Professional Profiles Series

Recently I was interviewed by the President of the SLA-Toronto Student Group, Zoe Cliff.  Zoe asked if we could meet to chat about my career in special libraries for for their blog’s professional profiles series. I thought it would be neat to share some insight into job hunting, my experiences in libraries, and landing a job.

Below is a transcript of the interview. To read other professional profiles, visit the SLA-Toronto Student Group Blog here: http://slatsg.blogspot.com/

1. Describe your current position
I’m a Research Librarian in a special library at CIGI, a non-profit research organization (“think tank”) that focuses on international governance concerns: energy and environment, economics, development and security. I provide a wide range of library and research services to the organization’s researchers and experts. These users have strong academic credentials, extensive international research experience, and a wide range of policy expertise. As a solo-librarian, I’m responsible for nearly all aspects of maintaining the library: acquisitions, cataloguing, collection development, subscriptions and serials management, research requests and support, special projects, outreach and communicating with the wider organization. It’s a lot of fun!

2. Describe your educational background
I have an honours Bachelor of Arts from Acadia University in history and sociology, and a Master of Information Studies (MISt) from the University of Toronto, with a focus on Library & Information Science.

3. Describe your first job as a librarian or information professional etc. and subsequent career path
This is my very first job as a librarian. After graduating from my MISt, I worked briefly at the Information Centre of De Beers Canada (the mining company), and then landed my current position. I also held a handful of library positions while at the iSchool: I worked part-time at the Robarts Reference & Research Services desk, and did some cataloguing and reference for the Data, Map & Government Information department. In addition to this, I worked at the Royal Ontario Museum Library & Archives.Regarding my current job, I was initially hired on a contract basis as the Collections Librarian, but after some restructuring, I was promoted and hired as a permanent full-time Research Librarian.

4. How did your information training and background prepare you for the job you now have?
I think that a combination of my experiences prepared me for the job I have now. Specifically, I owe a great deal to my work experiences while studying at U of T. I worked hard to get as much library experience as I could, because I felt that I would get more out of hands-on experience in libraries than I would in the classroom. I was very lucky, and landed some really terrific student jobs. In those roles I had the opportunity to assist with in-depth reference for a range of academic disciplines (humanities, social sciences, business, government documents, data and statistics), I performed original and copy-cataloguing, got involved with knowledge management and Web 2.0, and worked with archives. I was exposed to a diversity of information settings, user groups, and subject areas, and I think that a mixture of these experienced helped me to thrive in my current position where I handle most aspects of the Library. When I saw the job posting at CIGI, I thought to myself, “…this job description was written for your background and experience: apply.”

5. What advice would you give someone who is currently doing his or her Master in Information?
As a relatively new grad myself, I don’t think that I have a ton of wisdom to share, but here are some bits of advice that you might find helpful:
  • I know it’s easy to get into doing this, but don’t just take soft skill “bird” courses. Especially if you’re looking for a job in special libraries, it’s crucial to have those practical, “hard skills”. For example: aspects of cataloguing; abilities with open source; knowing something about HTML, MySQL, or web design, data, etc. I think that employers are looking for people who can walk into a job with as little training as possible and who can make a real impact. Impress them with your knowledge, skills and innovative ideas!
  • Speak to a few people in the field who have jobs that you want: inquire about how they got to where they are, ask them to critique your resume and/or CV, and in general, get your name and face out there. A similar suggestion is to request to speak to someone in Human Resources at a large library where you’d like to work. While I was job hunting, I met with the Head of Human Resources at UTL to have a mock interview and resume critique, and it was an invaluable experience. They see a lot of resumes, after all.
  • Create an online presence! You should want to be found in a Google search on sites like LinkedIn, through your personal website, and on Twitter. It will show that you’re web-savvy, relevant, and have something to say. (N.B. At the same time, be vigilant about Facebook privacy settings… you don’t need potential employers to know too much about you.)
  • Get experience. Realistically, everyone at the iSchool will graduate with the same degree. So what really counts (and what will make you stand out), is your experience. I think any experience is good for your resume and getting a job. If you can volunteer, great. If you can get part-time jobs, even better.
  • In the end, I think that getting a job relies on the following: who you know, your experience, luck, and timing.

6. Any general advice for new information professionals?
Network with colleagues, collaborate and be nice. Sometimes I feel like there’s an aura of competition that exists within special libraries (but maybe it’s other places too), and I think it can make people uptight and insular. Participate in socials, activities, listservs, and collaborate. It would make our community even more pleasant than it already is.

