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A Diverse Universe: Working in the White Spaces

By Eileen Boswell
Local library hero Karen Huffman said something that changed my life. During a Fall 2007 presentation to my information systems class at the Catholic University of America, Karen commented that, “Special librarians work in the white spaces of the organizational chart.” The next day, during an interview with a small non-profit organization, I was asked, “And what do you think the role of a special librarian is in an organization such as ours?” Without missing a beat I replied, “Special librarians work in the white spaces of the organizational chart.” 
Judging by the reaction I got, I may have been the first applicant to deliver a concise answer to that question. I was offered the job, accepted, and immediately contacted Karen to ask, “Who said that?” She told me that Susan Fifer Canby, retired Director of Libraries & Information Services at National Geographic, would often urge library staff to “get into the white spaces.” I later found the reference in a commencement speech Susan gave at the University of Maryland, and in a 2004 Information Outlook article. It is the single bit of wisdom I needed to focus my work in an unstructured, choose-your-own-adventure library position.
While I do a bit of cataloging, some web development, and the occasional research project, my real work has been to get comfortable with a very broad concept of “user needs” and “librarian response.” Sometimes I walk around the office asking people what they are working on so I can plan my next foray into the white spaces. Recently a colleague was lamenting the fact that we never catch things like Distracted Driving Awareness Month (April) or Disability Awareness Month (October) before it’s too late, so I created an “Opportunities Calendar” for staff to share. Our white spaces have also allowed me to draw up a marketing timeline for a website re-launch, draft a Twitter style guide, notarize documents, and plan a national conference session on what census data means for rural transportation. In another organization, the white spaces would look very different, but this is where I am right now.
I loved the day when one of my coworkers needed my library skills to determine how many paratransit trips in Florida last year were rural. But just as satisfying was the day I taught someone how to find the R/G/B values on a project logo so we could reproduce it in web-safe colors. What do your users need?

Eileen Boswell works as Information Specialist at the Community Transportation Association of America. This summer she will be part of the Success Stories of Solos panel at SLA 2011.

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A Diverse Universe: Creating a Patent Reference Librarian Position with Intellogist

By Kristin Whitman

I came to a librarianship in a very backwards way.  I worked in patent searching, which is a small, niche industry where almost no one has an MLIS.   Patent searchers need advanced technical degrees and an understanding of patent law; most have master’s degrees in technical fields such as mechanical engineering and biochemistry, and some even have JDs or have passed the patent bar exam.  With all that necessary education, patent searching librarians are a rarity.
I was hired from within my patent searching company to write cParitical reviews about patent search systems, and to create comparison tables and reports to publish on our website.  I spent the next several years working steadily to product Intellogist (http://www.intellogist.com/), an online review site for that patent searching industry.  As you’ve probably already guessed, evaluating patent search tools requires the skills, background and knowledge of a librarian – and I had no idea!  I was deep in the weeds grappling with concepts like collection domain and scope, interface design, and controlled indexing before I finally realized that this was a degree I needed to have. 
From that point forward I felt that it would be almost irresponsible of me to continue doing my job without the proper training.  Location was a problem – there was no accredited library school in Virginia, and Catholic and Maryland would have presented too much of a commuting burden.  When I finally stumbled across my first fully online degree program, I was thrilled. The flexibility of asynchronous, fully online scheduling meant I could do my coursework whenever and wherever I needed.  I enrolled at Rutgers, and the faculty there has been a blessing in so many ways – the program is thriving, and everyone there is really dedicated to preparing the students to jump right into the real world of librarianship and get our hands dirty.  
Thanks to my education, I was able to provide the highest possible quality work on Intellogist.  In addition, people within the company started to see me as an unofficial reference resource, and come to me to discuss their search problems.  I already knew that I would love reference work from my past days in a customer service position: helping people gives me a natural high.  Because I was seeing a need within the company, I worked with my boss to design a new job for myself as a librarian.  We envisioned the rollout of a Landon IP Reference Desk, and worked for months to bring our idea to fruition.  I knew the company needed this kind of support, but my challenge was bringing the message to everyone else!  
When we finally rolled out our Reference Desk service, I immediately received over 170 reference requests in the first month.  We’re still going strong, and I am so proud and so happy to have created my dream job within the company by showing them what I can really do for them.  It seems to me to be an instance of librarians proving their value by addressing underlying information needs that no one else at an organization can see.  In my opinion, I would not have had the courage to do this had I not been involved in SLA since 2009, and heard the underlying message: show your employers what you can do.  Show them what librarianship can mean to them.  My very great thanks to all the SLA members who are making the organization a source of support and professional development.

