The Top Ten Things a new Sci/Tech Librarian Should Know: Developing Core Competencies
STS Issues in Sci/Tech Library Management Discussion Group
ALA Annual Meeting, Toronto
June 22, 2003
Victoria S. Mitchell
Head, Science Library
University of Oregon
The discussion opened with a panel of four librarians, who each spoke briefly: Kathy Chiang, Mann Library, Cornell University; Catherine Soehner, Science & Engineering Library, UC Santa Cruz; Kathy Fescemyer, Life Sciences Library, Penn State University; and Anne Zeidman-Karpinski, Science Library, University of Oregon. Chiang and Soehner represented the supervisor's point of view, while Fescemyer and Zeidman-Karpinski represented the new librarian's point of view.
Kathy Chiang spoke about what she looks for in a new hire. She looks for a bright person with strong communication skills, who has a public service orientation, who is a creative thinker, and who will work well with a team. She also looks for academic background, and experience working in a large, complex organization. She avoids people who appear to be egocentric or just out to make a name for themselves in the library profession. She does not require a science degree. Given the large number of disciplines her library serves, she does not believe that a specific science degree is that helpful. Even with a degree in a specific field, a librarian will have to answer questions, do collection development, etc., outside his or her area of expertise. Unless those with specific scientific degrees keep current, their knowledge will be out of date anyway. Therefore she is willing to hire "English majors" who are not afraid of science, and can and will develop subject expertise.
Catherine Soehner looks first for these three qualities in new librarians: Competency, optimism (because stuff will go wrong) and integrity (because providing information implies responsibility that it be accurate). She stressed that aspiring librarians should get some experience while they are in library school, e.g. internships. While she also does not require a science degree, librarians applying for a position with her should state in the cover letter what science courses they've had, and when. She stressed that all her librarians have to come with at least basic web publishing skills. She looks for flexibility, initiative, creativeness, and the ability to use current in-house resources and outside sources. As a new librarian, you should know how to hire and train student assistants, and should establish yourself early on as a team player. Politics are important - get to know who the power players are inside and outside of the library: for example, making friends with the IT staff so that they will be more likely to help you when you need it! Make connections with faculty and support staff in the departments. Get a mentor, and be a mentor.
New Librarian Perspective
Kathy Fescemyer, to general appreciation, came with an actual "top ten" list. Her list reflects her particular experience in academic science reference work.
- Supervisors: make sure folks have a parking sticker, so they have somewhere to park on their first day at work! This was intended somewhat jokingly, yet it is the kind of small thing that helps smooth someone's start in a new position.
- Learn the (print) reference collection, and general call number areas within it. The reference collection may reflect a lot about student assignments.
- Make friends with the reference librarians ("they know"), and the other library staff you work with.
- Know your basic science encyclopedias; these provide a starting point for answering reference questions.
- Learn the emergency procedures, e.g. evacuation, etc. - you never know when you'll need them.
- Know your statistical sources.
- Know how to use Google - not that she trusts it, but it can sometimes point you to where to find the information you need; can also be good for obscure information and images.
- Learn patience - go slowly with students; they haven't seen this stuff before.
- Read the newspaper and general interest magazines to keep up with what's going on in science and technology research locally, nationally and internationally.
- Get a sense of humor if you don't have one already. (You'll need it.)
Anne Zeidman-Karpinski also created an actual top ten list, except it was actually a top 12 list:
- Know whether a recipient uses email - there is no point in sending information bulletins if faculty doesn't read email. Some people need to be contacted by telephone or in person.
- The Composite Index to CRC handbooks can be a good place to start; if you can't find it there, trouble may be lurking ahead.
- Every time you think you've got it all under control, it means you've just been ignoring something big, or something big is on the horizon.
- Everything takes longer than it should (making decisions, making contacts, filing, everything).
- You will make mistakes when dealing with your supervisor(s); you won't see them coming and you'll only realize how bad the mistakes were if you're lucky. Get over them and move on.
- You will meet a lot of amazing folks.
- Expect to take lots of meeting minutes (often the fate of the newbie).
- Realize there isn't enough time in a day to do even the most important things on your to-do list, and even staying late won't help much. Keep your perspective, and develop interests outside the library - they may lead to interesting bits of information or contacts about what is going in science departments.
- You might get a lot of colds (working with the public).
- You won't be expected to do everything you promised in the interview.
- Your colleagues are just as clueless or insecure as you are.
- Get a mentor if you're new and be a mentor if you're not.
After the four panelists had finished speaking, the meeting was opened up to questions and comments from the floor. One attendee wanted to know how to develop reference knowledge when you don't get a lot of reference questions. Many people responded with suggestions, including:
- Go to seminars and classes.
- Get to know the graduate students and faculty.
- Read popular science literature.
- Make a pathfinder. In doing so, you'll learn a lot of reference sources.
- Maintain a reference log of questions and sources used, or use someone else's log from a busier reference desk.
- You don't have to have subject knowledge - use the Socratic method, help them lead you.
There was discussion about what types of orientation and training different libraries offer their new librarians. Kathy Chiang said that at Cornell they keep a list of spousal (and similar) relationships, so that newcomers don't inadvertently offend a faculty member, for example. A recommendation was made to take all the training you can get: campus workshops, departmental seminars (faculty appreciate the interest), etc. One library has a "boot camp", that is good for both the new librarians and the experienced librarians who do the training. A fair amount of discussion time was spent on how to learn the organizational culture and bureaucracy at a new institution. Methods and suggestions included:
- joining a mentor program - new librarians are paired up with someone in another unit
- inviting people to lunch
- reading the history of the institution
- getting involved with people and activities outside of the library
- participating in bus tours or retreats with other new faculty members if these are available; at land grant institutions there might be a tour to become familiar with the state
- attending faculty development events - e.g. teaching workshops; make connections
The final piece of advice to the new librarian was: it's your job - you're responsible now, no matter who had the job before you.
In the four speaker presentations and the following discussion, certain points arose more than once, suggesting to this reporter the following ten major "themes", falling into two categories:
New librarians looking to get hired in a science/technology library position
- do not necessarily have to have a science degree. However, it is important to communicate to potential employers whatever science background and/or education one has, and to evince an enthusiasm and aptitude for learning a scientific subject area.
- will find it useful to have had student and/or work experience at the type of institution to which one is applying, e.g. a large university, or a small college, etc.
- should get as much library work experience as possible while in library school. Take advantage of internship opportunities, etc.
- should demonstrate to potential employers that they are flexible, have initiative and are team players.
- should have basic reference librarianship and public service competencies and some technology competency, such as web publishing skills.
Newly hired science/technology librarians should
- get to know their institutions. This includes politics, history, and culture. Getting a mentor is strongly recommended.
- learn their subject area(s). Methods of doing this include attending classes and seminars, talking to faculty, researchers and graduate students, and reading science news and the popular science literature.
- get out of the library and into the departments. (This overlaps with the above two themes). Learn the particular culture of each department. Get to know the people being served and their needs, and the best way(s) of communicating with them.
- learn their library's collections in their subject area(s). Methods of doing this might include studying the print reference collection, and making pathfinders.
- expect, and not be afraid, to make mistakes. Keeping a sense of humor, and being patient with themselves and others, they must take ownership of their positions.