October 29, 2008

Knowledge Management in Real Time

Flying solo? No documentation from your predecessor? Wondering if this job is for you? I know how you feel and I know what you can do about it. As a very structured thinker in a very unstructured job, I have a choice to make: do I love this place enough to continue when it is such an agitating challenge to my intolerance for ambiguity? (If I'm honest with myself, how much ambiguity do I really want to tolerate?) Do I want to commit to this place and these people long enough to make a semblance of order out of seeming chaos? Wouldn't my organizational skills be put to better user if I were a cog in a wheel somewhere managing metadata or creating MARC records all day? These were the questions I started asking myself after six months flying solo, as my MLS neared completion, and as job after structured job flew by on every list-serve I belong to. I took this job to get "experience" in information management while I work toward my MLS. And if experience is really what you get when you don't get what you want, then I'm getting it.

I have worked for five organizations since graduating from college and there never seems to be enough structure for me. This is what drew me to library and information science: STRUCTURE! ORGANIZATION! STANDARDS! The thought of taking a course called Organization of Information made my mouth water. Shortly after I began my MLS, I left a job working on No Child Left Behind. To my surprise, I had several offers (evidently there was a dearth of library students with other master's degrees in the marketplace). I turned down a highly structured and predictable copyright job to come here because I had such a strong instinct that I would love the people here--and not love the other guys--and I was absolutely right. (In fact the "other guys" were even going to pay my tuition, but somehow weren't going to allow me to have a schedule flexible enough to take classes.) I *knew* this job would be unstructured and that I would not have a master librarian to learn from.

Six months later nothing had changed -- still very unstructured, still loved the people. My uncertainties about how to do my job could no longer be attributed to my newness. My feeling that I didn't know what I was doing was not subsiding, even as my library skills developed and I completed more of my core classes. The bottom line is that I knew I wouldn't be magically more qualified for this job once I graduate. So.....I re-interviewed for my job to make my decision all over again. That's right. I asked my boss for a 2-3 hour block of time one Friday afternoon and said he didn't have to prepare anything but I was just going to ask him some questions about my job. I felt like I really needed some non-evaluative feedback in advance of my annual performance review in December. The meeting got delayed a couple of times for more urgent matters but I was okay with that, as it gave me a few opportunities to fine-tune what I was going to say.

We went to a coffee shop and I launched into a series of hypotheticals that my boss willingly entertained. First hypothetical: I leave after completing a year in this job - would they replace me? (Start small and don't assume anything.) The answer, of course, was yes, so I then asked a series of questions about how they would publicize the position, whom they would recruit, and what skills/talents/personality they would be looking for in the ideal candidate. That line of thinking confirmed that I was probably the right person for this job, but I had to ask tougher questions to really get the most out of this exercise.

Next hypothetical: I agree to stay beyond the first give-it-a-year year but I say to my boss, "I don't feel this job is structured enough for me; what would you recommend that I do or think about to change this? What additional support or perspective should I seek from my coworkers? From the special library community? From the blogosphere?" This one got pretty interesting...leading down a road that I had sort of predicted but was glad to have confirmed: "This is the nature of the beast. This work is chaotic at best and no apt candidate would view it any differently."

Third hypothetical: I am the person interviewing for this job in the first scenario. So I asked a bunch of questions that I probably did ask in my interview last year, but which I could not possibly understand or act on in my first nine months here because I had no context. I asked things I would probably hesitate to ask in the office, not so much because I don't have AN answer, but to see what THE answer is -- do we have a print library? is it cataloged? what portion of the job is taken up managing the print collection? is there downtime in this job? what would I do during downtime? what is our work exactly? how do I answer specific phone inquiries? which staff members do I go to for specific reference inquiries? The third scenario led my boss and me from a set of hypotheticals to a useful knowledge management exercise. The "candidate" in the scenarios slowly became "I" when I was talking and "you" when my boss was talking. Over the next hour we generated a list of twelve subtopics to transportation that our firm works on, and then a list of the top three staff members to go to for each topic, which will come in handy when I am doing triage with reference requests. We also had a "safe place" conversation in which I could ask all my dumb (or perhaps just overdue) questions about how our non-profit interacts with our federal funders and how that relationship works. As we were approaching Hour 3 of this voluntary re-interview, I was beginning to see a clearer picture of my role within the organization, albeit a still very unstructured set of tasks. I was also starting to accept that even those who have been here twenty years have to make order out of chaos, but that it does get easier if you commit to this being your work and your workplace.

Near the end of our time together I asked some tough questions about how this job would develop my skills as a library and information professional and why I should stay here as opposed to finding another more "library-like" position. I was aware while saying this that if there were any DC/SLA members in Corner Bakery that day they would have shouted, "This is what it IS to be a special librarian! You're doing it!" My boss concurred with the voices in my head and I started to feel rather optimistic about moving forward, finishing out my first year, and then having some substantive things to say in my upcoming performance review about how I am doing and what I need in order to continue to be successful. [I have a not-so-secret plan to ask for two-thirds of whatever salary increase I am offered to be dedicated to professional development funding for me (pre-tax), rather than being allocated to me in my paycheck.] It was almost five o'clock, and it was Friday. I wanted closure, and I wanted to capitalize on this good conversation without pushing too far and taking more of my boss' time than I truly needed. So in the last five minutes I proposed an exercise: I asked my boss to list off, without thinking too hard, all the things I do in this job (concrete tasks) and I wrote this down to get a sense of how he sees my priorities and what I should be doing with my time. We were pretty much in line on that one, which was a good sign. Then I asked my boss, "And what tasks, if I commit to this organization, can I look forward to doing in a twenty-year career here, given the scope of our mission and organization, and taking into account staff turnover, legislative changes, etc.?" We generated a list that ranged from magazine writing to data analysis to public speaking and training to marketing and layout/design of publications, and more in-depth content work with transportation issues should I so choose.

