Interview with an LIS class at SU

I got an email a few weeks back asking if I’d be willing to answer questions for a group project in an LIS class.  The student who asked is a blog reader of mine, apparently (Hi, Gwen!), and approached me cold.  She was gracious, funny, and I agreed immediately.  On Wednesday, she sent me the list of questions, and during my 17 hour travel home from California, I soaked up $10 worth of wifi at LAX and answered them.  I’m posting them here because I thought they were interesting questions (both as questions and as artifacts of what this group of grad students found interesting in the context of this project), and because someone might find my answers interesting.  They’re also long (I had seventeen hours to kill), so I’m putting them behind the fold.

Q: Do you ever struggle with collections development on an ethical level? Is it difficult to remain unbiased in selecting materials for the library?

A: it is difficult, sometimes.  Political issues are particularly hard — whether it’s actual politics, politics of the environment, politics of abortion, politics of education, etc — but not so hard as to be unmanageable.  I’ve just developed certain strategies over time to ensure that my own biases and beliefs aren’t over-represented.  One is to have a strong sense of why you select books on a topic — is it to provide a balanced view of an issue? If so, a book with strong bias in any direction is probably not the best choice.  Are you buying books to support a curriculum with a particular perspective?  If so, then the resources bought should support that perspective.  Are you buying books to provide counterpoint resources for student research?  If so, then the materials with obvious bias may be the right ones to have. If you don’t know what your collection hopes to accomplish, all of that is much harder.  Another tactic is to solicit input from others — I try to solicit recommendations from library staff on whatever issue they currently care deeply about, because we all have such diverse perspectives that it reminds me of the things i may not automatically think to select, given my own interests.  And a third tactic is to remember that libraries are, ideally, repositories of information and knowledge and vehicles of learning free from any constraints about bias and viewpoint.  Therefore if we get a request for a book by David Duke, who I find personally abhorrent, I can’t and won’t comment on that, because I a) cannot know how or why that information is going to be used, and b) I cannot and will not judge anyone’s information request on those terms.  They have a need, I will fill it.  No matter what I believe about the material.  Censorship goes both ways, and I won’t be a party to it willingly — and that’s more important to me than my own lefty liberal beliefs.

Q:  I’m genuinely curious about setting policy(ies). How do you determine the library’s goals within your institution and reference in particular? Who’s involved in these discussions and decisions? Is/are policy(ies)
written? How/when/why are policies updated? How do you figure in your user needs?
A:  That’s a big question!  Our library’s goals are set by the Director of Libraries in combined consultation with the administration, library staff, and users.  Given our campus’s focus on quality undergraduate education and student-centered experiences, it becomes quite simple to say that our goals are to serve students.  In fact, our mission and goals are more complex than that, and are here: http://www.potsdam.edu/library/Mission_Vision_Values.php.  But the process of defining them included all the stakeholders listed above — the Director reports to the Provost, and solicits information from all library staff (librarians, professional staff, and support staff), as well as our Student Consultants to the College Libraries focus group and our Faculty Liaisons group.   As for our reference collection, it’s a subset of our Collection Development policy, posted here: http://www.potsdam.edu/library/Coll_Dev_Policy_2004_main.htm.  This particular policy is being updated right now, and will be updated every 2 years from here on forward.  Other policies, all of which are written and dated and posted publicly if appropriate, are updated as deemed necessary or prudent by the coordinator of that area, the Director, or whatever interested party raises the issue.
Q:  How does/did she (or her library) go about assessing the needs of her users to create a collection development policy? In other words, how does she verify that her collection meets the needs of her users?

A:  On a certain level, you cannot write an academic library collection development policy on the basis of what users say they need.  College students, even brilliant ones, do not *know* what they need, because
they don’t know what exists.  So, to be totally honest, what the users think they need is irrelevant to me.  What users *demonstrate* that they need is very important to me, and what users are being driven to
need by the faculty who direct them into the library is even more important.  We know, as do nearly all academic librarians, that college students don’t go to the library to do research unless they are forced to do so by the constraints of an assignment for which they will receive a grade.  Therefore, engaging faculty participation in collection building is a key part of what we do as we select materials.  Having a great collection in the history of education would be pointless if no one on our education faculty ever taught history of education — the odds of a student needing or wanting it are slim, under those circumstances.  So we work very hard to ensure that we build a collection that is balanced at the ‘general’ level, but also tailored in new acquisitions toward the content and pedagogy of our current curriculum. We also utilize as many reports from our ILS as we can get our hands on, about circulation statistics, acquisitions data, ILL requests, and whatever other measure of user need we can find.  Nothing beats data to confirm or deny suspicions.