7. What helpful lessons did you learn early in your career? Do any of them still apply today?
Don’t be overwhelmed, stay organized, and take it one day at a time. When I was at De Beers, I worked with the Manager of Information Services (it was just the two of us), and I was always impressed with her ability to stay calm under duress. The library was never in shambles, but there were some problem areas that I would have lost sleep over. I asked how she dealt with that kind of stress or pressure, and she said, “No library is perfect. You just have to deal with things in stride, and prioritize your time.” I sometimes feel overwhelmed when I think of all of the things that need to be done at my library, e.g. backlog of cataloguing, responding to requests, maintaining print collections, broken links on the digital library, etc.; but I try to stay organized and prioritize competing long-term tasks, one day at a time.

“less sane” core library services

This past week I attended the OLA’s annual Super Conference in Toronto. The sessions that I chose were kind of split between disappointing, and terrific. I never think that I’ll love everything I attend, so it was to be expected. Especially coming from a special library, I’m not exactly the target audience for the OLA conference, as it’s largely public and academic librarians, but I digress…

One session that I truly loved (and that still has me thinking) was delivered by Karen Calhoun (OCLC) and Rick Anderson (University of Utah Libraries). The subtitle of this session was “Let them eat… everything: embracing a patron-driven future.”

Session abstract:

Next Generation Workflows for Next Generation Libraries

The awesomeness of this session was due to Rick’s radical and forward-thinking ideas of how libraries should adapt to the times and trends by modifying library workflows, to “trim the fat” of long-standing and unquestioned core library services. The way he put it, there are many services that libraries provide that while not “insane”, are definitely “less sane”. For example, he spoke about Interlibrary Loan. When you think about it, ILL is… ridiculous and wasteful. Someone wants a book that isn’t available at your library, so it’s ordered from a library across the country for that person to use (an extreme instance I know, but stay with me…).

A second example of “less sane” core services is the academic reference desk. Rick argued that as a service model, the reference desk relies on the hope that only a fraction of students will use it. It is impossible and impractical for thousands of students to queue at the reference desk for research assistance. While it’s the intention of Reference Departments to provide reference and instruction to as many students as they can, feasibly it is an impossible goal. Further, an instruction session can usually contain 20-40 people, maximum? In-class library instruction is on the way out. He proposes that libraries should eliminate this core service and develop services based on ease of use. That is, improved information architecture on library websites and more online guides to ease discoverability and the flow of desired information. Information literacy and instruction on Youtube, anyone?

Librarians and libraries have gotten very good at doing these core services, which could (and as Rick would argue, should) be eliminated. He asserted that more sane services would include document delivery & purchasing articles as a solution to overspending on unused serial titles, using and perfecting Wikipedia, patron-driven acquisition (i.e. acquiring what’s demonstrably wanted rather than traditional collection development), and ease of use as an alternative philosophy to bibliographic instruction. I think for the most part, these are accurate, legitimate, and sensible recommendations.

Overall I’m impressed and refreshed by this kind of radical and unpopular thinking. It’s time for librarians to shake it up, think innovatively and outside the box about library procedures and service delivery. Beyond thinking differently, let’s start making changes to meet our users’ needs and put an end to the “less sane” services that, although we’ve gotten very good at doing, simply aren’t realistic or sustainable.

Solo Librarians & Twitter

Many libraries nowadays have Twitter to promote themselves to the public and their users, but what about how librarians are using Twitter for themselves. If you’re a librarian, I want to know: do you have a personal/professional Twitter account? If your answer is ‘yes’, then I also want to ask: do you ever use Tweets to connect with other librarians for assistance with job-related tasks?

Whether or not you Tweet, undoubtedly you are aware that Twitter is a powerful and increasingly ubiquitous online social tool to communicate and share information with others… in 140 characters. However, have you considered Twitter’s potential as a resource for helping you solve problems and frustrations while you’re at work? I’ve given this some thought lately, and have wanted to generate some discussion about Twitter-use amongst the solo librarian community. For many public and academic librarians, it’s typically listervs, their manager(s), and arm’s-length colleagues who serve as sources of assistance for job-related queries, but have you ever wondered how solo librarians fare with solving their unique workplace challenges?

