations that accompany each relocation? Might the upward climb in some ways discourage long-term unions and/or family-building, as it disrupts relationships and one’s sense of community? Or is it the ability to move in pursuit of a more wondrous privilege that allows one to reap endless rewards and opportunities not everyone gets to have? How unique is this nomadism to academia? And what should we be telling LIS graduate students to prepare and provide them with reasonable expectations of the field? Some of what I explore with my interviewees can inform these answers.

Medical Quests and Financial Drain

Ohio-based archivist Michelle Ganz, director of archives at the Dominican Sisters of Peace, recounted the turmoil and quest of meeting her family’s medical needs on her professional trajectory. Before arriving in Columbus, Ganz lived in Arizona, Tennessee, and Virginia. She has been on this career path for 14 years, and each time she moves, she must find a new general practitioner, allergist, diabetes specialist, and retinal specialist. While Ganz affirms that she loves her work, she asserts with clear conviction too, “I don’t want to move anymore … I’m looking for my forever home.” The costs of uprooting, both literal and otherwise, have been, in a word, expensive.

“[Uprooting] destroyed my finances,” she says with no sense of self-pity. Her resolve to do the best with the environments and the resources she has encountered is steadfast; however, she is clear-eyed about overarching patterns within the field of LIS that shape some of the hardships she confronts. “I don’t know anyone who has had one position,” Ganz intimates, underscoring that the excessive mobility is closely tied to the pursuit of higher wages and career growth. Archivists, she opines, are subjected to “miserable pay,” and “we’re all still hustling this far into our careers.” The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that as of May 2021, the mean annual wage for archivists is $61,880. Of course, about $62,000 will feel different and be split differently if one is the sole breadwinner in their household (as Ganz is in her three-person family), if one has significant student loans (as a broad swath of North American college graduates do), if one lives in an urban or rural environment, or if one has children or other dependents.

Lacking Community Bonds

Tracy Drake, director of special collections and archives at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, moved from Chicago with her daughter to the West and agrees that there needs to be an “industry-wide salary increase.” For Drake, a Black woman, Portland was a “good choice professionally,” she assures me, but in terms of familial and community bonds, the struggles that accompany being at a distance from home have made themselves known. In remembering the Midwestern metropolis where she was born and raised, Drake says, “Chicago [has been] instrumental to my development as a human being,” and but for the lack of professional opportunities for growth there at the time of her search, she “would have never imagined leaving.” She notes that despite making an effort to visit home at least twice a year, she now speaks to family less often and has lost some connections. The time zone difference alone presents a challenge in communication, and Drake says, “I miss my people.” She adds, “I will never make another move … unless there is established community” to meet her in the new destination. Drake acknowledges that affinity groups can be formed based on a variety of identities—parental status, sexuality, race, profession, and more. However, the Pacific Northwest is not known for its racial diversity, as satirized in Portlandia’s “Portland So White” skit in season 8. The 2020 census reports that more than 75% of Portland is white, and just under 6% is Black. In Chicago, the census finds that almost 48% of the people are white, and about 29% are Black. Community now factors highly into Drake’s job search and may, as she indicates, in fact take precedence even over salary.

Geographical and Sociocultural Woes

Indeed, social relationships and engagements reflect factors of health that can be cast into jeopardy as a result of uprooting. Other geographically based health risks are also known to LIS practitioners. Drake shares that after arriving in Oregon, her daughter started having seasonal breakouts of eczema—something she didn’t experience in Chicago—which could be climate or allergy-based. Dr. Jason Alston, an assistant teaching professor at the University of Missouri and a North Carolinian by birth, began experiencing seasonal affective disorder, otherwise known as SAD, upon moving to the Midwest. With this disorder, the climate and a lack of exposure to the sun negatively impacts one’s mood. He also mentions needing to change his skincare routine due to ambient dryness and having unwelcome reactions to seasonal allergens.

