Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Life in the trenches: Words from a new librarian

Hi all, Dr. Kahn has asked me to be a guest blogger for your Week 6 lessons.

I’m Lindsay and I’m a newly minted (December 2009) librarian from Kent SLIS, and I recently began my first professional librarian job.  Feel free to email me if you want to know more about my job searching adventures (which are book-worthy!).  I had the pleasure of having Miriam for two courses while in library school – Rare Book Librarianship in the fall of 2008 and Genealogy and Local History in the spring of 2009, and she also was an invaluable resource after I graduated.

A bit more about my background…I have a BS in Biology and worked several years in biomedical research before starting my MLIS, luckily realizing before getting too engrossed in a PhD program, that I needed to be in a field where I was able to regularly interact with people and not waste my life away taking care of mice!  I love biomedical research, I’m passionate about it, but I definitely didn’t like getting my hands dirty.  That and I found the career opportunities for PhD candidates in my field to be almost non-existent.  So it was the dissatisfaction with my current field that drew me into libraries in the first place – and I fell in love with working in reference and teaching, focusing my career in librarianship toward reference and teaching in academic health sciences libraries.

I’m sure many of you have similar stories, either as recent college graduates in an uncertain job market trying to find a broad encompassing degree that doesn’t lock you into a single thing, or long-standing college graduates looking for a career change.

While in SLIS I started working as a substitute reference assistant at Massillon Public Library, and I completed my practicum at Case Western Reserve University's Health Center Library.  So during my tenure in SLIS I had the opportunity to work in reference in both a public library as well as an academic health sciences library, which gave me a unique understanding to the similarities and differences in reference interactions between these two distinct library types.

Today I am a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Columbia University Medical Center’s Health Sciences Library in New York City - email me if you want to know more about what it's like to work in academia or to live and work in NYC!  On a daily basis, I work directly with faculty, students, and researchers from the five Columbia University programs affiliated with CUMC: the College of Physicians & Surgeons, the College of Nursing, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Public Health, and the Graduate School of Basic Sciences; as well as clinicians and nurses from New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

I’m still a newbie here, only having started in November, and I am still learning the ropes, but I hope to give you all a taste of what it is like in the “real world” of librarianship, specifically what it’s like to be a new librarian working in the trenches.

So, I’m sure you’re all dying to know what it’s really like out there, and if what you’re learning in SLIS is of any measurable use as you begin to actually work in the field.  And I’m here to tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I know Dr. Kahn has mentioned this to you, but I want to reiterate it.  Library school in general is heavily based in theory, some of which is nice to know, but most is not practical for librarians who actually work in libraries (librarians as scholars is a whole different ball game).

My advice about what to take from SLIS is this:  What you learn in many of your classes probably isn't what is going to help you in your job (understand it that most of what you will do as a professional librarian you will learn once you already have a job).  Do a practicum (especially if you do not currently already work in a library, or work in a different type of library than you want to work in).  Find a mentor (this can be a professor, a practicum supervisor, or a librarian at a local library, etc.).  Get experience (when you're in library school - many libraries hire LIS students as pages and assistants, this is a foot in the door and imperative to your success).  Find your niche (take advantage of your previous jobs and experiences, and find your "unique value contribution" that makes you stand out against every other candidate for a job).

Having experience in both public and academic libraries, I’ll try to give you a general sense of each, the pros and cons, and what it takes to work in each setting.

Reference Librarians – Public vs. Academic

Knowledge focus:
Public libraries: General information – must be knowledgeable in many areas (e.g. literature, genealogy, medicine, and car repair) and have the skills to quickly find information.  Must be adept at using many subject databases and public resources ('tis the season for IRS.gov!!).  Though often questions can be answered with a simple Google search or with that revered scholarly resource Wikipedia (I've located DOB's for celebrities many times, needless to say).  Users usually come to the reference desk to get concrete information.  Undergraduate degrees mean little as far as specialization, and focus is on previous experience.

Academic libraries: Specialized research and teaching – must be able to carry out in-depth research and teach users to use the resources themselves.  A smaller subset of databases are needed to be known, but you must know those databases inside and out because you will often be using many of them every day.  You must also be able to be able to explain, in layman's terms, how to use the databases in complex ways, such as using subject headings to target a search.  Users usually come to the reference desk to learn how to do something.  Often a specialized undergraduate background or subject Masters is required or expected after several years of service.

Public libraries: Anyone and everyone – from children, to the elderly, to the mentally unstable, public reference librarians must be able to field questions from users from vast educational and socio-economic levels, and depending on the location of the library (urban, rural, suburban) the frequency of problem patrons.

