Joy Kim: The hardest thing I’ve had to do as a librarian is try to unlearn my own natural perfectionism

Before this year’s conference in October, we’re getting to know some members of our Sirens community. In this attendee interview series, we talk to scholars, creators, professionals, readers, and more: about their love of fantasy literature, their current work and passions, why they chose to attend Sirens, and what keeps them coming back. We think you’ll find that our community is truly exemplary, and hope you’ll join us!


AMY TENBRINK: Why did you decide to become a librarian? What do you love about it? What about it do you find challenging?

JOY KIM: When I was growing up, I never imagined that one day I’d be a librarian. It just wasn’t a career that anyone ever suggested to me as a possibility. After I graduated from college, I worked for several years in nonprofit book publishing, mostly in the Boston area. I enjoyed working with smart, progressive, bookish people, but eventually I began to ask myself what my next step should be. I knew that I wanted a job that would allow me to have a more direct impact on people and communities. Around the same time, I was also rediscovering the joy of having a library card, and a close friend of mine was wrapping up his own graduate degree in information science. Eventually I put two and two together—and here I am.

I love books, and I love reading, but at the end of the day, libraries are about people. When the daily grind gets me down, I try to focus on how my work makes a difference in people’s lives—both individually and for the community as whole. Sometimes it’s still the moments of connecting a patron with a book or resource or experience. More often these days it’s working with my team, figuring out what support or resources they need to do their very best work, and then making that happen for them.

There’s so much unmet need in our communities, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how much work there is to do. Sometimes this shows itself as compassion fatigue, sometimes as good old burnout. The hardest thing I’ve had to do as a librarian is try to unlearn my own natural perfectionism and to remember that sometimes we have to settle for getting started or just moving the needle. That’s not a satisfying answer to the world’s problems, but often it’s the only and most honest one that I can give.


AMY: Two years ago, you presented a workshop intensive as part of the Sirens Studio titled Knowing Your Next Step: Navigating Career Pathways and the Leadership Pipeline. Would you share with us a lesson that you’ve learned in your career that you found to be especially valuable?

JOY: At every stage of my library career, I’ve been fortunate to work with amazing mentors and brilliant peers. One thing I’ve learned from them is the power of invitation and belief—of someone telling you, “I think you’d be great at this” or “I hope you put your name in for that opportunity” or just “Let’s work on this cool thing together.” You might be surprised to learn that I had no interest in management when I first became a librarian. When early mentors told me that I would be a great manager, that really opened my eyes to some new possibilities, and I think that’s led me to where I am now in my career. That’s something that I intentionally try to pay forward now that I’m in a formal leadership position. Most days, I’m not that interested in impressing people with my position—that’s not why I do this work. But when I can use the fancy title for good, I’m all in.


AMY: You’ve reviewed for Kirkus and you’ve chaired the William C. Morris Award Committee for the American Library Association. Do you find that there’s a difference between your professional reading and your personal reading? Do you approach books differently when you’re reading to review or for an award than when you read for pleasure?

JOY: Professional reading and personal reading are very different experiences for me. When I’m reading for a committee or reading for a review, there’s a part of my attention that’s never fully immersed in the story. Sometimes I’m literally pausing to take notes and to flag key passages with post-its. Sometimes it’s just the way that I notice how a plot is being structured or a character’s being developed. When I read for myself, I give myself permission to fall fully into the narrative. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, I let myself enjoy it. And if I’m curious about the mechanics of the author’s craft, I can always revisit that on a reread.


AMY: What do you look for in your personal reading? What kinds of stories, worldbuilding, characters, or craft really speak to you?

JOY: Nancy Pearl likes to talk about the four doorways to story—story, character, setting, and language. I used to think that I primarily read for character, but the older I get, the more I realize how much I read for a sense of place. It’s probably the reason that I’ve always liked fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction. I don’t need a map or a lengthy glossary of invented terms, but I do need a sense that the characters are living in a place that’s real to them.

When it comes to characters, the one thing that I can never resist is competence. Which is probably why I end up falling in love with so many supporting characters, since stories would end a lot more quickly if all protagonists were devastatingly competent at what they do!


AMY: Why did you decide to come to Sirens? And then why did you decide to come back to Sirens?

JOY: I first heard about Sirens from fandom friends who had attended the earliest conferences in Vail. When those friends shared that Sirens was moving to Stevenson, Washington, it was the perfect opportunity to give it a try, since it was now within driving distance. I had attended larger, well-established cons in the past, but I had never felt comfortable at them. I was always conscious of being young, and female, and a person of color. Even when I knew other people who were attending, I felt like an outsider when so few people looked like me. My friends told me Sirens would feel different, and they were right. Even though I only knew a small number of attendees at first, I felt like I was continually being invited in at Sirens, and that made all the difference.


AMY: Sirens is about discussing and deconstructing both gender and fantasy literature. Would you please tell us about a woman or nonbinary person—a family member, a friend, a reader, an author, an editor, a character, anyone—who has changed your life?

JOY: It takes a village to raise a reader, but if I have to recognize one person, I would credit my late mother for my love of stories. I grew up surrounded by her collection of books, and I didn’t realize for the longest time that other people’s houses weren’t like that. It’s even more impressive when you consider that my mother was reading all those books in her second language. My mother wasn’t a fantasy reader. Her tastes ran more toward mysteries, spy thrillers, Victorian novels, Dostoevsky, and weighty biographies. But she never told me what I shouldn’t read, and aside from that one time she tried to sell me on Tess of the d’Urbervilles, she didn’t try to tell me what I should read. She let me find my own way. So I checked out what I wanted from school libraries, and bought what I wanted with babysitting money from the local bookstore. I took that freedom for granted as a child; now I realize that it was something pretty special.


Joy Kim works as a public librarian in Massachusetts. She is a past chair of YALSA’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award and Great Graphic Novels for Teens committees and a lifelong reader of speculative fiction. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, running, and watching Korean reality shows.


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