Solos are usually the only staff member at their organization’s information centre. When faced with any kind of obstacle (e.g. tricky reference question, Director’s request for you to justify the library’s existence, or to evaluate new open source library software), solo librarians will very often reach out to other librarians and information professionals. More so than librarians in traditional library settings, solos rely heavily on listservs and close colleagues via email.
When I started my current job in a library at a think tank, I wanted to subscribe to some SLA listserv communities in case I ever needed support (plus, I felt a bit isolated from other librarians). From the start, I recognized that the librarians participating in the SLA’s Solo Librarians Division listserv (SLA-DSOL) are some of the most generous, kind, and helpful of librarians. SLA-DSOL includes a very wide range of issues (on shelving options, library policies, reference questions, article requests, best practices, etc!), and it seems that most requests for assistance are addressed and solved. A reoccurring criticism of SLA-DSOL is that messages aren’t always acknowledged or responded to quickly. The listserv is a great resource, but I wondered if any of the solo librarians on the list are using Twitter for the same kinds of issues.

One way for solos to do this is with the use of the hashtag (#). Twitter hashtags work to link tweets to one another when used consistently by others. Most Twitter-users apply hashtags sporadically and sometimes ironically, but when applied properly, they can have a very useful purpose. Here’s a scenario of how they can be successful: Recently I was having trouble with the open source ILS platform at my library (it’s called Koha), and was feeling frustrated with the lack of systems support. Overall Koha is an awesome system, but I couldn’t solve a weird bug related to the serials module. After sufficient frustration, I composed the following pathetic plea for help:
To my surprise I received a reply within minutes by a friendly Koha-savvy librarian. Via Tweets, she helped me to locate the appropriate documentation and set me up with a community wiki where I can go for future Koha support.

A second use for solos (and all users) on Twitter is the lists function. Create lists for Twitter users that you follow, such as Friends, News sources, Librarians, etc. When you follow someone on Twitter, you’re able to add them to these lists. My recommendation is to create a group of contacts in a list of solo librarians. When you check your Tweets, rather than scrolling through your entire feed, you can limit your new Tweets to those written by the solos who you follow.

Twitter is just one more way that soloists (can I call them that?) should reach out to each other. If there is a combined effort to use a consistent hashtag for the challenges of being a solo (e.g. #sololibrarians), then I think it would be a fantastic compliment to the existing listserv. Take a look at Catherine Trinkle’s article about the use of Twitter for creating a personal networks of professionals: “Twitter as a Professional Learning Community” (School Library Media Activities Monthly, December 2009).

Overall, I’m interested to know if and how solos are using Twitter. Yesterday I sent a message to SLA-DSOL to inquire about individual Twitter-use. Hopefully I’ll receive some encouraging responses, and maybe then pull solo librarianship into web 2.0 😉

Access 2010 (i.e. #accesswpg)

Access, e.g. “the premier library technology conference in Canada”, was a hit this year in Winnipeg. From October 13-16, librarians, programmers, developers, technicians, and some eager job-seekers gathered in the sublime and historic Fort Garry Hotel to share ideas and experiences on functionality, open source alternatives, innovative service technologies, and most of all, access!

This was my first Access conference, and I have to admit, at first I was a bit anxious about attending because I am not a systems librarian. I was interested in attending Access 2010 because of my emerging interests in library technologies, open source, and the uses of mobile technologies in library settings. I was worried that the level of technical literacy and depth of systems-discussion would be over my head. I was relieved to learn that I was not alone in my amateur contribution to systems librarianship, but also, I found that I could relate and keep up with the content far better than I’d feared.

I would say that 65-70% of the sessions were of relevance to my current job and were of personal interest. The other 30-35% were either a bit too specific, or catered to niche library environments (e.g. GIS, bilingual considerations, linked data), and while these didn’t related to my current job, were still captivating presentation topics.

The biggest lesson that I took away from the conference is that people like me (i.e. non-systems librarians) should become as well-versed with information systems as they independently can. I don’t mean that every librarian should be writing code and developing applications for their library (although, that would be rad), I just mean that having an informed and basic understanding of the capabilities and possibilities of current technologies enhances library services.

