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Interview a librarian about their career track

December 15, 2009

Interviewer: Michael M. - Library Science Student
Interviewee: Tim Siftar MS-MSIS - Reference Librarian for Education, Information Science & Technology (IST) at Drexel University's Hagerty Library
Date December 5th 2009

Michael's assignment: Interview a librarian to learn more about one career-track or specialty within the profession.

MM: Can you describe your role as an academic reference librarian for me?

TS: Every academic librarian role is a little different, depending on the institution. Sometimes the role I have is called a 'subject librarian.' Regardless of the title, my main responsibilities include the following:
a.) Reference
b.) Instruction
c.) Collection development (in 3 subject areas)
d.) Outreach & liaison (to three colleges within the University: the School of Education, the College of Information Science & Technology, (where I took my degrees) and the Goodwin College - Drexel's evening college).

Depending on the size of your institution, the academic librarian role may include additional roles or specialize in just one of these. I'll describe each of the areas individually.

Reference involves scheduled shifts on the Library's main reference desk where I handle walk-up traffic dealing with any time of question that may come along. That could include anything from showing a patron how to use the copier, to helping a student shape their research topic, and determine the best sources and strategies for searching. Clients from the colleges I support also email, schedule consultations or drop in to see me at my office. In addition, I help support the instant messaging 'virtual reference' service with hours during the day where I respond to questions that patrons type into IM screen embedded in our library's webpages.

Instruction involves getting up in front of students, anything from general orientations for freshmen in ENGLISH101, to highly specific instruction of PhD's on a single database or tool, or searching within a specific subject literature. Some of this occurs online via webinars for distance learning students, and occasionally gets archived for re-use later. Instruction also includes work to highlight our best resources via our pathfinder web pages or 'research guides.' I have a goal to create one for every degree concentration offered by the colleges I support, and they always need updating, so there's always something to do.

Collection development includes evaluating and purchasing to support our book or online collections within the subject specialties that I support. I act as the 'curator' of these subject collections, with a budget to spend each year to an extent that aligns roughly to the level of degrees Drexel awards. In other words, I spend more to build a deeper collection when we offer higher degrees in that area.

And last but not least, the outreach, or liaison role is what keeps the library in the eye of our user community, and also gathers feedback that we use to keep our services relevant. To a large degree this involves promoting new library resources and my own existence in the process.

MM: It sounds like social skills play a big role in your position?

TS: Most definitely. There are some roles in the library that are not 'customer facing' but reference is not one of them. It requires astute interpersonal skills to deal with patrons especially at the reference desk. The role also demands a measure of teamwork among colleagues to deliver consistent service. And it also takes a flair for reaching large audiences via various marketing channels to do the outreach.

MM: What did you do prior to this academic librarian position?

TS: I came on the job market after earning both the library science and the information systems masters degrees from Drexel's College of IST during the mid-1990's, just as the info-tech boom got started. My first few professional jobs were more about content, but in IT-oriented settings. None was inside a library per se, and included titles such as 'analyst,' 'project manager' and 'knowledge manager.'

MM: How did your previous corporate positions differ from your academic role?

TS:Well, the clientele and sorts of research certainly differed along with the service expectations. And the pace and work environment, communication and management styles differed between organizations as they always do. But the main difference was the depth of the projects I took on, and my employer's commitment to deepening my subject expertise. In corporate, the deadlines and evaluations all seemed to focus on the short term. In academia there's a long-term commitment to librarians developing a subject expertise that I just didn't see in the corporate sector. By the same token, Drexel University is on the corporate end of the spectrum of universities, as far as being a private institution and extremely entrepreneurial. Our organization is probably more fluid than many. But at least I'm assured that my role is valued and is not likely to be outsourced or redefined into a pigeon-hole that's far-removed from job I was initially hired to do. That's the one challenge with those 'information specialist' jobs that occur outside the library - you have to be more intentional at defining your professional identity and the value you deliver to your organization. That's not generally questioned in academia.

MM: How do you think the role of the academic reference librarian will change in the future?

TS: The trends I see all indicate that the future of the academic reference librarian will be characterized by a closer working relationship with faculty collaborating on learning objectives. I see this in any number of areas, from librarian consultations required on the course syllabus, IM services 'embedded' inside online course shells, to librarians grading the quality of the references in student research papers. At Drexel we're working with some newly added staff to deliver a menu of short instructional videos for faculty to use at the point of need when their students face specific research challenges. Having collaborative arrangements that get us closer to the core teaching mission of the university is really the best way for me to deliver value as a professional. It also assures that we don't become a generic commodity that can be just as easily replaced by a call center operator in Mumbai.

MM: Given the increasing prevalence of online tools, do you think there will come a day when librarians are no longer needed?

TS: I think just the opposite. Given the increasing prevalence of online tools ASSURES that librarians will always be needed. We increasingly act as curators, arbiters of what is good, orientation providers and advocates for users. There is a fair amount of behind-the-scenes work that still needs to take place.

MM: What advice would you have for someone in library school such as myself about preparing for a librarian position?

TS: I'd say 'embrace change' while still holding firm to the core identity that librarians have always had - service orientation, communication skills, staying close to the user needs.