Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Strong Roots, New Branches – how I grew to become a librarian

Here is the presentation I gave at the National Press Club, Washington, DC this morning.  The was Government Libraries event sponsored by Lexis/Nexis and moderated by Marie Kaddell.

Other presenters were Samir Goswami, Director, Government Professional Solutions, Lexis/Nexis, and an expert on human trafficking, and Kris Vajs, Chief Librarian at the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors Research Library.

Strong Roots, New Branches – how I grew to become a librarian

Thank you, Marie, for inviting me here today.  I have come to this event almost every year and I have gained much from the speakers.  Marie asked me to share the story of my career as a librarian.  I hope that you will find it encouraging and find something from own experience to aid yours.

Building on the theme for today – I think of trees with strong roots and new branches.  So I will use the analogy of the life of a tree as my framework.
While growing up I remember a poster in my sister’s bedroom.  Bloom where you’re planted.  Posters were the tweets of the 1960’s.

Trees grow everywhere: Forests, Groves & Orchards, Homes & Neighborhoods, Tree boxes, Bonsai pots and in cracks in the sidewalk.  They grow naturally, or planned by landscapers, arborists, homeowners, farmers and bonsai masters.  Some grow to be majestic oaks or redwoods while others remain small.  Some die as seedlings while others live to be hundreds of years old.
Taking root

I often say that I fell into being a librarian.  After college, with no real career plan, my godmother steered me toward federal service.  She had made a career working in human resources and thought that would be a good path for me as well.
This was back in the day – before personal computers and smartphones – and I went to OPM a few blocks west of here to take the Clerk/Typist exam.  The first job was with the FDIC and I started my library career by weighing, opening and sorting the mail.  I checked in serials using a Kardex system.  I shelved, I weeded, I did loose-leaf filing and I filed cards in the card catalog. I replaced pocket parts and even learned how to handle Shepard’s Citations volumes.  Not use them – that wouldn’t come for another 15 years, but I figured out what to keep and what to toss.

I left that job to become a Personnel Clerk/Typist at the VA Medical Center in Washington, DC.  It seemed to have more chance of advancement.  It was an interesting experience and I learned a lot about HR rules and benefits.  But one day, a friend from my FDIC days, told me that they were looking for a cataloger.  This was not a position that required an MLS.
I took that job and since then I have always worked in libraries. 

Growing and nurturing
But I needed library skills to go along with this job.  I got OCLC training at FEDLINK and I took a cataloging course with Dr. David Battey.  If any of you had the privilege of knowing him or taking a course from him – you are lucky.  He was a brilliant man and one of the first librarians I ever met who wore his quirkiness with pride!

Luck had much to do with my career – that and some talent to learn.  I took on the cataloging, and other duties as assigned.  I learned how to take care of the library system that the FDIC had at the time.  I took over running the back-ups.  I dismantled and rebuilt system furniture.
I had a good boss and good directors for the library.  After I had been on the job for a year or so – and figured I knew everything – I got a new boss who helped to give me a new attitude in my job.  She helped me to see the bigger picture of how my job fit in with the structure of the library and the agency and why it was important.  She was a dedicated civil servant who took her responsibilities seriously.  She was also fair-minded and encouraging to others.

Then the Internet happened and life as we knew it changed forever. 
In this case I was again lucky.  I learned about gopher sites and ftp and html.  I learned about the reality of electronic resources.  And that interest prompted me to get my MLS.

Again, I was lucky – my agency helped pay for my degree.  I attended the University of Maryland, College of Information Studies.  After I finished there were some staff shifts and I moved into a librarian position.
Over the next few years I made the most that I could from professional development, training classes and attending conferences and workshops.   I took advantage of DC-SLA to network with other librarians in the area.  From the start I would write up my notes from attending conferences and share them with my colleagues.

It was during this time that Blogs and then Twitter came into vogue.  A colleague was testing a site for supporting library services and asked me if I would consider starting a blog.  I did and used it to post my write-ups on conference and workshop sessions.  I had some following – not a lot. 

I talked to some speakers who were successful bloggers.  One gave me the advice, if you don’t have anything special to say- don’t blog.  I applied that same notion to my tweets.  I mostly tweet from conference sessions I am attending or to promote a new blog entry.
I also provided weekly updates on what I was doing.  This helped me to mark my successes and achievements.  I worked on projects in the library but also volunteered for programs at my agency as a way to promote the library.