Kristin Whitman is a new reference librarian and a co-creator of Intellogist.com.  She is currently in her last semester at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University.

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A Diverse Universe: Knowledge Management at the US Institute of Peace

By Gretchen Sauvey

When I started library school, I don’t think that I could have defined the phrase “knowledge management” without guessing wildly. Even now, having worked in knowledge management for several years, I still find it difficult to succinctly explain my job to people. At work I’m part database administrator, part tech support, part taxonomist, part researcher, and part teacher. It’s not quite what I envisioned when I started on this path, and certainly not the academic library reference desk job I fantasized about when applying to grad school.

Luckily for me, despite its non-traditional nature, my job still lets me do all of the things that made me excited to become a librarian in the first place:

  • Education – I teach technology training classes to Institute staff and create learning materials such as video tutorials and instructional guides.
  • Web design – I’ve spent many hours recently on creating mock-ups for a redesign of our intranet wiki’s main page and experimenting with new widgets and extensions to make our content more dynamic.
  • Information organization – A large part of my time is spent managing custom databases, a document management system, and internal taxonomies, all with the goal of helping staff find what they need when they need it.

I even get to do research, combing our own extensive projects database and commercial citation databases to track the Institute’s activities and impact. Best of all, I get to do all these things at the same time, which perfectly suits my jack-of-all-trades nature.

I can’t say that my job is perfect, because there are some demanding challenges. Unlike a more traditional library, where the world of information to be organized has some recognizable boundaries, in knowledge management the scope and focus of our work is constantly shifting. In addition, my department is often the public face of major technological changes for staff at the Institute, which can make us the least-liked people in the office some days. And we operate on a shoestring budget, with our own time frequently the only resource at our disposal.

Details aside, ultimately my role is to help my colleagues capture and share what they know so that the work of the Institute can be done more effectively. It’s the rare job that lets you literally advance world peace, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to do exactly that.

Gretchen Sauvey is a Knowledge Management Specialist at the United States Institute of Peace, an independent national institution established and funded by Congress. She also blogs at http://gretchens-world.blogspot.com.

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A Diverse Universe: Information Architecture at BNA

By Larry Lempert

It feels appropriate that images of the Egyptian revolution are swirling in the media as I sit down to write about working in publishing with a focus on information architecture. To be an IA in recent years has been to witness and participate in history in the making, with all the excitement, confusion, leaps forward, and pratfalls that can be expected in the midst of ferment. 
I have a job description that talks about creating content and user experience design for prototypes and emerging products. What I really have, though, is a mission to wave the flag of order and findability in the battle to create information services that professionals will pay good money for. The free Web with its massive amounts of “good enough” information has given my company’s niche—legal, tax, and regulatory publishing—a swift kick in the shins. We wrestle to figure out what makes for added value when so much is available for free. It’s a complicated question, but I’m convinced that order and findability are somewhere in the answer. 
An MLS from the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies (2006) didn’t get me the job I have now. I grew into the job after years on the strictly editorial side of the company, years that gave me experience in molding new products. But the MLS program, which offered a concentration in information architecture, was valuable in the way it firmed up the conceptual ground I was standing on. In a variety of special projects on cross-functional teams, I find myself calling all the time on the principles I learned about. Projects such as: 
  • Designing an efficient system to bring highly related content to the user’s attention when he or she is viewing a particular document. Some publishers’ sites rely on purely programmatic solutions, but we’re trying to add value with expert judgment.
  • Developing a methodology for flexible querying of specialized data sets to support charts built dynamically based on a user’s selection of criteria.
  • Adding taxonomy-based browsing and searching features on comprehensive legal practice area resource centers.
  • Exploring the potential for text analytics to provide advanced legal research tools.
The job offers variety, interaction with emerging technology, and problem-solving challenges to the nth degree. The biggest challenge for me, not an IT person by any stretch, is understanding the technology well enough to serve as an effective bridge between the real IT people and the business and editorial sides of the company.
On tough days I feel the curse of living in such interesting times. But there are good days when I feel the thrill of being present at the very dawn of a new age, doing my own bit, however small, to help manage the digital revolution.    
Larry Lempert is Director of Product Research and Planning at BNA, a publishing company in Crystal City, VA, specializing in legal, tax, and regulatory information services for professionals.

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