Q:  Is the library collection frequently used by non-student community members? Do you take these users into account when evaluating the collection?

A:  We are open to our community — we’re a New York State funded institution, so we are available to walk-in NYS taxpayers at any time. Our computers have an “internet” account which allows unaffiliated
users to log in and use our online resources on-site, and anyone can request a community user card.  How often it’s used varies depending on the year, but it’s never a high number.  And we do take these users
into account, but they are our lowest priority, behind students and other members of our campus community.  We simply are not funded to provide services unique to community users, though we are happy and available to assist them whenever they appear, within the bounds of our standard services and resources.

Q:  How has the distance education impacted the collection development policies?

A:  We’re working on this one right now!  We’re going to spend most of this year’s collection development committee meetings discussing issues pertaining to distance ed, like what proportion of our
reference budget should be spent on e-reference materials vs print, or what collections of monographs should be moved to ebook formats rather than print, and which journals do we need to buy an online
subscription to in order to remove the one-year embargo on aggregated content, etc.  We’re going to study our emerging distance ed programs, look at their curricula and the assignments given therein, and see if
we can find a clear path.  If there’s no obvious answers, we’ll try *something*… and see how it works!

Q:  How do you determine content overlap within databases?

A: We use Serials Solutions 360Link OpenURL Resolver, and as a side benefit of that subscription, we have access to their statistics package, which can compare database content and analyze overlap.  It’s a godsend, as we used to do endless hours of data-checking and spreadsheet data entry to try to find this information.  Which was awful, and frustrating.  Now, it’s a few clicks.  Lovely!

Q:  How has the shift from print to online reference materials affected your job personally? And what are the most heavily used items in your reference collection (electronic or print) and how frequently are they replaced or updated?

A:  It has no effect on my job, other than my role as budget manager — I move money around based on the recommendations of the Collection Development Committee and the decisions of the Director, but I’m not
the Reference selector, so it’s really David’s job that’s affected by the need to analyze the importance of print vs online reference content.  Because I’m not the Reference selector, I have no answers about the data — David does that analysis, and I trust his judgement, so I don’t ever double-check his work.  From my own time at the reference desk, I do know that I particularly love the Gale Virtual Reference Collection when students need a quick answer, but I’m just as likely to use Wikipedia if what we’re looking for is a way to
clarify their information need.  I’m never going to use Brittanica in print to figure out which King James the student needs to research when I have Wikipedia available… because, duh, it’s searchable. And, honestly, the Reference collection isn’t the most important part of our work.  It’s not the meat of what students need — it’s just the gateway and stepping stone into the rest of their research.  Our databases, full-text sources, and monograph collection are far more crucial to our information environment.

Q:  If your library was to move to a totally electronic reference environment, which print reference material – if any – would you miss the most?

A:  None of it.  I’m a radical.  I hate print reference material.  Unrepentantly.

Q:  After reading the Ethical Issues in Collection Development (2008) that Group III asked us to read, there was a section in the article titled “Is the information you have yours to share?” where the author speaks to the negotiation with vendors is akin to buying a car. I’d be interested in hearing from Jenica what her experiences are with negotiating with vendors – does she find this statement to be true? And are there suggestions, tips, and pointers, she could give us should we find ourselves having to do this in our position?

A:  Be strong, and don’t take any crap.  You have the money, and that means you’re in control.  I’ve spent more time arguing with vendors than I care to consider, and every time I blog about it I get a flurry of email from other acquisitions librarians saying “OMG I *hate* that guy!”  So it’s also worth knowing you’re not alone.  🙂  But not all vendors suck; I have several vendor reps who are great people, helpful allies in our struggle to get good content, and transparent in their corporate processes and pricing models.   But there are also vendors who do suck, who do cold calls, try to send you preview copies, refuse to divulge their pricing strategy or model, offer you “deep discounts” that turn out to be 5% off list price, and generally treat you like an idiot.  Don’t take it, don’t accept it, and don’t let them con you. If you’re uncertain about the deal your’e being offered, look around at various consortia or vending partners and see if they can offer a better deal.  Talk to peers at other similar institutions to see what they’re paying, or what they were offered.  Ask your online network of librarians, and basically just go find whatever information you can if your gut tells you this deal is sour.  And ALWAYS read the license agreements, no matter how arcane or ludicrously boring they are.  You never know what you might find, like an insistence that the document be adjudicated according to the laws of a foreign country.  (If you work for New York State, for instance, that’s absolutely not sign-able, and must be amended before being sent back to the vendor.) While I won’t name names about the bad guys, I will happily say that I have been uniformly pleased with the way EBSCO treats libraries in New York, and that WALDO is an excellent partner in the database purchasing arena.  And, to reiterate, ask your peers for help.  Librarians ALL hate dealing with vendors, or at least acknowledge the complications thereunto pertaining… and will help you out any time, with information, advice, whatever.  If you find yourself needing to deal with vendors and feeling very at sea, find a mentor to help you through it.  You don’t have to struggle alone.

