Library careers offer English alumni a collection of opportunities

Taylor Petersen posing with a skeleton, smiling.

By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English

Up on the third floor of the Fresno State Library, Taylor Petersen works as the library services specialist for the Teacher Resource Center, a space that provides materials for teacher education students.

Because she works in a library, you might assume this English alumna spends her days surrounded solely by books — children’s books, young-adult literature, curriculum guides, etc. But not exactly.

In addition to the books, Petersen said it’s the hands-on stuff — games, models, puppets, anatomical skeletons, oversized Connect Four contraptions, and more — that draws the most interest. Prospective teachers can check out materials like these with their library card, as they learn how to build and deliver their own lesson plans.

“Patrons get so excited browsing through our shelves,” Petersen said. “It’s fun to watch! They ask lots of questions as they interact with the materials in the collection, which I’m always working on improving. I think people assume that a library has only books, so it becomes very exciting when people discover what else they can check out.”

Petersen is one of dozens of English Department alumni over the years who’ve gone on to develop successful library careers. And while “librarian” is one of the most recognizable positions inside a library, it’s far from the only library job that a book-loving English major can aspire to.

These English alumni include Petersen, who works in the Fresno State Library; Lena Mubsutina, who works in the Delta College Library in Stockton; and Esmeralda Gamez and James Tyner, who work for the Fresno County Public Library.

Petersen posing in-front of the resource center.
Taylor Petersen

Petersen earned a bachelor’s degree in English education from Fresno State, with an emphasis in creative writing, and she started working at the campus library as a student assistant. She fell in love with the work, the environment, and the people.

“Libraries are the best place to be because as soon as you enter the building, you can feel the energy shift,” Petersen said. “Everyone in the library is there to learn and discover, and you can really feel the ambition and thirst for knowledge throughout the building. Humans are, by nature, curious beings, and libraries give them the tools they need to satisfy their curiosities.”

Growing up in a family of educators, Petersen felt lucky to be surrounded at a young age by people who made learning fun. She met some “phenomenal librarians” throughout elementary and high school, and she vividly remembers her teachers bringing their classes to the library to get assistance with research projects.

“The librarians I’ve met were extremely proactive in teaching us how to research effectively,” Petersen said. “I always thought that was the norm, until I got to college and learned that many of my classmates had never even set foot in a library before. Ever since then, I have felt a strong responsibility to be part of this work and to make sure people not only know about the library but feel comfortable coming to us and asking questions.”

Petersen said English majors have a natural curiosity and attention to detail that grows from the kind of critical thinking that’s taught in the humanities. She said she internalized the habit of deeply researching and critically analyzing everything for class, and this skill has translated well to her library work, as she helps future educators who come into the Teacher Resource Center daily.

“Nothing will teach you critical thinking skills quite like over-analyzing one sentence in a text for an hour, twice a week,” Petersen said.

Petersen went on to earn a Master of Library and Information Science degree from San José State. She has been a full staff member at the Fresno State Library for nearly six years, including time as the stacks manager. Her brother Josh, who also earned his bachelor’s degree in English from Fresno State, works as a senior library technician at Fresno City College.

Headshot of Mubsutina in-front of a book shelf.
Lena Mubsutina

Like many English majors, alumna Lena Mubsutina felt drawn to libraries from an early age because she enjoyed reading. But growing up poor in the Central Valley, she said libraries were also one of the few places that were available to her.

“When I first started leading outreach activities, when I worked for the Fresno County Public Library, it was difficult for me to come up with something engaging,” she said. “But I saw the impact it had on people who were unfamiliar with library services. It made libraries more accessible when they knew we had community resources instead of only being a place to study.”

Mubsutina started working in the Fresno State Library as a freshman, and she has gone on to work in multiple libraries throughout the Central Valley over 15 years. She currently works in Stockton as the public services coordinator in the Delta College Library.

While her main duties involve managing her community college library’s research help and circulation desks, Mubsutina also does general academic library work such as collection development and teaching library workshops. She helps with outreach, too, going outside the library building and into the campus and community to inform people about what the library can do for them.

If you’re interested in working in a library, Mubsutina said, you don’t have to wait until you’re in a library science program.

“Don’t listen to people who say English and library degrees are useless!” she said. “Most jobs in the library do not require a library degree. So if you are considering a library career, you can apply at a public or academic library to see if it’s something that’s worth pursuing. I’ve stayed in the field because the work has been inspiring, challenging, and interesting.”

Mubsutina earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature from Fresno State, as well as a certificate of advanced study in composition. Much of her graduate work focused on Arab American literatures, especially authors of Palestinian descent. The development of her master’s thesis, “Writing the Borderland in Contemporary Arab American Literature,” played a key role in what kind of library career she decided to pursue.

“A lot of the resources I needed for studying Arab American literature in the late 2000s and early 2010s were not easy to locate, so it taught me how to be creative and persistent when doing research,” Mubsutina said.

“I also believe that the psychological and cultural components of literary and composition studies factor into how I approach different populations of library users,” she said. “The written and verbal communication skills I developed as an English major were helpful both for obtaining my MLIS degree and working in the library field.”

Mubsutina went on to earn a Master of Library and Information Science degree from San José State. Her debut novel, “Amreekiya,” published in 2018 by the University Press of Kentucky, won an Arab American Book Award.

Gamez posing with the children's books.
Esmeralda Gamez

When she was a kid, Esmeralda Gamez dreamed of working in a library. She remembers when she was learning to read in English that she’d visit the library often, and it always felt like the people working there were helping others in the community.

