By Caputo, Anne
Information Outlook , Vol. 14, No. 2
After graduating from college and completing my student teaching requirements, I entered the world of my dream job--a high school social studies teacher. As with many dream jobs, the reality of teaching proved to be quite different from what I had envisioned. After two challenging years in the classroom, I discovered I loved teaching but not the school administrators, the administrative requirements (like hall and cafeteria duty), and nearly all of the parents of my students.
Casting around for my next ideal career, I thought about working in a museum, archive or specialized library. When I interviewed with Leslie Janke, the dean at San Jose State University's School of Library and Information Science, I was surprised to hear his admonition that although I would be accepted into the program, I should not count on jobs being available when I completed my degree. Remembering my earlier career mistake, I began working in the Science Department of the campus library, trying reference and collection development and classification skills on for size.
A few years later, I emerged with a newly minted library degree, only to discover that Dean Janke had been right--there were no jobs available in libraries in California at that time. So I took the advice of my advisor, the legendary Marty West, and conducted a practice interview with the Dialog Project at Lockheed Missiles & Space Corporation, down the road in Palo Alto.
My interview was an intimidating combination of driving through Stanford University picketers carrying "Merchants of Death" placards and walking into the research lab to see rooms full of disk drives and monitors, all on elevated floors to allow air conditioning systems to cool the space. After an hour-long interview during which I barely understood the concept of building an information retrieval system or using Boolean Logic or field searching, I left thinking I had at least practiced my interview techniques. Much to my surprise, I received a call-back for a second interview, and in another week or so I was offered the job.
That first job stretched into a 22-year career at Dialog; I'm now in my 13th year at Dow Jones. During my long career I've made use of many of the skills I learned while getting my MLIS at San Jose State, and I've found that I've needed many more skills than I acquired in my graduate school education.
Developing Skills Over Time
My first job at Dialog involved answering the new 1-800 telephone number used for customer service inquiries. In truth, the reason I was selected for this initial position lies in what I learned in my MLIS program and also in capabilities I learned earlier, in my teacher preparation courses and even in my high school debate training.
In many ways, customer service makes use of the reference skills that are so ubiquitous in library education. You have all the cues available from your client except those presented by body language. You need to know your content set, which is the equivalent of your collection. You need to employ all the reference interview techniques you learned in the classroom to understand and define the true question being asked. You need the interactive questioning capabilities that are so prized in good reference staff, and you need to know when the question cannot be answered using the tools and content you have at hand. Of the many capabilities I acquired in my MLIS program, reference skills were the first I employed and by far the most useful.
In addition to working in the customer service area, I also contributed to writing systems documentation and the customer newsletter and to testing and writing other user materials. …