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The job of a lifetime

By Army Pvt. Agustin J. Lopez

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Janet Curtis was interested in teaching since her childhood in Yorktown, Virginia.

She cleaned the classroom with her fourth-grade teacher and kept the leftover worksheets. During the summer months, she used them while playing school with her friends and little sister.

“I was one of those kids who didn’t want school to end,” she said.

At a very young age, she knew she wanted to be involved in the educational system, Curtis said.

While this fascination initially led her to become a classroom teacher, she subsequently discovered a rewarding career in libraries.

Now much older than her fourth-grade self, with light wrinkles and shoulder-length blond hair, Curtis is a library technician at the Staff Sgt. Paul D. Savanuck Memorial Library at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, putting her talents to work on behalf of students and staff members there.

“She’s well-suited to libraries,” said Karen Hayward, the DINFOS librarian. “She’s very detail-oriented, and she’s very patient.”

As a student at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, Curtis worked toward a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, following her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher. Two influences, however, led her to get an additional degree in library science.

In the summer before her freshman year of college, Curtis worked at the NASA Langley Center Technical Library at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, where the librarians suggested she major in their field.

Curtis stuck to her original plan until her university – noting a projected surplus of teachers – recommended a double major as a backup.

She took their advice. The resulting versatility would aid and guide her career.

After graduating, Curtis found a job as a fourth-grade teacher in Bedford County, Virginia, and taught there for four years until she and her husband moved to Blacksburg, Virginia.

Blacksburg, it turned out, had a surplus of elementary school teachers.

“That’s when I started to look for library jobs,” Curtis said. “At Virginia Tech, they had openings in the cataloging department, so I started there.”

Since then, Curtis has had an extensive career as a librarian, accumulating more than 30 years of experience in the academic, public and military sectors.

Curtis worked for a total of seven years at Virginia Tech and nearby Radford University. In 1991, she transitioned to public libraries, helping patrons of all ages as a reference librarian.

Before the internet, a reference librarian was a human search engine, Curtis said.

Once, two men came to the reference desk, arguing heatedly, she recalled. They had a sports question.

One man said to her, “We want you to find the answer to this.”

He slammed a $100 bill on the reference book.

“If he’s right, he gets this,” he said. “If I’m right, I get this.”

With the advent of the internet, that use of a reference librarian’s skills became infrequent.

However, Curtis said the technology takeover did not bother her. While cataloging and referencing were drastically changed, she saw the computer as a way to increase a librarian’s efficiency and capability.

After 13 years of organizing weekly story times and summer reading programs, and answering inquiries, she was moved to change her focus.

On Sept. 11, 2001, while Curtis was working at a public library in Anne Arundel County, the World Trade Center was attacked.

“I said, ‘Oh, gee, what can I do with my skillset to help the military?’

“I knew it was going to be a long slog trying to rid the world of terrorism, but I said, ‘Well, I’m a librarian, so I should look at military schools.’”

In 2005, she took a job at the post library on Fort Meade, where she met Hayward.

Curtis worked quietly and was especially nice to the patrons there, Hayward said.

Still, as much as she loved story time for children, academic libraries still held her attention, Curtis said. That led her to apply to the DINFOS library and move there in 2008.

Eight years later, Hayward transferred to DINFOS, where she works with Curtis once again.

“When I came here, she oriented me to the job,” Hayward said. “You can say she trained me. I had never worked at this library before, and she’s been here for a long time. She knows this library very well.”

A decade into her career at DINFOS, Curtis continues to do her job in the library and, lately, in the registrar’s office as well.

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do: use my skills to help in any way that I can,” she said.

But after years of helping others, she said she has begun thinking about retirement.

Regardless of when she stops working, her love for teaching and reading will continue. She has a young grandson who is learning, and she has plenty of e-books to listen to.