Jessi Gerdes

Degree: Master of Library Science, 2005

Career: Special Librarian, Yellowstone Association at Yellowstone National Park

Why's she a librarian: It sounds trite, but it's really a love of books.

It isn’t what Jessi Gerdes is doing with her life that surprises everybody.

It’s where.

Gerdes grew up in Valparaiso, Ind., with a deep love of books. She was the kid who reveled in page turners, who resisted playing outside because she wanted 10 more minutes with the characters frolicking on the pages and filling her mind with wonder.

Everybody said she was going to grow up to be a librarian. Gerdes didn’t believe them. She pursued an English degree at IU, and during the last semester of her senior year, she was trying to sort out what she wanted to do with her life. Gerdes took a class—what she calls a “what do you want to be when you grow up” course—where she was given an aptitude test. The results were clear.

“It said I should go into the Army, be a teacher, or be a librarian,” Gerdes says. “I was already teaching at the time, and I knew I didn’t want to do that. I definitely didn’t want join the Army, so I decided on library school. It seemed like a good choice to me.”

Her plan at that point was to be a children’s librarian, preferably on the East Coast. Then she went west to visit her brother and took advantage of the trip to stop by Yellowstone National Park. She had never been to the national treasure before, so it was natural for her to take in some sightseeing.

She didn’t expect to see her career path open in front of her.

“I found out they had a library,” Gerdes says. “I found out they did internships. It went from there.”

She spent two summers as an intern at Yellowstone while she earned her Master’s in Library Science at Indiana University, and when Gerdes graduated in 2005, she accepted a job as a librarian at the park.

“I joke that it’s about 75 percent cataloging, but that’s actually fairly true,” Gerdes says. “We do a lot of original cataloging because it’s a special library, and we get very specific items for a very specific group of people. We do a lot of reference. We also answer questions from people all over the world.”

Gerdes says she does just about every task that one might find at any typical library, but the items that are cataloged are varied.

“You would be surprised what people have done about Yellowstone Park,” Gerdes says. “LPs, VHS, DVD, cassettes, microfilm, microfiche, newspaper articles—we get a ton of newspaper articles—thesis, dissertations, regular books, brochures, journal articles, basically any kind of media. We digitize 35mm film. We’ve cataloged a whole bunch of 16mm film.”

It took a while for Gerdes, a self-described “indoor person,” to become comfortable in the park, but her love for the outdoors has continued to develop. Still, it’s her work inside the library that thrills her the most, namely helping people find answers.

“The cataloging is fun, and it can be great in the winter when you can just come in, do your work and go home,” Gerdes says. “In the summer when it’s chaotic, you get to talk to folks and hear all sorts of interesting questions. Last week I got a question about thermophiles. Earlier this summer there were questions about geysers and buffalo. Ghosts in the park. When roads were created. It’s anything and everything.”

Gerdes feels lucky that she landed such a great position out of graduate school, but then again, she made her own luck by pursuing an internship. She encourages others to do the same through either Career Services or on their own—and sooner rather than later.

“If you know that you want to do it, try to get an internship,” Gerdes says. “Try to volunteer. That’s how I got my job. It’s about putting in the time to build the experience you need to get a full-time job.”