I can't imagine advancing here, or even in (or I guess out of) my own head, without this valuable conversation, so I encourage everyone to try it.

October 16, 2008

Back to School Series Part II: Confluence

In an earlier post I waxed poetic about the ways in which my two courses this semester, The History of the Book (taught at the Library of Congress) and Foundations of Digital Libraries, might collide or coalesce in interesting ways. They have, although not in ways quite as obscure or dramatic as I may have imagined. In a very practical way, my expanding knowledge of these two subjects would be more than challenged by the good folks at the Semitics/ICOR Library at the Catholic University of America where papyri and ostraca are being digitized and cataloged in CONTENTdm.

The Catholic University inherited a large collection of ancient documents from Monsignor
Henri Hyvernat, who founded the Semitics Department at the University, as well as the Institute of Christian Oriental Research (ICOR). This collection forms the core of the current library, now boasting some 45,000 volumes. Scholars of Coptic Christianity and other early Christian practices in the Near East have used and added to this collection since the 1940s. Now this collection is being digitized.

In the basement of Mullen Library, down several halls and around several corners is the tiny Semitics Library. You would never know this treasure trove existed unless you were trying to find it, which my class was doing last week. Inside there are two small offices and a reading room filled with ancient treasures displayed in glass cabinets. To say it looks like something out of Indiana Jones would be spot on: Curator Monica Blanchard told us the Discovery Channel once filmed there for this very reason. Blanchard deftly handles the ostraca and papyri collection with soft white gloves as she explains the restoration and digitization process. The collections are being cataloged in CONTENTdm through a collaborative agreement with Brigham Young University, and their Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS) is made available online through Columbia University.

October 8, 2008

Tech Fair 2008: How to Get Users Excited about SEARCH

I am a proud member of my organization's technology team. In the past I have done trainings on Web 2.0 basics, advanced search strategy, and social bookmarking. I usually give out Google posters with search tips as prizes and incentives. Our team's upcoming training (which was supposed to be a "back to school" activity but will now have a Halloween theme) is a "Tech or Treat" afternoon with five tech stations and trainers throughout the office to help staff with various technology or research tips and strategies. Here is how we're planning it...

In late August, each member of the tech team decided on a specialty and then started keeping notes on FAQs about that topic among our 25 or so staff members, as well as popular shortcuts and tips. We will be covering web searching, Microsoft Office, preparing web-ready content, Blackberry troubleshooting (we do not have real phones), laptop tuneups and Constant Contact, our mass mailing software. 

Next, the tech team met to decide on a few key points to emphasize about each topic. In the coming weeks we will be doing informal "walk-around" surveys to ask staff what they feel their comfort level is (low, medium or high) with each topic, and we will use this information to group teams for the Tech Fair, which is now scheduled for October 28th. Luckily, we have the endorsement of the Executive Director, so we expect that all staff in town that day will attend. 

The event is scheduled for 2-5 PM. We will all meet together in our main conference room to kick off Tech Fair 2008 and introduce staff to our new tech wiki, which features links and FAQs for all equipment and software that we use. The staff will then split up into their pre-assigned teams and go station by station on the half hour. Each team will have to ask and answer key tech or search questions to compete for some final prizes, and we will have Halloween candy at each station.

By integrating search training into general tech training, and by having the librarian on the tech team, I feel that our office is growing toward being more savvy with information AND technology, and all of the various ways that they go together. It's an easy way to get people excited about search.

October 2, 2008

Reflections on the 2008 National Book Festival

On Saturday I attended the 2008 National Book Festival. Overall I found the Festival to be an event about inclusion more than reading, but with a good message that everyone should have access to books and authors, and anyone can write a book about anything. The most striking thing about this event is that it is the polar opposite of what some would think a literary festival would be. If one imagined the festival based on book stores, book reviews, book magazines, and people known to be bookish types, one might expect the Festival to have an air of affluence, scholarliness, seriousness, formality, entitlement, historical purpose and authority. (Read Heidi Julavits' March 2003 Believer piece as a case in point.)

Instead, the Festival seemed to me to be a big, muddy party on the Mall. It brought to mind Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem The New Colossus, of Ellis Island fame and now in the Statue of Liberty. As I was walking the Mall Saturday, I thought of Lazarus’ words, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" Instead of aloof, pensive, coffee-house intellectuals hanging on a writer’s every word, I felt I saw the diversity and breadth of American readers, and for that matter, American citizens. 

The Festival was casual, with people undaunted by three days’ mud on the walking paths. People ate during the presentations, stepped out of tents to take cell phone calls, or camped out in Harley Davidson T-shirts to get a glimpse of popular children’s authors. People got up to ask Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison questions without preparing their remarks or removing their hats or introducing themselves. I think this is great: the proximity, both literally and figuratively, that Americans have to great writers via the National Book Festival is generous and ingenious. ANYONE can ask a question of a U.S. Senator this way, or of Salman Rushdie. And when Daniel Schorr was asked about the role of the media in presidential politics by a less than nonpartisan attendee, the attendee was booed and yelled at from others in the audience screaming that he should ask his question and get out of the way. The Library of Congress organized the Festival, but the People were in charge. 

The Festival mirrored the same inclusion and acceptance that Lazarus spoke of, which I believe is the most treasured value of Americans. The fact that this value is manifest at a book festival was a bit surprising, but it makes me hopeful for the future of books and democracy in America—two freedoms that are inextricably linked.