Magazine article American Libraries

It's Never Too Late to Retool: An Uprooted Public Librarian Adjusts to a High-Tech Academic Environment

Magazine article American Libraries

It's Never Too Late to Retool: An Uprooted Public Librarian Adjusts to a High-Tech Academic Environment

Article excerpt

Much has been written about teaching information literacy to library users and about in-service training for library professionals and paraprofessionals, but little has been said about mid-career librarians who must retrain when moving from an environment with only basic technology to one that's technology-rich.


Following 27 years as a reference librarian at New Orleans Public Library (NOPL), I found myself relocated to Hammond, Louisiana, following Hurricane Katrina. This came as a complete surprise: I had expected to continue working at NOPL until retirement, after which I'd work part-time there. I was settled. I was comfortable. I enjoyed what I was doing and did it well. I had lots of friends among both staff and patrons. There was an easy predictability at work while I focused much of my attention on caring for an elderly parent and on raising a teenager at home.

After Katrina, I had the good fortune to be hired by Southeastern Louisiana University's Sims Memorial Library as a temporary, full-time, non--tenure-track reference librarian. The Southeastern community consists of about 15,000 students and 800 faculty. One of the priorities in the university's strategic plan, Vision 2010, is:

  "To enhance and effectively utilize a progressive technological
  infrastructure. Southeastern remains on the forefront of evolving
  technologies. Recognizing that advanced technology is an integral
  component of all academic and administrative activity,
  state-of-the-art information delivery systems and academic computing
  resources are available to all faculty, staff, and students. A
  contemporary, reliable, and consistent technological foundation is
  fundamental to the operations of Southeastern."

This was going to be a major change for me. At NOPL, phenomenal service is provided but on an extremely tight budget. Priorities are based on what the community and library board are requesting. There are always pressing needs to be met, and staff strive to do the best they can with what they have, including the in-house design and maintenance of an excellent website. However, even pre-Katrina, resources were limited. As the library's Master Plan: Speaking Volumes for the Future notes:

  The NOPL was under-resourced....In 2004, the Library's print
  holdings placed it below the 25th percentile in relation to its
  peer libraries in other cities. The number of volumes per
  capita--1.69 at the time--was below the lower quarter measure
  of 1.90, and well below the peer average of 2.80.... In 2004,
  NOPL's budget was approximately $18.45 per capita--placing it
  among the lowest of its peer libraries, at the 16th percentile.

In effect I was moving from an underfunded environment with some basic technology to a comparatively well-funded one with cutting-edge technology. In my job interview at Southeastern I was asked: "In relation to this position, which duties do you feel you are best prepared for, and for which duties might you require further training?" I remember trying to impress upon the interviewers that I was experienced in dealing with all kinds of patrons, and that I was accustomed to moving quickly from children to businesspeople to undereducated people and getting all of them what they need. Then I took a deep breath and had to admit that I had never done chat, text, or even e-mail reference, since these had not been available at NOPL. I tried to emphasize that I was eager to be trained in all of these.

Once I was hired, a major effort to retool ensued. First came mastery of the Sims Library website, including more than 100 databases on differing platforms, including EBSCOhost, ProQuest, Lexis-Nexis, and WilsonWeb. My previous experience had been with the public library module of EBSCOhost and before that with Gale. The database help screens proved to be invaluable: I learned by doing while I demonstrated search strategies for students. …

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