The Access conference really encouraged me to explore areas of librarianship that many librarians are reluctant to embrace because we tell ourselves that “it’s too techy”, or that “it’s IT’s job, not mine.” This isn’t exactly a groundbreaking statement but something I’ve come to realize: collaborative creation and innovation in library services are achieved through the integration of emerging technologies with updated library service/access models. Not only is it a necessity for library services to stay current, but consider that working with open source (i.e. a customizable framework), Smart Phone capabilities (e.g. QR codes, handheld access, etc.), and metadata are all really fun!

Below were some of my favourite sessions from Access2010. You can also view the entire schedule (and some presentations) here.

Usability testing and the Google generation” – Lisa Fast (NeoInsight)

“Mobile technologies: iRoam; Goin’ Mobile” – James MacDonald, Carolee Clyne (UNBC), Rob Zylstra (Grant McEwen University)

A human library” – Randy Oldham, Janet Kaufman (University of Guelph)

After launching search and discovery, who is mission control?” – William Denton, Adam Taves (York University)

eXtensible Catalog: Take control of library metadata and websites” – David Lindahl (University of Rochester)

Re-evaluating knowing “too much about too little”

Are the most desirable reference and research librarians ones who are subject-experts, or those who have excellent broad knowledge in many areas (i.e. generalists)? Lately I’ve heard a number of opinions on the debatable impediments of subject specialization (see Pereyaslavska’s article in The Courier, re: “being overqualified”), along with the advantages of being a generalist reference librarian.  Both of these positions disagree with my longstanding view of the benefits of a second Masters degree.

I am quite interested in this “debate”, for I have often thought that being a “subject expert” is what made excellent librarians (among other qualities, of course). The abilities to discover, interpret, evaluate, acquire, and recommend relevant information resources are what reference and research librarians are trained to do, and fundamentally, it is what sets us apart from other research professionals. I respect any librarian with a subject-specific affiliation (i.e. a second Masters degree), because they are familiar with appropriate thesaurus terms for specific databases, have seasoned knowledge of research trends, and overall, have a uniquely sophisticated understanding of a subject area. Having experience and background in a particular field can increase the quality of reference and research by being value-added, intellectual, rigorous, and more thorough. In the previous issue of The Courier, Pereyaslavska expressed her uncertainties about being too specialized, revealing that perhaps some academic reference departments prefer a generalist librarian.  She wrote that “I have been repeatedly advised by a number of academic librarians that my graduate background is too specialized to provide proper breadth for reference services, which may be expected at a general academic reference desk. Have I shot myself in the foot by acquiring my M.A., and do I really know too much about too little?”

In response to Pereyaslavska’s doubts, I respectfully and encouragingly disagree. At many large academic institutions, librarians work together to staff a general reference desk, responding to a broad range of reference inquiries. While a librarian assists an undergraduate student with research for their paper on a Feminist critique of The Watchmen, the graduate student next in line might require in-depth reference assistance in locating rare British Parliamentary Papers. Having an advanced-subject expertise in one field should not limit your approach and response to reference questions outside your specialization. Obtaining graduate-level education on top of the practical education of an MISt/MLIS can position someone far better for academic librarianship. In practice, specialists have more experience executing varying levels of academic research, and have had greater exposure to academic processes. In addition, there is more to academic librarianship than assisting at an information desk. Collection development and information literacy are two tasks that, when performed by a librarian with related subject-specialization, are inherently and exponentially improved.

Moreover, attitudes toward generalists and subject specialists can differ from one academic library to the next. Some will value that their librarians hold a second Masters degree in the subject for which they have liaison responsibilities, while others might appreciate a general and holistic approach to academic research subjects and processes. It comes down to workplace culture (Mayer & Terrill, 2005): the librarians at University X may value professional development opportunities, workshops, courses, learning from each other, and long-term exposure to providing reference to obtain a level of “expert generalism”. University Z might require that their librarians hold a second masters degree. I do not think that Pereyaslavska has shot herself in the foot. There is a great interest (and need) for librarians with higher and specialized education. They can often be found in management roles, and at well established academic institutions.

Qualities that make a formidable generalist librarian include being adaptive, resourceful, a quick learner and creative problem-solver. So far, my honours Bachelor of Arts in history and sociology, in combination with formal library training have made me a skilled reference and research librarian. Although not a specialist (yet?) and therefore a generalist, I am one who recognizes the need for both, and a mixture of each. As a librarian, I plan to pursue professional development initiatives, and to continuously expand my knowledge and abilities. With increasing experience and training, it is my aspiration to grow into the type of librarian that exceeds the generalist, but does not quite meet the specialist… Something which Smith and Oliva (2010) have termed a “renaissance librarian”. A renaissance librarian is someone with accomplishments in diverse areas, who possesses knowledge in many subjects. They achieve this through “broadening their intellectual horizons by cross training informally with each other and obtaining formal training from their colleagues and from outside resources.” They attend and participate at conferences, pursue professional instruction courses, read professional literature, and collaborate with team members (p.144). Renaissance librarianship is the way for me.

