August 25, 2008

Transferable Skills Part 2: From Linguist to Librarian

In my former life I was a linguist, or at I least aspired to be. I wouldn't describe this as a complete waste of time (even though I hurried back to school to get my MLS after only two years on the job market with my MA in linguistics). Au contraire...studying syntax got me into programming, and programming got me interested in information science.

One of my favorite topics in linguistics, and the fastest way to explain the field to those who think it is the work of William Safire, is to describe the interplay between prescriptive and descriptive approaches to language use. In a nutshell, look up the word unique in the American Heritage dictionary and compare what you find there with the Oxford English Dictionary's entry for the same word. Not all dictionaries are created equal. Linguists can create a whole curriculum based on dictionary comparisons...but does the average person even know who wrote his or her dictionary?

The same can be said of search engines. People like to claim that their information came from an authoritative source, without knowing much about that authority. "Google said so" is not a far cry from "it says so in the dictionary." Get to know your sources. There is more than one way to write a dictionary and build a search algorithm and to the lay person these distinctions are often overlooked. There are ways of diplomatically explaining this and reaping the benefits of all sources. It starts by acknowledging that there is more than one place to go for information.

But it begs the question: is there truth, or is there only information? What do you think?

August 13, 2008

Guest Blogger Steve Jeffery: How Job Hunting is Different for the Non-Traditional Librarian

Steven Jeffery is an embedded subject specialist librarian at a state agency who is finishing his MLIS at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. His interests include information architecture/organization as well as web development.
As I was looking at signing up for my last three classes in the fall I decided to take a bold step and start looking for a full time job prior to graduating. I did this for two important reasons. The first was cost. As I calculated it I would be far better off financially to find a full time job and spread out my last few classes than to continue in grad school full time through the rest of the 2008 calendar year. The second reason was that I could. I was enrolled in a program that offered both on-site and on-line coursework, making the transition completely seamless. From there I had to decide what I was going to do. I am something of a self-taught IT generalist and I wanted to work in an environment where those skills would be utilized. Along with this I recognized that most library environments were not dynamic enough to hold my interest. Beyond this I was really not at all certain what I wanted to do or where I wanted to work.

My first step in my job hunt was to get advice from my professors and to work on my resume (which you can find if your Google-fu is strong). The immediate problem that I encountered in getting advice is that most professors in my program had been in academia for at least five years and few had any experience with non-traditional librarianship. This is not to say that they were not able to provide advice (and a couple of them were fantastic) but I had to disregard much of it as being not applicable in the corporate world. One example of this would be volunteer service. Public librarians in particular will emphasize the importance of having experience in a library setting. In the public environment this may be true, but in special libraries (and the corporate environment in particular) its value is much degraded. While doing this I was also trying to improve my resume. I recognized that most jobs I would be applying for would be at larger corporations and so I attempted to tailor my resume to this. The largest issue I ran into was that few people could fully understand my background. People in IT would ask where my programming skills and project management background were emphasized, because to many of them that is the extent of IT. Librarians would ask about my volunteer service and cataloging work. Those in business would read through it and not understand more than every few words (and miss the concepts entirely). I never did find a good solution to this, but I think the final result was acceptable. After this I began my job search.

Living in a major city at the time I used a number of different job boards. My list of these and comments are below:
  • Indeed – Probably the best as well as the easiest to use.

  • Monster – Overall it was pretty good but failed in many cases because the more entry-level/early career jobs tend not to be posted here (probably due to the cost of posting)

  • Milwaukee Jobs – Terrible sorting of results but was overwhelmingly the best for local jobs

  • CareerBuilder – I believe the only thing I ever got out of here was spam

  • Dice – Helpful but most of the jobs are heavily programming oriented

Once I had my list of sites I then conducted regular searches based on a keyword list (developed from my resume). I tried to do the searches twice a week, usually on Wednesday and Sundays. I would conduct the search for the keyword and open all of the jobs that were a possibility in a new tab. When I was done with the site I would quickly browse through every listing and print* all of those that were a strong possibility. Finally, I would thoroughly go through each and apply to those that I was interested in. This also helped when interviewing so that I could know exactly what had been communicated. In addition to this I kept a spreadsheet containing the company, job title, posting date, submission date, submission format, etc.

There are daily stories in the news about the state of the economy and the difficulty in finding jobs but from what I saw this is not true for this industry. Those businesses that recognize a need for these skills are unlikely to not hire for them because of an economic downturn. Once someone begins and demonstrates their success, their position is much more secure both because of the niche factor (nobody is available to cover for the position) and hopefully the outcry from other employees that depend on the position. The position which I eventually took was not in the corporate world but in a government library. This was for a number of reasons but the most important was the challenge. The position was as a subject specialist at a library where none had ever been in any kind of similar role. And while the pay is low by most standards the opportunities and the challenges make it worth it.

* I would keep printed copies of all job postings and correspondence as postings tend to disappear after a few days to weeks.

August 1, 2008

Librarian as Patriot

I am patriotic. I am liberal. I am anti-war. And in what I feel is in no way contradictory, and in every way a natural outgrowth of these traits, I am a librarian. Libraries and librarians are two of the most enduring manifestations of American values and the American dream: inclusion, opportunity, free enterprise, freedom of information, education, free speech. Some things in life are free. Be one of those.

Sixty-six years ago, in a letter to SLA president Laura Woodward, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt heralded the work of special librarians as being "on America's front line." We can be. Are you? An oft-quoted part of that letter says special librarians do their work "anonymously and unsung." While this is a fitting tribute to many, there is no reason the anonymity has to continue. Express your librarianship, and your patriotism, with pride.

To those who know me it comes as no surprise that in my library office I have a large American flag, on the North wall, to its own right, as specified in flag code. Not only am I a patriot, I am a patriot who is not afraid to show it, and not afraid of those who think the flag, particularly since 9-11, belongs to the right or to those who openly support the current war(s). I have flown my flag since long before it was commonplace, and I will continue to do so even when the contemporary yet precarious popularity of flying it fades.

FDR's tribute is as timely as it is timeless, even if it means different things to different people.

Access to a transcription of FDR's letter appears in "Selective Publication of Information" by John Sherrod, on page 387 of the 55th Anniversary issue of Special Libraries, July-August 1964, volume 55, number 6.