Librarian turned love of books into a life’s work

By ANGIE FORD/Montana State News

“To this day we still call them the jingle boys. … Right before Christmas break about 10 years ago, a group of male students met on the fourth floor, stripped, and ran down the [then-open] staircase singing jingle bells. They got on their bikes and rode away.”

MSU Reference Librarian Jan Zauha relishes working with students who are overwhelmed.

Jan Zauha has been a reference librarian at MSU since 1995, but she claims to have unofficially been one all her life.

“My nickname as a child was smarty-pants,” she says. “You know, I was the youngest of four, and kids at that age are just trying to be adults sooner than they’re supposed to. But I read all the time – I got a reputation for doing kind of shoddy housework, because I’d rather be reading.

“Mom would take us to the library, and my sister who I always said was little miss perfect – about 5 years older than me – we would both go into the library and get books, but she could put hers away and read later. I could not wait. I have memories of dusting and reading. I knew that when I grew up, whatever I did had to involve books in some way – and it does.”

Zauha grew up in Boise, Idaho, and was a first-generation college student. She put herself through her college by working, and didn’t realize that she might be able to get a job with a degree in English. “I just thought I’d learn, feed my mind, so if I had a really bad job, I’d always have something to think about.”

Then, one of the people she worked with as a teamster freight clerk gave her the news that her management position there wasn’t good enough – not because she couldn’t do it well, but because he saw in her the potential to use more of her brain in another kind of work. She felt fortunate to have people reflect that back at her because, “people don’t do that enough today.”

So she left a perfectly lucrative job to move away from home to go get a master’s degree in English.

“It was the most scary thing I have ever done!” she says, “but it was so good for me.”

On the way there, she asked her then-boyfriend to pull his black convertible over in Iowa City because she wanted to check out the library school there, as she was curious what it might be like. She loved the school – but got back in the car and continued on to go get her master’s degree.

Shortly after that she met and married her husband, and went to Boise State to teach college writing. But in a couple years, library science again called to her. This time, her husband had decided that he wanted to go to film school in Iowa, which just happened to be the place where the Library school Zauha wanted to attend was. She got her Ph.D. and never looked back.

“I have at least another 15 years doing this,” she says, “It’s a good thing; I love it.”

When asked what she likes best about her career, Zauha gets a look in her eyes like a child trying to decide which gift to open at Christmas. She finally settles on the idea of learning and possibilities.

“The whole world is about possibilities,” she says. “Every new student that comes up with a different research project, it’s a new possibility for me to learn something, an opportunity for them to learn something, a new mash of knowledge, of information.

“We live in this great candy shop of all human knowledge, and I think it’s so fabulous to put together the pieces of the puzzle. The library is just such a central hub for intellect – in both virtual, electronic ways, and physical ways – I think that’s what I like the most.”

Warm like a friend you’d want to settle in for a fun conversation with on a cloudy day, Zauha glances around the library, her eyes resting here and there on students collaborating around knowledge as if they were under her care.

“Students come here from all over and this might be the biggest building they’ve been in, and it’s overwhelming. I like it when they come to the desk and admit that they’re overwhelmed. It’s hard to admit, isn’t it? You think you’re supposed to know something when you come here … you’re in college now!”

But Zauha relishes the role she has in assuaging students who are overwhelmed.
“Reference Librarians are like faculty members who are not going to grade you; we’re here to help and guide you. Plus there’s client confidentiality, so I’m not going to report to your professor that you came in for help or what you had to say about the assignment – that would be inappropriate. I love the fact that I don’t grade students, because I’m in a much different relationship with them now.”

Zauha’s love of her career is evident, not only in the way she inhabits the space behind the reference desk, but in her stories as well – she lives and breathes books, learning, and interaction around knowledge, and her work environment is an extension of that passion.

“We’re surrounded by the physical reminders of the way knowledge used to be packaged. Sometimes when I work late (and by ‘work late’ I mean I’ve left here at like 3:30 in the morning), and you walk out, and you think, ‘I could spend the night here just reading books! It’s just really kind of sick, but it’s kind of a fun feeling to know there is all this latent knowledge just lurking here.”

Zauha is surprised that more interesting things don’t happen in the library, since it is a place where so many human beings hang out together. “But,” she adds, “maybe we need to do more to provoke them – some libraries have game night.”

She recounts with pleasure how two professors from the Department of English did a poetry reading in a way that students would never forget.

“They were reading Ginsburg’s America, and if you can imagine, it has a lot of profanity in it.”

One professor went up on the second floor and boomed his part out into the atrium. The other professor went down to the first floor and called out his replies back up, so that the whole place was resounding with these loud, harsh words of the poetry. Students who came unsuspectingly through the front doors were looking around and whispering to each other, thinking there was an actual fight going on.

For those who might want to maintain libraries as a place of stodgy silence, Zauha has a rousing perspective to offer:

“Academic libraries need to do more programming like that poetry reading, because if we are really trying to be the intellectual heart of the university, we need to give people a chance to act out.”

Edited by Matt Rule

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