Food for Thought

Community Profile

Sharon Tani blended library experience with a love for food, added an MLIS, and cooked up a dream job. 

When Sharon Tani began working in public libraries during high school, she knew one thing to be true: she didn’t need the MLIS degree, because she never saw herself as a traditional librarian. But when Tani’s thirst for knowledge reached a point where she was no longer satisfied by work experience alone, she realized it was time to add a new flavor to her life, and entered the San José State University School of Information MLIS program.

Tani is now the librarian at Le Cordon Bleu culinary arts school in Pasadena, California, responsible for feeding the minds of students all along the West Coast. It’s a nontraditional library role that suits her perfectly. Four years after graduating, Tani says there is not one single aspect of the degree program she can point to as being helpful to her daily life. Because she uses all of it, every day.

The Library of Culinary Arts
Tani’s library, the Learning Resource Center, is the busiest and largest of all of Le Cordon Bleu’s campus libraries. It is like the traditional family kitchen: a nice open space with bookshelves lining the perimeter. Located at in the center of campus, it’s a hub for the college’s administration buildings. “It’s a pretty small library, compared to academic or public libraries,“ Tani says. “We have more than 7,000 print volumes (books, DVDs, magazines), tons of databases. Our student population is about 1,200 at any given time.” The library also boasts more than 60 computers for students and a theater for classes to use.
After obtaining her master’s degree in digital media and graphic design, Tani worked in web design for a couple of years, but says that, as fun as it was, the work was very grueling. “After a while I started missing libraries,” she says. “There’s something very stable and balanced about public libraries. They just make sense.”

So Tani started the iSchool program to really solidify her library education, while working part-time and on call at local libraries throughout Southern California. “Then by a fluke this opportunity came up to work in Pasadena, just five blocks from where I live,” she recalls. “So I thought—let me try special libraries! I’ve always had an interest in cooking and baking… but never thought I could combine that with librarianship. So when this came up I thought, this might be really fun!”

The job Tani applied for was for a regional librarian position: instead of having librarians onsite at each of Le Cordon Bleu’s 17 U.S. locations, there would be one librarian stationed on a campus library supporting all of the seven others on the West Coast. It fit in well with Tani’s desire to be in more of a leadership role, it was close to home, and it sounded just plain fun. So she applied, interviewed, and got the job.

Once she started her new role, all of the iSchool coursework and group-project experiences helped make her feel comfortable. Tani says the iSchool’s online courses played a big role in helping her navigate her multicampus duties, and in helping her to connect remotely with other libraries.

“We do as much as we can remotely,” she says. “I have to say, in reflection, I liked the program because each element is used in my daily life. Like team projects: in the workplace, it really is something where you have to form an alliance with a different department, reach out to people and problem solve.”

Additionally, library management is a skill Tani uses every day, a course in intellectual freedom taught her what kind of librarian she would be, and a course in young adult materials was useful in informing how she practices collection development and evaluates materials.

The Makings of a Special Librarian
Naturally, everyone asks Tani how much background you have to have for a job in a special library. “I don’t think cooking was a requirement for this job,” she says, “but it was a preference. A lot of times they’re willing to hire someone to learn on the job.”

Tani’s librarian responsibilities include collection development, reference work, supervising student workers and library assistants, and creating library policies, along with lots of online training and libguides. “I have my own campus to take care of, with travel to the other libraries, [and] keeping in touch remotely,” she explains. “When I was working in public libraries, things were structured more traditionally… nowadays, you can be working with different people in different time zones on different projects, all at once.”

Students work toward an associate’s degree program in either culinary or patisserie and baking; Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona, offers an online bachelor’s degree program in areas like hospitality and restaurant management. As students are required to take general education classes (English, psychology, nutrition, history), Tani buys a fair number of books to support those courses, but with a food twist: instead of basic psychology, there’s The Psychology of Restaurant Management.

“We get a lot of requests about ‘molecular gastronomy,’ which has emerged as a hot topic in the culinary world over the past few years,” she says. “We’re always on the lookout for new, fun things! I just came across a book called How to Bake Pi, explaining math concepts through recipes and food.”

Tani notes that cookbooks are moving into nontraditional formats, like comic form and recipes through illustrations. “I found that at every library you have to know your community, and our community’s a little different,” Tani says. “Most of our students tend to be very visual learners, they’re very tactile people… they want to be hands on and learn in different ways. So instead of us promoting a database… or book… we decided to we create a display where they get a learning opportunity. Everything is very visual, very fun, and the students get small bits of information at a time.”

Some of the library’s more popular displays include Wine and Dine, on how to pair the right wine with a meal, and Meet Your Meat (pictured above), which shows the prime beef and pork cuts, and includes a sausage garland. “Every season we try do something fun that we can display in the library,” Tani says,  “To give students a reason to come back and stay engaged.”

Tani clearly relishes her nontraditional library job, and the ability to combine her professional work with her love of food and libraries.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted the degree,” she says. “I wasn’t sure I saw myself as a librarian. But having gone through [the MLIS program], I now understand the professionalism associated with this role. Now I have a larger view, and the values behind this role and why we do what we do.”