This story of an unorthodox career move begins very traditionally. Steve Siebers (BS ‘92) studied what any serious fan from a baseball-loving town like Chicago might consider for a career: statistics. After meeting his future wife, Alisha Mellen, at BYU, he went off to San Francisco to take a job as a pension actuary—where he found it odd to think so much about retirement when he was only 24 years old. Up to this point, all was well: Steve was now married and making an excellent living while Alisha completed a PhD in English at UC Berkeley. They were also starting a family.
Steve wanted to do actuarial work partly because he wanted fixed hours and time with his family. But he somehow got into pensions—the wrong side of actuarial work. “‘There are two types of actuaries,’ Steve explained to Kit Almy, a Michigan writer who profiled him for a local magazine. ‘There are ones that work for insurance companies, and they are pretty much 9 to 5, and that’s what I was looking for.’” What Steve didn’t know is that as a pension actuary he’d have to bill hours, like a lawyer in a big firm. He’d have to work long, long days to be successful. That didn’t sit well for someone more interested in his family than in a big salary.
Enter the public library. Steve says, “Like many people, once I finished high school, the public library wasn’t really a part of my life until I had children of my own. When my first son was about 4 months old, I started going to the Berkeley Public Library every Tuesday night to pick out 10 picture books to take home. Helen Harris was always at the information desk as we came in and we would talk as she fell in love with my son. At one point I told her that I wasn’t really happy with my work as an actuary and she told me to come work at the library. Right. I’m going to quit my full-time corporate job and come shelve books at the library part-time. Well, a year later that is exactly what I did.”
Steve explains his decision further: “I wanted to be more a part of my community and be a part of creating community. I liked that public libraries were dedicated to serving everyone and realized they were one of the only indoor spaces left available to the public where you did not have to buy something to justify your presence there.” He says, “I was inspired by the work libraries did to promote literacy, especially for preschoolers, and I learned that I really enjoyed making kids laugh while sharing books and songs with them.”
Exit Steve from the corporate world. The Siebers now had two kids, and Steve became a stay-at-home dad so Alisha could finish her PhD. Alisha took a teaching job in Wisconsin, which made it possible for Steve to begin a library degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. When Alisha’s job became unsatisfying, the family relocated to western Michigan, where Steve took a job as a children’s librarian at the Kalamazoo Public Library. He’s had multiple roles there.
His favorite library activity is story time for preschool kids. At “Storytime with Mr. Steve & Friends,” he has guests come out of a special door, usually toting some kind of instrument to play for the crowd. After the performance, he would see how many bean bags he could stack on the guest’s head while the kids counted.
But his triumph, Steve recounts with delight, was this: “We had three alpenhorn players. In this big room there were closets in three of the corners. So we had the first one come out of the special door facing the audience with his alpenhorn and talk about how the Swiss used these horns to communicate with each other, and then he blew on it. And all of a sudden someone across the room in one of the other corner closets blew back. I said to the kids, ‘What’s goin’ on?’ and ran across and opened up that door and another guy with an alpenhorn came out! And he came out and blew his horn and then the person in the other closet responded by blowing his horn, and I ran over and opened that closet. ‘What, another one?! WOW! This is so great!’”
So what became of Steve’s math skills? Did he leave his BYU education in the dust? “Not so,” Steve says. In his next role at KPL he ordered nonfiction and reference works for adults. “My statistics degree and that [corporate] worldview has been really helpful in the library world, especially because most people in the profession avoid math! The library world is kind of unique. Businesses have HR specialists to deal with HR issues. Hospitals have hospital administrators. But librarians run libraries. You’re running a business, in a way, and librarians aren’t really trained to do that. So it is valuable to have numbers sense. In my last role at KPL I was involved with circulation stats, and most people didn’t have the background I had to do deep analysis on the data.”
Wanting to be involved with early childhood education, Steve has made another change. He’s gone back to serving children, even taking a pay cut to do it. He manages a branch of the library in a low-income neighborhood with many Spanish speakers. He’s the only librarian there, and he gets to return to services for children, return to being Mr. Steve, and speak Spanish, too.
That is an unusual—but satisfying—career trajectory. Steve and Alisha and their four kids are a close family, and that closeness came from sharing time together in a way that never could have happened had Steve not made a radical change in his career. So even though as a librarian he gets questions like, “How did Mr. Clean get the lemon scent into his cleaning product?” he can handle that, because he knows his job makes a difference.
–Andrew T. Bay (BA ’91, MA ’94)