“It seems embarrassingly romantic, looking back,” Gamez said. “But the library always felt like a welcoming place, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

For more than a year, Gamez has worked part-time as a library aide in the Woodward Park regional branch of the Fresno County Public Library. She also holds down a full-time job as a food safety technician at a local laboratory — but it’s her library work that makes her feel most accomplished and is the most enjoyable.

“It’s been great working in a library,” Gamez said. “You can indulge your love of books, and you can help people find books or resources that impact their lives.”

Her typical workday consists of organizing and shelving all the books that are returned or that may be shelved incorrectly. She organizes materials around the library that are no longer in use by patrons. And she sometimes assists with setting up programs, display cases, and public events.

While constantly alphabetizing and sorting books can feel a little repetitive, Gamez knows her job as an aide is crucial to making sure library materials can easily be found. She always looks forward to conversations with people who are reading or looking to read books that she studied during her time as a college student.

Gamez earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Fresno State. She went on to study poetry in the Master of Fine Arts program, earning an MFA degree in creative writing with an emphasis in publishing and editing. She is thinking about pursuing further graduate work in library science.

But even if she doesn’t pursue another degree, Gamez knows she’d be a strong candidate to move up into other library opportunities. She’d like to explore the outreach aspects of library work, informing people about how much you can do with a library card beyond checking out books — stuff like borrowing movies and videogames, reserving study spaces, accessing testing guides, learning languages, taking classes, borrowing passes for state parks, and more.

“There’s many different positions someone can work in and still be an integral part of the library,” she said. “It’s not just the librarian position that has the power to connect to the patrons.”

Tyner is standing in-front of the Robert L. Kolbert Early Learning Center.
James Tyner

Long before the Fresno writing and arts communities got to know James Tyner as the city’s first poet laureate, he was known for his work in the Fresno County Public Library.

“As a kid, I always loved the library,” he said. “There was something magical about it to me — all of these answers, waiting for the right question to be asked.”

Tyner has been a part of the Fresno County library system for 22 years. His roles have included: library aide, library assistant, senior library assistant, supervising library assistant, and adult services librarian. He is currently a supervising librarian, overseeing eight library branches, including Fig Garden, Teague, Biola, Kerman, San Joaquin, Tranquillity, Mendota, and Firebaugh.

Though he now spends a lot of time on the road from branch to branch, Tyner works closely with all levels of library staff on planning programs, working on collections, and implementing outreach to multiple communities. He also gets to meet a lot of people throughout Fresno County.

“Libraries are changing,” Tyner said. “We aren’t just about books and quiet, but about building community and connecting people with what they need. Also, because I speak Spanish, I get to work with a lot of underserved communities, finding out what they need and how the library can provide that.”

Fresno County is huge, both geographically and demographically. So you can imagine the wide range of interests and needs that Tyner gets to discover in his current role.

“Smaller communities need libraries for access to computers, books, and materials they can only get there,” Tyner said. “I’ve helped a restaurant owner in Riverdale make a menu. I’ve hosted Dungeons and Dragons nights in Auberry and gardening classes in central Fresno. I’ve connected west-side farmworkers with family in Mexico, helping them access the public computers. Every day is different, but I’ve always felt like I’m making a difference.”

Tyner took a decade to complete his undergraduate work. He earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Oxnard College and a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Fresno State. During his bachelor’s program, he quit his job at a local printing press to start working in the Fresno County Public Library. He then studied poetry in Fresno State’s Master of Fine Arts program, earning an MFA degree in creative writing. He served as Fresno Poet Laureate from 2013-15.

Speaking from experience, Tyner said his academic background in English is crucial in his work, especially early on as a library aide and as a library assistant.

“An English degree is a great boon for library work,” Tyner said. “You will get endless questions about books, recommendations, and literature — at all levels.”

He said he felt like he could handle any question about books that came in the door. And he also felt like the natural teaching elements learned in English and creative writing classes fit hand-in-hand with helping library patrons with technology, showing them how to search for materials and place holds, and producing programming and classes.

Tyner has been invited to participate in multiple library initiatives tackling the major issues public libraries face. He has worked on equity and diversity matters with the California Library Association, influencing public policy and funding decisions in the California legislature. And he has worked with book editors, marketing teams, and poetry journals through the American Library Association advisory board, to influence the diversity of selections in library book and media collections nationwide.

Through all these experiences, Tyner only recently became a full librarian. In 2015, he worked at the Gillis branch library in Fresno, at Dakota and Fruit avenues. Here’s what Tyner remembers about one fateful day there:

“I worked in libraries for 15 years before deciding to actually become a librarian. One day, there was a gang fight across the street from Gillis. Cops and helicopters came. After a while, a young boy walked into the library, Tyreese. He was crying. He was 10.

“Long story short, we found out that the police had grabbed Tyreese and threw him in the back of a squad car as they were breaking up the gang fight. They realized that he wasn’t who they wanted, that he was just a child, bawling his eyes out, and they let him go. His mom was working, and so Tyreese went to the library, because he was in almost every day and knew all of us.

“He was in tears. So I calmed him down, got him some water, and got the story out of him. He was so upset that this had happened to him. So he and I walked over to talk to the police. The cops were very tense, to put it nicely. I explained to them what had happened, who this young boy was. It was wild.

“But after repeating that Tyreese was an A student, that he loved Ariana Grande, that he liked computers — something seemed to hit home with the officers. Guns were put away, and they became community members. They contacted his mom and apologized. A few days later, Tyreese came in, and we checked on him. He said he wanted to become a librarian because they help people and helped him.

“So the next day, I signed up for library school. It had such an impact on me.”

Tyner earned a Master of Library and Information Science degree from San José State in 2020. He became a full librarian in 2021, more than two decades after he started working in the library.

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