And then, of course, there is one’s professional and cultural reception in a new region. Alston acknowledges a lack in stating, “I don’t have community, and I may not ever.” In moving to the Midwest, he lost proximity to active alumni chapters of his fraternity. Culturally, he considers himself a Southerner, and he moved to Kansas City, Missouri, having no connections to the place or the locals. He found some parts of his professional reception to be frosty, highlighting that some Midwestern students are not so accustomed to seeing Black people in positions of authority and found him abrasive, defensive, and aggressive. After some adjustments were made to course evaluations in consideration of bias and equity, Alston’s assessments improved, but his victory was not won without some uncomfortable growing pains. Alston also mentions that many jobs within LIS come with an unlisted role of being a “sensitivity coach” to white colleagues who may not be aware that certain approaches, strategies, or programs may be offensive to people of color. Since meeting his wife in Kansas City, Alston realizes that it would be of most benefit to remain in the Midwest so his spouse can reap the rewards of her seniority and the family can enjoy proximity to her relatives, but he acknowledges that he’d love to move back to the South. He misses being within driving distance of his family and regrets missing important family milestones since being away, like anniversaries and funerals that have proven too costly to attend.

Family Planning, Relocation Costs, and (In)tolerance

Joyce Gabiola, LGBT history research collections librarian at the University of Houston, has been on an eventful journey of their own, having moved to Illinois, Texas, Massachusetts, California, and then Texas again. Gabiola followed their partner to Massachusetts and completed a master’s of library and information science while there. When they decided to venture into a Ph.D. program across the country in Los Angeles, the move had major repercussions, causing them and their partner to delay growing their family and to grapple with a slew of other unanticipated challenges. Gabiola notes that relocation assistance, a monetary allocation made to eliminate or reduce the financial costs for a move, was unavailable in relation to the move for the Ph.D. program. It was also uneven and unpromised across institutions for professional moves. For their professional roles that followed, the relocation assistance funds varied by a factor of 10 between $600 and $6,000.

Joyce Gabiola tweet; transcription underneath

Joyce Gabiola tweeted on Aug. 16, 2022: I’m beyond excited to announce that I’m joining the University of Houston Libraries as the LGBT History Collections Librarian. Returning to Htown and my alma mater where I first “came out” & learned to embrace myself & where I first became interested in preserving history.

Gabiola’s sentiments regarding feeling like a fish out of water in a new environment also echo those I heard from Hodge, Ganz, Drake, and Alston. Ganz underscored this in sharing that the community she encountered in rural Tennessee refused to rent to her and her partner because they were an unmarried couple, and the Baptist church disapproved of their unofficial union. This rejection is what motivated her to formalize her union and get married. Gabiola also notes that while their and their partner’s desire is to be “normal,” becoming residents in new regions forces them to critically think about what type of reception their queer family might encounter. They have to ask what communities are safe enough for them to exist in, to drive through, and to be seen as “ordinary.”

Comes With the Job

Jamillah Gabriel, critical pedagogy librarian at Harvard University, has also been working in, around, or for libraries since 2000. Having made stops in California, Indiana, Illinois, and now Massachusetts, she is no stranger to uprooting either. But her epic adventure may have occurred within or beyond the field of LIS. “My nomadic experience may be rooted in something other than this discipline,” she points out. When Gabriel lost her mother in 1999, her sense of home became somewhat opaque. So, while her career has brought her to discover new cities and states, she has no belief that she is limited by geography. “The world is my oyster,” she says. Gabriel’s position adds diversity to the pool of impressions regarding the continuous displacement cited, and she is the most ambivalent of those interviewed. She acknowledges that the moves can cause familial disconnect, decimate savings, alienate one from community, and be a hassle in terms of establishing a sense of continuity with medical care. But “every move is to do better than before,” she asserts, and these are the costs that come with the climb. “More people stay in one place than those who move. Both lifestyles are valid,” she adds.

Gabriel seems to have made peace with the situation and embraces what the future brings. And perhaps this is also true of high-ranking LIS administrators such as Courtney Young (Colgate University), Alexia Hudson-Ward (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Trevor Dawes (University of Delaware), Mark Puente (Purdue University), Elaine Westbrooks (Cornell University), and Athena Jackson (University of Houston), who, in the line of duty, have collectively moved more than 20 times. Their names are recognized in LIS fields and are synonymous with leadership, excellence, and interest in the success of people of color in LIS. However, those paths to leadership, excellence, diversity initiatives, and professional growth have not allowed them to limit their residences to one state or region. Or two. Or three.