Academic libraries: Students, faculty and staff, and researchers from the university, and depending on the institution, visitors – depending on the type of institution, academic reference librarians may have a very specialized set of users or they might deal with every level (undergraduates, graduates, faculty, etc.), but each user group requires a different type of approach and often have different needs and schedules.

Typical work:
Public libraries: Long and busy desk shifts with occasional other duties – public reference librarians tend to spend a significant portion of their day (at least at the entry-level) sitting on the reference desk and assisting patrons.  Their shifts on the reference desk, usually from 4-8 hours at a time, are often a busy mix of in-person, phone, and email requests, so multi-tasking is imperative.  There will be times where you will find yourself with 3 patrons in front of you and the phone ringing off the hook (I’ve been there…multiple times!).  It’s a matter of being courteous and efficient, but at the same time knowing your own limits and spelling those out to your patrons.  If worse comes to worse let the answering machine pick up the phone calls!  Some reference librarians will be required to teach a class here or there, or even work at the circulation desk at times.

Academic libraries: Short and quiet desk shifts with significant other duties – academic reference librarians generally spend only a small portion of their day on the reference desk, perhaps only a couple hours a day or a couple days a week (I currently work on the desk for 2 hours twice a week, and then whenever a colleague might need someone to cover).  Reference desk shifts can, depending on the time of the semester be very hectic (around finals or when term papers are due), or unbearably silent (beginning of semesters, summer, etc.).  The rest of your day will likely be spend preparing for classes, teaching, and doing consultations with users.  And depending on the institution/library, some academic librarians are “embedded” meaning they work within the departments that they serve, directly interacting with their core users.  These types of librarians are typically are referred to as “liaisons”.  Regardless of the type of reference librarian you are, one of your primary duties will inevitably be marketing your library and your expertise to your users and your administration.

Types of questions:
Public libraries: Most questions are ready-reference, few teachable moments – the phone number to a local store, finding a specific book or DVD, facts and figures, or downloadable forms.  More in-depth questions may revolve around genealogy and local history, or help finding research information.  I found that I had many users who came from some of the local colleges/technical schools, and joked that I should get commission for directing many of their own students to their libraries!  Finding teachable moments in public libraries is sometimes a bit harder to come by.  It becomes a skill in reading a patron to determine if they can comprehend enough to actually learn the concept as well as if they have any desire at all to learn that skill.

Academic libraries: Most questions are in-depth, significant teachable moments - generally you may only have one or two reference transactions in a two-hour shift (and I’ve gone many a shifts with no questions at all!), but the transactions may take considerable times, as they often require in-depth searching or a complex problem.  In some of these transactions, teaching is highly effective.  A student or faculty member who is trying to find articles on a topic or comes in with a problem – this is where you can turn a reference question into a teachable moment and leave that user feeling more empowered to do their own research and appreciative of the knowledge and expertise that the librarian was able to provide for them.  Not only is teaching great because they learn something new, but it’s a valuable PSA in the worth and necessity of academic libraries in an era when administrations are trying to find places to cut funding.

In any case, public or academic libraries, you might find yourself in a position with a patron, where they are asking for something that is completely outside of your knowledge or expertise.  I had many questions while working at the public library, where patrons came in with questions about legal documents.  The plus was, once I learned what reference book there were copyable dissolution of marriage forms, I was pretty good, but nonetheless I still got questions that I either had no idea what the patron was talking about, or even if I did I ended up with the proverbial deer in the headlights reaction. The best thing to do is to stop, take a breath, and try to ask the patron more questions to get an idea what they're talking about.  In academic libraries, you might have a user who has a research question that is completely out of your repertoire.  And while often the searching skills are the same, often there are specific databases or jargon that is necessary.  Sometimes the best thing to do with academics is to ask them more questions about their research, and be honest that you don't have any expertise in that subject area but if they can inform you you can do the best to help them.

In both cases, often the biggest hurdle is that the patron really isn't sure what information or help they need.  Case-in-point...I was trying to help a graduate student and he came to me and gave me what appeared to be his unabridged defense and after suffering through what seemed like hours of incomprehensible gibberish, I asked a few seemingly simple questions, and it turned out that all he needed to know was how to change the style format of his references for his advisor, but when his advisor told him what he needed to do the advisor make it sound like he needed another PhD to accomplish it!  It's like playing telephone, only with academics.  If you can get to the bottom of what the user needs, why they need it, and what they intend to do with, you almost always can determine a course of action and find an answer or a solution.

These same questions are also what we can ask ourselves when we find that we are unsure what to do in a reference transaction.

