What is it again that you do?

7 Mar

Question-MarkHave you ever noticed how if you’re thinking of something in particular, it begins appearing more often in your life? It happens all the time. If you’re thinking of some old song, it pops-up on the radio. If you’re thinking of a person you haven’t heard from in awhile, you get an email or a letter from them. And if you’ve been thinking about something related to your work – some general idea or a belief about how things go – all of the sudden, everyone is thinking of that idea; everyone believes this (or is actively arguing against it!).

One thing that I’ve noticed the profession of librarianship talk about and/or think about and/or explore over the past decade that I’ve been a librarian is our identity. My role now, as an informationist, is a direct example of this exploration. Informationists are another kind of librarian – another way that we’re doing our job. We try on different names a lot. It’s one strategy for trying to sell our skills and our value to others, oftentimes new groups and/or patrons. As such, we spend a lot of time explaining what we do.

I was in a meeting just this morning where I was asked directly, “So what is it that you’re doing, specifically, for the CER group?” I was asked a very similar question on Tuesday, while giving my lecture to the graduate class on Team Science. It also happened in a meeting last Thursday. It happened in a conversation I was having with a church member the other night. It happens at the supper table on a fairly regular basis. “What is it that you do again?”

I used to think that this was simply a side effect of being a librarian. It’s a profession with such a strong stereotype that whenever I’d share something about my day with someone, s/he would be taken a little aback. When I say, “I couldn’t check out a book to you if I had to,” people are aghast. I say that I do a lot of information and knowledge management, but that jargon (as I was reminded this morning) means little of nothing to most people. I’ve come to see, in my line of work, that what people really want to know is the answer to the question, “What do you do and how will it help me?”

But what I’ve also come to see in my new line of work that takes me out of the library and into the worlds of my patrons, is that my patrons also struggle a lot with answering that same question. Just the other day, I heard a researcher say, “Nobody knows what the hell I do!” And inside, I shouted to myself, “WE’RE NOT ALONE!!”

And it’s true. Do you really know – do your really understand – what your friends, family members, colleagues, or patrons do? As an aside, I always wondered what Ward Cleaver and Steven Douglas did when they went off to the office. My parents were teachers, so I knew what they did, but what the heck did people do in offices all day? I had no idea. Similarly, I can stand on the new sidewalk and look up at the new research building on my campus and wonder just what’s going on in those labs.

As an informationist and/or embedded librarian, one of the skills I’m learning to master is interviewing. Part of a good interview involves clearly explaining to the researchers what I do. This involves practice. I need to think about it (a lot), talk about it with others, make sure that I’m making sense to people both in and outside of my profession. A good interview also involves my being flexible. I need to turn the tables on the researchers and ask them, “What do YOU do?,” and then, as I listen to their answers, I need to be able to think critically and creatively about when and where and how I can insert my skills and expertise into their work. I need to really be able to answer the question, “Where do I fit here?” I’m getting better with this as I do it more, as I’m gaining practice on and off the field.

But the real nugget of new-found knowledge that I want to share here today is this… we’re not alone. The people that we’re trying to help, struggle as much as we do in explaining what they do to others. We can make that easier for them in the interview. I asked a cardiologist last week, “What is that?” while pointing to these two medical devices that he had framed on his wall, looking liked crossed sabers. And in explaining what they were, I learned a lot about what he does. Changing the tone of the conversation, making it more personable and comfortable and often times less formal, helps both parties involved understand one another better. I wrote a couple of  posts back about empathy. That’s what this is – putting one’s self maybe not so much in another’s shoes, but in the same room and on the same level. Being part of the team.

It’s been a big week out of the library. Teaching the Team Science class went really well. I found a couple of other good opportunities for collaboration. I’m exploring another possible grant-funded part on a research team that looks really promising. And by golly, yesterday I spent the last hour of my day figuring out the H-index for an author based upon a long list of his citations he sent me, i.e. some good old fashioned librarian work! It’s still winter and we’re wearing a bunch of hats!

 

6 Responses to “What is it again that you do?”

  1. nclairoux March 7, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

    Thanks for yet another thoughtful post. Indeed, empathy is at the core of interprofessional collaborations! Scientists are passionate about their research, and getting them to talk about it will eventually open many doors for library involvement.

  2. Stephanie F. March 7, 2013 at 3:36 pm #

    Another thought provoking post! I really enjoy these. Being new to librarianship and my position at the NN/LM NER, I struggle to answer this question. I’m getting better at it, but it is a tough one. People outside of the field start to glaze over as I try to explain what I do and they say, “well how do I check out books from the NLM?” I’ve gotten a one sentence summary down, but that doesn’t even begin to cover it and doesn’t really explain “what is it that I do.”

    I am learning, as you said, that we are not alone in this struggle. Knowing the right questions to ask and even asking the questions that pop into our heads due to our inquisitive nature, certainly help.

    • salgore March 7, 2013 at 7:39 pm #

      Thanks, Stephanie. It really does take practice and I’m finding that the more I ask other people and listen to their answers, the better it helps me answer, too. Keep at it! 🙂

  3. Amanda March 11, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    This is interesting to read as I recently wrote a piece about what we do as librarians and what would could do about the misconceptions: http://blacktabbylibrarian.blogspot.ca/2013/03/we-are-more-than-books.html

    • salgore March 11, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

      Thanks, Amanda. And everyone check out Amanda’s post, too. It’s a good one. We ARE so much more than who people think that we are.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A Week in the Life of a Research Informationist: Monday | Librarian in the City - March 11, 2013

    […] blog series, another research informationist, the lovely and talented Sally Gore, beat me to it by writing about it on her blog.   But hey, you can never have too many research informationists talking about their awesome […]

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