The Benefits of Staying Put

Christal Young, who is approaching mid-career status, is a librarian who has stayed in one place. She is the acting head of Leavey Library, head of reference and user engagement, and assistant professor in the master of management in library and information science program at the University of Southern California. (Yes, the titles are heady and many.) It was through a process of merit and seniority combined with her former supervisor’s retirement that led Young to this peak. She has always lived in Los Angeles, and her roots and bonds there are undeniable. Her family is based there, and she is actively engaged in both her historically Black sorority and community service. The proximity of family has allowed Young to have certain conveniences that those who move about may not enjoy—for example, familial care while recuperating from a medical procedure. She also mentions that maintaining a vegan diet is much easier to support in Southern California than it might be in other regions. Once, Atlanta called to her with an attractive professional post, but she admits that while she “always wants to grow” in her professional practice, at the same time, she doesn’t “like change.” Young states, “I don’t have to move around because other people move around.” Her colleagues, leadership teams, and even direct reports have shuffled about and cycled through to new roles and new locales. So, the movement about her, to some extent, can keep things fresh.

This stability affords Young additional privilege, as well, in the form of home ownership. Workers who have yet to settle in any particular locale may be a bit more gun shy about committing to a mortgage and the responsibilities of a home. Young’s continuity may indeed give her a greater sense of predictability and expose her to less of a sense of risk. For any new folks to the field reading this piece, we can applaud this comfort and this success while at the same time acknowledging that this upward trajectory at a single institution may be anomalous and therefore a testimony that should be read as infrequent—an aberration and not a narrative the up-and-coming should necessarily rely on.

A Detriment or a Boon?

Some industries can keep employees tied to one place. The Bay Area, for example, where tech companies—Google, Facebook, Uber, etc.—abound is one region where ambitious programmers and designers may be able to predict residence, although some are branching out to Austin, Texas, for example, with Tesla. And then there are the performing arts of the stage, the big screen, and the music industry, which somewhat staunchly call the most visible (and audible) performers to Los Angeles and New York. In these fields, many who are considered at the top of their game know where they will need to be in the world to keep their names in people’s mouths and their faces in people’s sights. I doubt Kim Kardashian will be leaving Los Angeles any time soon.

In LIS, the answer to the question of where you will be is much more uncertain. Some might celebrate that we can work anywhere in the 50 states or beyond. Some might lament the likelihood of being distanced from home as we climb the ladder of success. Determining whether this phenomenon is a blessing or a curse is, to say the least, subjective. Helping folks who are new to our field to anticipate what they may encounter and what the costs may be is likely what is best. A well-informed LIS worker is a healthier and more prepared LIS worker. Truth be told, I do not recall these types of conversations being explicitly foregrounded during my time as a graduate student. Back then, we were excited to hear of anyone earning a role on a new team anywhere. We were so happy to be wanted. The acquisition of roles following graduate school was and is a felicitous occasion. However, questions abound, including:

  • How long will you remain in your first role? Your second?
  • What happens when you outgrow your first role but love where you are? Or find that there is a personal and institutional misalignment of vision after, say, having secured a mortgage?
  • How many career transitions should one anticipate on the journey of an LIS career?
  • If I want to become a library leader, what will this mean for my sense of family, community, home, predictability, and continuity?
  • What reasonable expectations should we have of the field to help workers create and maintain sustainable professional lives?

This article aims to generate productive conversation around these themes, so keep an eye out for a March 2023 webinar-based discussion of these very topics from the Association of Southeastern Research Libraries (ASERL). What I can say after my many stops is that the Blue Moon ice cream in Madison, Wisconsin, is divine. I have never had better bacon outside of Vermont. And picking peaches at Carter Mountain Orchard in Virginia made for a great date. My unintentional tour of the U.S. has had some of its own delights. However, knowing what I know now—after nearly 7 years in the game—if my skills, experience, and the job market had presented me with a broad variety of choices to stay closer to my aging parents in sunny Southern California, to move up professionally and financially while staying still geographically, or even to gallivant some on overseas escapades, I am not so certain this is the trajectory I would have chosen for myself. The market pulls us out of our own orbits, and we struggle to manage the disorientations that ensue. May the newest to the field be hereby made aware.


Further Reading

Harris, Rachel S. “The Overlooked Diversity Issue.” Inside Higher Ed. 2019.

Stallings, Erika. “When Black Women Go From Office Pet to Office Threat.” Zora. 16 Jan. 2020.

Two-Body Problem. Wikipedia. 19 Oct. 2022.

Virji, Ayaz. Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America. Convergent Books, 2019.


Katrina Spencer works as the librarian for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She loves studying foreign languages, trying/eating/cooking new foods, and reading. Find more of Spencer’s writing at up//root, Vinegar Hill Magazine, Hack Library School, and McSweeney’s, or visit her personal website, katleespe.com. For tips on navigating the academic librarianship job market, check out her content on TikTok: @katleespe.

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