Q:  [I’m paraphrasing here — he basically said, after reading your CV, he realized that you had years of experience before you were hired, and he was wondering how likely he was to get a job straight out of school without similar experience.] From her perspective, how important is “experience” in hiring new employees? Would a prospective employee even be considered without it?

A:  Okay, a few bits of background.  This is not my first professional position, so my current job doesn’t count for this discussion — none of you is ever getting my job straight out of school.  🙂   I was hired straight out of grad school (before I graduated, actually; my degree is May 2001, my first “real” job started Jan 2001) because I had a niche set of skills and interests in a geographic area un-flooded with librarians.  They needed a librarian, and I needed a job, and we were a good fit.  That fit came mainly because I put
myself through grad school by working several jobs, but mainly as a paraprofessional copy-cataloger, and therefore was well-poised to take a Technical Services Librarian job when it opened at Rockford College.
(I had great cataloging experience, but the acquisitions and collection development and periodicals and staff management were all brand new to me… and I learned ’em on the fly, with strong mentorship from my Director.  You will, too.)  All of my other experience prior to that was para-professional and student-level
employment.  And I think that it helped me, not just in getting a job, but also in knowing how libraries worked and understanding the environment, and assessing the skills I needed to acquire.  An MLS is
only one part of being a good librarian; you have to understand *libraries*, not just library theory.  And that first job at Rockford College then positioned me well to do the job I have now.

To get to the meat of the question, though, experience is crucial. It’s not crucial because I’m going to discount a new graduate if there isn’t broad or deep practical experience attached to the resume:  It’s
crucial because other candidates are going to have that experience, and therefore are going to rise above the application that does not have those things. It’s simple math.  If I have 45 applications for one job, I will prioritize based on a series of criteria, but one of the things that will be included is experience.  If there’s a very intriguing candidate with a great cover letter but no experience, and there’s another with an equally great cover letter but more experience… you can see the dilemma.  A track record of success always rises above an untested candidate, and I don’t mean that listing experience on your resume is enough.  We’ll be contacting the references you provide from each of those experiential learning opportunities and asking about you, and their commentary will help frame our response to your application.  I’m very much in favor of
hiring new librarians, because there’s a joy and energy and enthusiasm that comes from new graduates that I think is extremely valuable for academic libraries.  However, it’s likely that we’ll end up hiring the graduate with interesting paraprofessional employment experience, internships, volunteer work, or other practical experience that complements their education.  So even if you’re working full-time in another field while you complete your graduate education, please, seek out some volunteer opportunities, or internships, or something that will get you into libraries doing practical work that you can then point to as you discuss why you are the very best candidate for my open position.  It will make a difference.

And, my PSA for today, I cannot but recommend that any graduate student read these two posts.  Do not shoot yourself in the foot! LIsten to us!  We want to help you succeed!
Dorothea Salo on looking for library jobs:
http://cavlec.yarinareth.net/2008/03/06/your-best-self/
Colleen Harris on whining about looking for library jobs:
http://guardienne.blogspot.com/2008/09/my-newlib-l-recent-post.html

7 thoughts on “Interview with an LIS class at SU

  1. Jocelyn Ozolins

    Jenica;

    Thank you very much.for your answers. There was a lot of great information there.

    Jocelyn Ozolins
    Syracuse MSLIS student

  2. Alice Bangs

    Jenica: Hi! I’m one of the students in the MSLIS program. How kind of you to take on such a role this week especially via traveling. Not only have I learned much from your responses I can hear your personality in your writing. Your super hero in training description is amusing and reminds me of a short YouTube video The Adventures of Super Librarian. Great outfit for Halloween! Glad to be introduced to your blog. Again, thanks for helping us!

    Alice Bangs
    SU MSLIS student

  3. Sara Edwards

    Jenica,
    Thank you so mcuh for answering our questions for our discussion this week. They were very informative. I love your blog.
    Sara

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