If that doesn't work, sometimes the most effective solution is to ask.  You can't know everything, and no one expects a freshly new librarian to have all the answers, know every database, and be able to handle every question that comes their way.  Let your colleagues help you.  Learn from them, most librarians are eager to pass their knowledge onto new librarians both among their own co-workers as well as others in the field.  Often, it's the simplest most dull questions that trip you up.  I remember the first time someone asked where the restrooms were at CUMC and I froze!  We have staff restrooms in the back, but I was completely unaware as to where the public restrooms were!  Another example is I sit on Columbia University Libraries' Ask A Librarian chat reference desk for an hour a week.  It's fun, but can be quite exhausting at busy/peak times, and can make a new librarian feel very vulnerable.  First off, I work at the Health Sciences Library at the medical center, 52 blocks uptown from the main campus and only loosely connected to the rest of the CU campus.  I don't even know where all the different libraries at main campus are, let alone intimate knowledge about their collections and policies!  Second, I have no experience or knowledge of subject specific databases, like Bloomberg (a law database that is only available to law students).    Several times I've had to run out of my office to a colleagues' and quickly ask them the question!  Working on v-ref has literally been a crash course in Columbia University's libraries, collections, and policies, and has taught me many new things.

So that’s my “lesson” here in this guest post.  Now I’ll tell you a few anecdotes, to help give you a more real image of what we are actually doing out there.

Working in a public library you will quickly learn about “certain” patrons.  And while some are real problem patrons (I had the unfortunate experience of having my purse AND my car stolen by some young girls while at work at MPL...long story, and luckily something I can now laugh about!!), others are just quirky or more often than not, off their rockers.  There was one patron that was notorious at MPL, and during my first interaction with her my supervisor neglected to tell me her story.  I patiently assisted her in locating the phone number to the Monte Carlo Film Festival because she had heard that a certain member of the Royal Family was seen there…don’t ask how she was going to call Monaco, or why she was calling to talk to the Prince when according to the tabloid he had been there a week earlier.  And as I struggled to decipher French websites, keeping my frustrations and confusion at bay, I later learned (from an uncontrollably laughing supervisor) that this patron was infamous among the staff, harboring a stalking fixation on the British Throne and requested all sorts of bizarre information.  My later exchanges with this patron included reprimanding her for pushing me off my own reference desk because she refused to wait in line behind the other patrons, and reading through dozens of tabloids.  Needless to say, working in a public library is never a dull moment!

While at CWRU, my favorite student got that designation for a certain unique way of showing her appreciation for my help.  I always say, it’s nice when patrons’ thank you for helping them, but actions speak louder than words.  And this first-year medical student gave me the most memorable thank you.  The next time I was at my practicum she brought several of her friends and told them that I could help them with their research papers.  It’s moments like that when you realize what an impact you are making on your patrons.

All my life I have used Macs, and while in many aspects of your professional career this can be problematic, as most institutions work solely with PCs, in my case it turned out to be a hidden gem while at CUMC.  Even though it was not part of the job description or anything that even came up in any serious degree during my interviews, I stepped into a job where I was able to take up a role and a direction that was not imagined by the rest of the staff.  I have become the “Mac Guru”.  Which is a very necessary job title, as more and more of our users are toting their MacBooks, and iPads, and iPhones around, and wanting to use them to do their research and locate and store information.  As luck would have it, there was an unused Mac Mini that magically appeared on my office desk, so I had the bragging rights of two computers in my office!  But it was what I was able to do with that Mac that has made all the difference.  I have created classes specifically teaching resources using a Mac, and when our director purchased several iPads for staff use, I had constant knocks on my office door from colleagues unsure how to work the tablet and taught an impromptu lesson to several of the reference librarians during some down time at the desk on the basic functions of the iPad.

Your job is what you make it, and whether you're working as a para-professional in a library, doing a practicum, or working in your first professional position, you're going to have experiences that will easily lend themselves to learning and growing.  Make sure you do learn and grow from them, to make yourself a better librarian, a better provider of information, a better resource for your users.  Find opportunities to take a risk, step out of your comfort zone, and take on new tasks.  Get involved as students in professional organizations.  Network.  Learn.  Use the librarians you meet as a sounding board.  Ask them about their jobs, their experiences.  Ask them to critique your resumes/CVs.  Ask them to connect you to others.  Realize that every person you meet is going to give you more knowledge and experiences and ideas.

Well, that's all for now.  I'm happy to answer any questions from you guys and Dr. Kahn has my permission to forward any pertinent discussion onto me.  My email address is: lg2683@columbia.edu, consider my inbox an open door invitation.

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