Trauma and Belonging in Library School [Introduction]

A few times a week, I take a bus across campus to the university pool, where I swim for about thirty minutes before my job at Special Collections. Usually these days work out really well for me: the water isn’t freezing, I get in a good workout and I don’t panic about the Important School/Work Things I Should Be Doing. Other times, I’m the only woman in the pool and I have to share my lane with a guy who wants to talk to me.

“Why’re you here?” was my question today and, though I despise it, I feel like that’s what this blog post needs to be about. It’s blunt, but the answer I gave him also works for HLS: I have PTSD and I’m looking for a way to cope with it. It took me a long time to stop shying away from talking about mental health, but I believe that this is one of the most important topics students, librarians and archivists should discuss.

My trauma is forever linked with my time in graduate school, because it happened in my second semester, within my department. The abuse lasted months and my life often feels like a stark before and after. I just finished my third year of grad school, partially because of this abuse, but mainly because I decided to get a second masters in Art History. Academia moves without regard for the personal, but I have navigated these waters well, at least on paper.

I’ve been working in Special Collections since my first semester, but I’ve held many different jobs from entering metadata at our Digital Collections to working as an instruction assistant to supervising the art library on nights and weekends. I’ve done circulation, taught computer literacy to elementary schoolers, and co-designed exhibits. I feel like I’ve tried on every hat I could, I tried to fall in love with anything else, but Special Collections—rare books, the history of science, the history of printing, book bindings—is my home.

It’s hard to think back to this weird fight with myself, but it is clear on my CV. “You’ve done an awful lot,” should be code for, “you really couldn’t make up your mind.” I don’t regret the decisions I’ve made, but my CV has turned into a roadmap of my mental illness, desperately trying to get back to who I really am. However, just thinking back to my first semester—what I wanted to do, who I was—makes me throw up. Every day I think about dropping out.

There’s the rub. However, in writing about my mental health and in hearing others’ stories, I know I belong. I know I deserve to be here and to research the things I’m interested in and to help others. Library school has truly beaten me down, but any time I see a blog post or a presentation or share a conversation about mental health, I know I’m not alone. So let’s talk. It’s nice to meet you. I’m not great at writing back right away, but I won’t shy away from the hard stuff.


Cover photo: Swimming Competition, under license CC0

Laura Schmidt is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. She is interested in rare books and manuscripts, art librarianship, digital humanities, and disability activism in higher education.

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