References

Mayer, J. & L. J. Terrill.  “Academic librarians’ attitudes about advanced-subject degrees.”  College & Research Libraries, vol. 66, no. 1, January 2005: pp. 59-73.

Pereyaslavska, K. “How much is too much and how little is not enough.” The Courier, vol. 47, no. 3, Spring 2010. Retrieved June 29, 2010 from http://units.sla.org/chapter/ctor/newsletter/courier.asp?eid=24&aid=269

Smith, D. A. & V. T. Oliva. “Becoming a renaissance reference librarian in academe: attitudes toward generalist and subject specific reference and related profession development.” Reference Services Review, vol. 38, no. 1, 2010: pp. 125-151.

I <3 Veronica Mars

If you have never watched Veronica Mars… then you need to start! I’d heard of the show a few years ago, but it never really interested me because I thought it was just about a subversive girl with a catchy name, trudging through her high school years. Well, it kind of is like that.. but what I didn’t know, is that she is a detective! Stay with me here…

For any librarian who loves conducting research, helping others find what they’re seeking, and who really enjoys the problem-solving aspects of the profession, Veronica Mars will inspire and re-introduce how challenging and rewarding doing research can be. Librarians aren’t detectives, I know, but a lot of what research and reference librarians do is, in a way, detective work: Someone approaches you with a problem (e.g. reference question), you use the necessary reasoning to determine how to help them. You draw upon resources available to you, think of creative ways to find answers, and determine ways around obstacles to obtain valuable information. Veronica Mars uses databases, newspapers on microform, indexes, public search engines, personal contacts, libraries, police reports (classified information, but she has friends in important places), etc. She is a natural (and impeccable) librarian. Granted, Veronica Mars often uses unethical means to acquire information (trespassing, lying, disguising herself to mislead others, to name a few), her research tactics are brilliant, inventive, and almost always successful!

Plus, I love that she goes to the library. Give this show a chance. There are three seasons on DVD. You will be hooked.

Virtual browsing at the Judd Library

Yesterday I had lunch with my friend Marian and we got to chatting about cool, innovative, library stuff. She sent me an email when she got back to work and included links to some of the things we’d talked about. One of them was the Judd Foundation Library. I have never heard of the Judd Foundation, or Donald Judd, but I read this New York Times article and he seemed quite neat. Anyway, his personal print collection of 13,000 items has been preserved and a unique catalogue of its holdings has been made available online. I have never seen anything like it. Here are some details:

The Collection: The books that Judd collected are an intriguing mix of arts, culture, language, food, etc., from many Nationalities and geographic regions from around the world and throughout history. The organization of the collection was created by and for Judd himself. The items are shelved by geographic location, then by temporal characteristic, and then again by the subject of the item (e.g. France – Middle Ages – Pottery). A photo was taken of each shelf in the library, the photos were scanned, and every item from the individual shelves in each photo was tagged then catalogued with MARC records in AACR2.

The Online Catalogue: As a virtual library user, you can choose which shelf you’d like to see. You can browse the shelves in any direction, or move across the room to see what’s over there. Once you’re looking at a shelf, you can drag your mouse over the spine of the books to read a brief description (basic bibliographic information) of what’s there. To view the catalogue record, click on the description for more detail. There’s even a link to the WorldCat record for the item, so you’re able to find a lending copy nearby!

My initial thoughts when I started browsing were, “This is awesome, I want to do this at my library! But it’s such a bad idea…So time consuming… I wonder how often they have to update photos of the shelves, re-tag the books…” I suddenly had an “AHA!” and “Duh!” moment at the same time. The personal library of Donald Judd will never change, because he’s dead, so there’s no upkeep required to maintain the online catalogue.

A virtual shelf-browsing tool is an advanced but perhaps far-fetched reality for small libraries and special collections. Either way, it’s fun, original, and more than anything, it’s an inspiring tool and access point for hidden collections. Play around with the Browser here.

Neat, eh?