Bookmarked Dreams: Mary McGregor

A profile of school librarian Mary McGregor and her unexpected journey to the right career.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Cover Image
By Joyti Nath

For the past nine years, school librarian Mary McGregor has been a cornerstone of Stuyvesant’s Boaz R. Weinstein Library, a popular study spot among students. However, her journey to this career was an unanticipated one. Before being employed at Stuyvesant, McGregor worked in advertising and marketing.“My last job before working in education was in the marketing department of Bank of America,” McGregor revealed. She spent close to a decade in the field but soon became discontent with her work. “It just wasn’t driving me, and I found that most days I didn’t feel like going to work,” McGregor said. 

Growing up, McGregor was surrounded by adults with similar attitudes toward work. “I know that jobs are jobs and [they’re] a means to pay bills. That’s how most of the jobs were in my family,” McGregor remarked. However, she yearned for something more: “I was too curious to not try something else,” McGregor said. Soon enough, she began volunteering at her local public library in Brooklyn. 

Through this experience, McGregor was introduced to a diverse network of librarians from across the city. As she got to know them, McGregor was inspired to learn more about their career journeys. “I met the public librarian that we worked with at that branch, but I also met a digital archivist for the Brooklyn Museum, a cataloging specialist that worked from home and now works at universities, and a school librarian,” McGregor described. “I did not even know that all these jobs existed.” 

Above all, McGregor was captivated by the collaborative environment fostered by the librarians. “I really was struck by how smart and interesting they were and how generous they all were with each other, [always] helping each other out and wanting other people to have information,” McGregor said. She was also amazed by how much the library’s welcoming atmosphere contrasted with that of the marketing industry. “The corporate world is kind of competitive. So even though I had to work on teams a lot, there was always sort of a sense of like, ‘Who’s getting credit for this work?’, ‘Who’s getting the attention of an executive?’, and ‘Who’s getting promoted?’” McGregor explained. “[Meanwhile,] in my volunteer work with these librarians, and even as I was applying to graduate school, they were all so willing to help me prepare for my exams, fill out my applications, and provide recommendations to schools. I just noticed that the relationship in the library world was very collaborative and supportive, which blew me away.” 

McGregor viewed pursuing a career as a librarian as an opportunity to revive her roots in education—she initially studied to become an English teacher, citing her childhood love for reading as a major source of inspiration. “I was always a really, really big reader ever since I was a young kid,” McGregor recounted. “I remember my mom reading to me quite a bit when I was younger.” 

However, as this passion crumbled under a demanding university curriculum, McGregor switched majors from English to advertising. “One of the reasons I changed my major is I stopped liking reading when I had to read so much literature for classes. I am sure students can kind of relate because there’s a difference between what you have to read and what you want to read,” McGregor said. “It was not what I thought it was going to feel like because I did not like reading books and digging into them and thinking about them so deeply.”

Ultimately, McGregor decided to attend graduate school at Syracuse University in order to become a librarian. Due to her corporate background, she anticipated working in a “special library”—a library in a nontraditional setting, such as a medical or law school. However, she soon discovered an opportunity to fund her master’s degree by working in education. “[The program] offered a scholarship to anyone who did school library classes and did what is called a practicum, or student teaching, in New York City schools,” McGregor explained. 

One of her practicum sites was Stuyvesant, where she met current school librarian Christopher Bowlin. “Bowlin was one of my supervisors, as was a former librarian, [DeLisa] Brown. I learned so much from them, and I obviously loved this school community,” McGregor said. She went on to work at a public elementary school for a year and a half, since Stuyvesant had no permanent positions open. “Then, when Brown retired, Bowlin helped to get me a spot here at Stuyvesant,” McGregor said. 

Since then, McGregor has spent the last decade nurturing a passion for reading in Stuyvesant students. “I want to be a person that promotes reading and makes people love reading, and I want to do it honestly,” McGregor said.

One challenge in achieving this goal stems from Stuyvesant students’ lack of free time. “When I first started working at Stuyvesant, I remember being disheartened because I would ask students, ‘What do you like to read?’ and they were like, ‘Oh, I don’t have time to read,’” McGregor recalled. In response to this pattern, McGregor and her fellow librarians have developed ways to remind students that reading does exist outside of academic settings. “We have done little things like the reading challenges that we do every semester and the posters you see in the hallway of what teachers are reading, just to sort of serve as an example that reading is a part of our lives outside of school,” McGregor said. 

