The last couple of months have marked several personal milestones. I've had my 25year anniversary of employment at Vanderbilt University, I will soon attend my 25th Computers in Libraries conference, and I've been involved with this column for slightly more than 10 years. The passing of these dates calls to mind some of the strategies I have found important to building a career focused on technology in the library profession. For others either considering a career in library technology or those already in the field thinking about their next steps, I will reflect on some of the phases of my own career and offer some thoughts on what I view as helpful strategies. While I write mostly in regard to building a tech-focused career in libraries, these ideas may also apply more generally.
Grow Through the Ranks
I've had the great opportunity to work with technology in libraries for 25 years. My official tenure with Vanderbilt University's Jean and Alexander Heard Library began on Feb. 5, 1985, preceded by an additional couple of years of service while in grad school. I've worked my way through the ranks of several positions and have had the chance to work with computing and automation from their very beginnings in our organization. Though my first assignment wasn't designed to be focused on technology, it coincided with the implementation of our first automation system, NOTIS. I had gained an affinity for technology through college and graduate school, making use of some of the earliest word processing systems and doing data manipulations and programming on mainframe computers using keypunch cards. As our library began its automation efforts, I quickly shifted to full-time responsibilities with technology, initially on the data networks, but eventually to all aspects of our systems.
The various positions I've held at Vanderbilt have given me incredible opportunities for hands-on experience working with and building a variety of different library applications and thinking strategically about the role of technology in a large university library. I find that at least some ongoing involvement in programming, systems administration, and other technical work helps maintain skills and makes sure that my strategic thinking about technology remains connected with the practical. To this day, I enjoy developing software as much as I do writing documents about strategic technology. Being engaged in a variety of different activities not only makes my work more interesting but also helps keep sharp the skills that I use in maintaining my own websites and other projects.
It's important to work toward a position that lines up with your own areas of strength. Of course, we must all perform the duties we were hired to do, but in most cases library positions offer some flexibility to shape these duties, at least to a certain extent, according to personal interests and talents. An ongoing dialogue with your managers should help in adding and subtracting activities over time that will both improve service to the library and better match your professional interests.
Discover a Niche
One of the strategies that I think is most helpful in professional development involves finding a specialty and mastering that area to its fullest extent. It's essential to not only have a broad perspective and be well-informed on a wide range of topics within the profession but also develop deep expertise and experience within a specific area. Over time, you can develop into one in the pool of experts in that area whom others in your own institution and beyond will respect and rely on. Given enough effort and luck, it's possible to grow into being one of the nationally recognized experts within that niche.
I've gone through a few niches so far over the course of my career. The first involved OCLC connectivity. The original model of performing cataloging with OCLC involved having a relatively small number of terminals and having catalogers or their support staff schedule time on them. We wanted a workflow that provided access to OCLC all the time for almost everyone in our technical services unit, but the expense of providing that many terminals would have been prohibitive. I was able to figure out ways to share OCLC sessions on our network and other tricks that were needed. OCLC ultimately went on to offer networked access to its services, eliminating the need for the special workarounds we developed. My next phase involved the development of CD-ROM networks. That was another special interest that ultimately faded as publishers moved from delivery of their products on CDROM to access via the web. For the last decade I have focused on a slightly more general topic - the library automation industry, including products, companies, and business trends. This niche has proved to be fairly expansive and quite challenging to stay on top of, but it has returned generous opportunities.
I don't mean to dwell on the areas of specialization that I have found, or that have found me, but to emphasize the need to be flexible and evolve with the times. In the realm of technology, any given corner of the field can either become so commonplace that it's no longer a real specialty, or it can become obsolete or irrelevant. Keep your eyes on the path ahead and know when it's time to take a new turn. But most of all, find an area that sparks your interest and passion.
Cultivate a Broad Perspective
I'm probably in the minority as a library professional who has spent an entire career at a single institution. More often, a career steps up through positions at different institutions with increasing levels of responsibility. Staying at one place for an entire career can lead to a narrow perspective, both organizationally and technologically. Those whose careers step through multiple libraries have the chance to see different organizational models and often get the opportunity to work with different automation platforms. For those of us who stay put in one place, it's important to find other avenues to gain experience in the broader sphere of the profession.
My perspective has been greatly expanded through my interactions with many other libraries via my consulting, speaking, and traveling. I'm especially fortunate to have had the chance to see firsthand some of the issues facing other libraries, libraries ranging from some of the largest and most prestigious in the world to some in the poorest parts of the planet. While it's a challenge to find the time for it all, the chance to experience such a wide variety of library settings has been incredibly valuable and has helped me develop a broader perspective.
So whether it's through a stairstepped career in multiple institutions or through other means, find ways to experience how different organizations work. Knowing about different organizational structures, management styles, technology platforms, and the like will give you a broader palette to draw from as you work through any given problem or issue.
Develop a Professional Network
Conferences and professional meetings provide important opportunities not only to gain information but also to plug into networks of colleagues who share common interests and problems. These professional networks provide some of the best channels for learning new information, but they also bring in an important human dimension. I cherish all the friendships and professional acquaintances that I have developed over the years. While social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedln certainly play a similar role in establishing and maintaining these kinds of contacts virtually, they are not a substitute for having the chance to meet and talk in person with colleagues from other libraries.
By the time this column goes to print, 111 have attended my 25th Computers in Libraries conference. I'm one of the few who have attended this annual conference every year. This conference launched at about the same time as my library career, and it has evolved in tandem with the major trends relevant to its scope. The content of the conference has aligned nicely with my professional interests, sustaining my motivation to return every year. Barring unforeseen changes, I plan to keep this conference on my circuit.
When choosing among professional conferences, it's a trade-off between the continuity of regularly attending a given annual event and the variety of selecting different options each year. While I obviously gravitate toward continuity, I also appreciate the other professional meetings in which I get the chance to participate.
Create Outlets of Expression
I view professional development as a two-way channel. It involves both opportunities to gain information and experience and opportunities to share the resulting knowledge with the broader community. Some professional positions, especially those on an academic track, have requirements to publish in scholarly publications. But even for those positions that don't formally require it, I think that it's beneficial to find a way to contribute to the profession through some form of outward expression. These days there are so many opportunities including and beyond the scholarly and professional press. Blogs, podcasts, videocasts, and Twitter streams can also provide creative ways to convey your ideas and knowledge to colleagues in the profession. I've been fortunate to have a number of opportunities fall my way, and I appreciate each opportunity to share any information or insight that I've gained with anyone who cares to read or listen.
My first Systems Librarian column appeared in the January 1990 issue of Information Today. In 2003 the column shifted from Information Today to its current home in Computers in Libraries. Across this decade I've covered a wide variety of topics within my areas of interest and expertise. I aim to strike a balance between talking about specific projects with some practical utility and sharing higher-level ideas that might help libraries shape their strategic directions in technology. One of my main interests involves the emerging trends in the technology products developed for libraries, and I often write about their rise and fall, as well as the organizations involved in producing them. I hope these columns have provided readers with helpful information and invitations to explore new ways of using technology to better support the mission of their libraries.
Of course I'm biased, but I think that one of the most interesting career paths follows the intersection of libraries and technology. I believe both in the important contributions that libraries make to society and in using technology in the best way possible to support their significant work. Such a career can be formed in many different ways. The traditional route has been the systems librarian with a graduate degree in library science (or equivalent) with a specialization in technology and automation gained either academically or through subsequent job experiences. Regardless of how you came into your position, finding ways to grow and contribute professionally should make your work life more rewarding, help your own institution, and benefit the broader community.