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.
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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.

ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

So far, 2010 has been a great year. The weather in Toronto has been fantastic, I had a terrific time attending the Super Conference, my first paper was published, and to top all of that, I was offered a dream job. Four weeks ago I started as the Collections Librarian with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario. CIGI is an independent research centre/think-tank that focuses on issues related to international governance and foreign relations, and has partnerships with academic institutions, policy-makers and businesses all over the world. Their library houses a specialized collection of books (formerly the print collection from the Canadian Institute of International Affairs), a strong digital collection of electronic resources and publications, and also the Canadian Foreign Relations Index (CFRI). In my role as a collections librarian, I work with the Manager of Content Services (“Head Librarian”) to manage the print resources, perform acquisitions and cataloguing, conduct outreach and promote CIGI’s unique and specialized collections, and assist with research requests. This position is truly a dream job, because it combines my longstanding interests in special libraries, advocacy and access to rare special collections and research resources, establishing or improving access points (cataloguing/indexing), and assisting with research. Overall I’m extremely pleased and feel very lucky to experience this challenging and satisfying position. While it is only a 14 month contract, it’s the perfect kind of commitment for right now.

Just wanted to post an update on what’s new! More to come in 2010!