Brent Bernau's career has followed a circuitous route.
He began as a law librarian, dabbled in home improvement and real estate appraising and even owned his neighborhood coffee shop. But his passion for helping people brought him back to his first love: the law library.
"It's really nice to work in an environment where you're helping people out, and they appreciate what you do," Bernau said. "It doesn't matter if it's a small thing. They're just like, 'Thank you, thank you,' (like) you're some kind of wizard."
The 58-year-old Wisconsin native is currently the collections development librarian at the University of San Diego School of Law, his alma mater. He still helps out at the reference desk, fielding questions from law students and seasoned attorneys alike.
Shortly after earning his law degree at USD, he debated going the traditional route, which meant taking the bar exam and joining a law firm. He decided against it.
"I didn't know anything about (the library profession) until I went to law school and was awarded work study," Bernau said. "It was enjoyable. I'd help people, and they (were) always so grateful.
"Pretty much back then you could write your own ticket for a job. So you weigh that against taking the bar and sweating six months to find out the results. Then you look at the working environment – attorneys really put in the hours and the stress – as opposed to working in an environment like this. Certainly you don't work 60-, 70- or 80-hour weeks."
Bernau received his library degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1988 and soon was on the fast track for management. He worked at USD as an associate law library director and then took over as director of the law library at Golden Gate University in the mid-1990s.
But something was missing.
"Management wasn't satisfying to me," he said. "The higher I rose in management, the further it took me away from what attracted me to doing this job, and that's helping people and solving their problems."
So he left the profession in 2001, landing at Home Depot. ("It was kind of like working at a library because people come in with a problem they're trying to solve. Only the reference questions are, 'How do I fix my toilet?'")
He later studied to become a real estate appraiser and then bought his local coffee house before returning to the library profession in 2007.
"He was a great administrator and really careful with money," said John Adkins, director of the San Diego County Public Law Library, who was hired by Bernau at Golden Gate for his first job. "He was on the national scene and being nominated for national office but decided he didn't want that.
"He made a great leap of faith and got off the merry-go-round."
Bernau, in an interesting role reversal, worked for Adkins upon returning to USD as Adkins had become the director of the school's law library.
Adkins gave him various jobs – tax legal research, interlibrary loan and government information librarian.
"It goes to show you how competent and skilled he is," Adkins said. "I can throw all this stuff at him and know he has the capacity to do more.
"He's very sincere and dedicated. I've never known anybody who's so into preparation. This guy does not miss a trick. It's so cool when you're a supervisor because you don't have to worry."
Bernau's planning skills came in handy in March when, as vice president of the San Diego Area Law Libraries (SANDALL), he organized the semi-annual statewide conference of law library associations.
"He did an amazing job on that," said Betsy Chessler, senior associate librarian for Morrison & Foerster who is a SANDALL board member. "We have this every five to six years, and people were saying, 'Let's do this again next year.' It was a huge success.
"He just pulled it together. He was Mr. Organization."
Bernau was the first president of SANDALL – a chapter of the American Association of Law Libraries – when it formed in the late 1990s, and he is currently serving his second tenure as group leader.
He is focused on helping SANDALL with its mission of providing continuing education, professional networking opportunities and scholarship initiatives for its members.
The organization also backs an initiative by the U.S. government to authenticate online documents with a signature blue band. In the Wild Wild West of the Internet, an authentication system would allow those documents to be admissible in court under the California and federal rules of evidence.
The vast ocean of information available on the Internet, coupled with the ease of access, is why Bernau feels librarians are more relevant than ever and not less.
"Certainly years ago, I used to worry that there wouldn't be a need for librarians," he said. "But I've seen just the opposite because people need more help trying to find stuff online or trying to find authenticated documents or trustworthy websites."
And even though people's reliance on printed books is slowly fading, USD's Pardee Legal Research Center is as busy as ever.
"There's an awful lot of dust on the books, but there's an awful lot of people in here using the place," Bernau said. "But they're using it differently. They're all hooked up with laptops, and a lot of them are collaborating with one another.
"They use the place like crazy. Sometimes it seems like a lot of the books are props and decorations."
There's a section of the library where patrons can speak in normal tones. It's helpful for when they work in groups.
In addition to his librarian duties, Bernau sometimes is a guest lecturer in USD classes, explaining legislative history per his former role as government documents specialist.
And he's always learning a new aspect of his job as the information age constantly forces the libraries to adapt.
"There's always something new coming out that you have to master in order to continue doing your job," he said.