While it is important to blossom and reach out on the job, it is also important to have hobbies and interests outside of work.  Face it, sometimes work can be a drag.  I find comfort in music.  For many years I sang with a choral group and for the past 14 years I have played trombone with a community band – DC’sDifferent Drummers.  I also enjoy helping my husband work in the yard.  There are many ways to re-create oneself.
Storms and drought

Sometimes we face difficulties on the job: down-sizing, budget cuts, or difficult colleagues.  And personal life presents challenges: illness, finances, care for children, parents, partner or spouse. These are times when we need to learn to be resilient and be strong.
A challenge in one job led me to take a look at my health – and that took me on a journey of its own and a successful weight loss.

Calling to mind the analogy of a tree – you have to bend during the storm in order to survive.  If you become rigid – you can break or topple.  And having had two trees come down at my home – you want to avoid that!
We all make mistakes.  Yes, it is embarrassing. What is important is to learn from our mistakes.  I have had some setbacks, just like many others – but I have tried to be optimistic, improve myself and move ahead. 

The reason that we laugh at clowns is because they do the things that we do – they trip and fall – but they do it in the spotlight of the center ring.  And then they laugh at themselves.

Transplanting trees is a tricky endeavor.  You have to pick the right time so the tree can survive the move.  As librarians we have to be ready to learn new skills so we are ready for our next move.
I have worked in Technical Services, Electronic Resources, Reference and Acquisitions.  I have trained contractors in using library systems.  I have built databases and webpages.  I have trained agency staff on library services and Internet searching.  I realized that I have had some experience in most areas of librarianship.

Most of my library career was with banking agencies.  I started out with the FDIC.  Then I went to the Comptroller of the Currency and then to the Federal Reserve Board Research Library.
From there I worked a couple of contract positions – one at the National Agricultural Library and another in the private sector for a company called LMI that does consulting work with the Department of Defense and some other agencies.

The breadth of this experience, the way I marketed it and no small amount of luck or providence landed me in my current position with the USArmy Corps of Engineers.  It is perhaps the coolest job title I could have ever imagined – Command Librarian.
Branching out & Bearing fruit

Now I am in a position where I need to branch out and learn from my colleagues as well as support them.  It is my role to provide guidance to the USACE Library Program.  We have 21 district libraries, 3 research libraries and two other library sites.  Fortunately I am not their supervisor, but I have visited each site and try to find ways to help them.
Looking ahead, I am reaching out to other groups and divisions at my agency to see how the library can provide better support.  I will also reach out to those districts that no longer have libraries and learn what help they need.

And it is my turn to mentor and help others.  One day I got a phone call from a training officer in our Sacramento District.  She had an employee who was a clerk and was interested in going to library school.  Over the next several months we traded emails and chatted as she embarked on her training and transition to becoming a librarian.
I have also been active with DC/SLA and the EmploymentPortal.  Some of us on that team have met with library students and reviewed resumes.

We should regularly look at our careers and what we are doing and cut away the dead wood.  This can be as simple as reviewing our resumes and removing irrelevant skills and training.  It can also mean letting go of some of the negatives in our lives, letting go of bad will and grudges.  Sometimes this is easy – sometimes it requires counseling.  Don’t be afraid of it.

Old trees and by-products
What can be said about old trees?  They give shade & comfort.  They beautify the landscape.  Their branches provide nests for birds and homes for squirrels.  Their roots help to give stability to the land.  Their wood can be used to make homes, doors, desks, tables and chairs.

They can be milled into pulp to make paper for printing of books, currency and much else.  What we do as librarians and information professionals helps our agencies accomplish good for the people of America.
I think of the librarians I have known throughout my career.  Teachers in library school who were demanding and challenged me.  Another librarian earned a Master of Divinity and retired early, but applied her skills to helping at a theological library.  She went on to lead others on pilgrimages in Benedictine spirituality.  People like Sharon Lenius who, though retired, still support other government and military librarians.

We don’t have to end up on the wood pile.
I leave you with something a manager said to me on my first day in a job waiting tables. The worst thing that we can do to you is to fire you.  You’ve looked for a job before and you can do it again.  The phrasing struck me as odd – but I took it to mean – if you’re not happy with what you are doing then look for someplace where you can be happy.

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