Another aspect of Stuyvesant’s library that McGregor hopes students will take advantage of is the diversity of its collection, which boasts a wide range of genres and authors that is continuously increasing in variety. “I think that literature for young people has evolved and expanded over the years, and we work in a city that is really supportive of librarians bringing diverse and high-interest books into libraries,” McGregor said. “I have seen an uptick in the variety and types of authors that are getting the promotion they deserve from publishers and the opportunities to write stories. I just think students have access to more stories than they did before.”

McGregor also explained how remote learning expanded the pool of resources available to students. “We were promoting e-Books and different databases that had access to comics online and audiobooks,” McGregor recalled. “Those are things that we were kind of dipping our toes in before remote learning, but are now a permanent fixture of our collection.” Despite these options, McGregor noted that physical copies remain the most popular among students. “We have really seen that most students prefer print books. They prefer the experience of having a book in their hand,” McGregor said. “A lot of times, students kind of use digital e-books and audiobooks if it’s like the only thing they can get their hands on. So it’s great that we have the alternative.” 

McGregor finds that working with Stuyvesant students has allowed her to form meaningful connections with young people while they are gaining a stronger sense of their identities. “[Students] are kind of at this point in life where they are figuring out a lot about who they are and what's important to them. It is really interesting to get to talk to people that are going through that,” McGregor said. “Even though I don’t have a class of students that I see every day and get to know like teachers do, the [student library] monitors are kind of like [my] classes, and it’s a smaller group each period,” McGregor added. “A lot of times, someone will start as a monitor as a freshman and stay through senior year, and we see these immense changes. Sometimes we hear from them after they graduate [about] where they ended up.” 

McGregor does sometimes teach full classes, namely in the form of citation and research presentations delivered to humanities classes. McGregor’s role in assisting students has influenced her own understanding of citations. “I am learning new ways to answer tricky citation questions every day, and every year I get a question I haven’t been asked before. The important thing to remember is that the guidance for Chicago, MLA, and APA citations is all linked on the Stuy Library website, so we don’t have to memorize it,” McGregor said. “The goal for the librarians is to provide support and resources for students to do better.” 

Apart from providing research resources, the Stuyvesant Library also serves as a refuge for peace, quiet, and a sense of community. “I am really proud when students tell me they consider the library to be their oasis. All of the librarians strive to make the library a safe, inclusive, and peaceful space. No matter why a student specifically comes to the library, what we offer them is a break,” McGregor said. “A break from the crowds and fast pace everywhere else in the building, a comfortable space to be productive, a chance to quietly catch up with a friend, thousands of books to read for fun, and a lot of little things that make student life less stressful.”

Of course, this can make library closures, such as those that occur for AP exam administration, troubling for students. “Losing [the library’s] resources and peaceful space has a huge impact on students’ well-being, especially at this time of year when they are taking high-stakes tests and working on research projects and term papers that carry a lot of weight in their grades,” McGregor acknowledged. In fact, when asked what she would do with enough funding to change one major aspect of the library, McGregor said, “We currently have three full-time certified librarians. If we had four librarians full-time, we could staff two librarians all 10 periods of the day, which would allow us to limit seating less often, see more classes for instruction, and better support all students and faculty.” 

Fortunately, McGregor and the other librarians ensure that library resources are still available to students outside of the library. “[We] push into classrooms for research lessons, deliver book requests to students in their classes, and answer research questions by e-mail,” McGregor said. 

Despite the fulfillment that McGregor’s career as a librarian brings her, she acknowledged that the path she chose was a challenging one—and is certainly not the right choice for everyone. “It’s not easy. I mean, I honestly took a pretty big cut in pay and went into debt to get a master’s degree to change my career. So that decision is not for everybody, and I totally understand that and don’t pass any judgment,” McGregor said. She simply thinks that her path matches her character. “With everything in my life, I’ve been the kind of person that, if there was something I wanted to do, I would make it happen,” McGregor explained. 

McGregor hopes that students keep this message in mind as they find their place in the world: “Wherever you go to school, wherever you work [...] to a certain extent, that experience for you has a lot to do with what you put into it,” she said.

McGregor reflected on the compassionate community of librarians that first inspired her to pursue her true calling. “Honestly, I don’t know if I would have changed careers if I hadn’t had that volunteer experience that made me think of it,” McGregor remarked. It is truly impactful how such compassion had the power to inspire a leap of faith that completely rewrote McGregor’s life. Perhaps it is a testament to the power of human ambition: even if all the signs in one’s life point down a single path, it is possible to forge a new one. All it takes is one stroke of curiosity for the dreams we have hidden away to grow into a fulfilling reality.