Iterations on a Profession

6 Apr

PencilsI’m currently taking a 4-week course, Fundamentals of Graphic Design, via the online learning platform, Coursera. In pulling together the content for the Data Visualization course that I’m developing for a local college, I realized that I need to include a crash course, i.e. one week in the basics of design, thus I thought taking this online course would give me some ideas for how to cover the topic myself. Plus, I could learn some things and improve my own skills. The first week we covered the image and the assignment was to create at least 10 iterations on an everyday, common object. You can see here my takes on a pencil.

Creating these images reminded me of my professional journey and in particular some of the struggles I’ve been feeling of late regarding where I fit in professionally. Since I started my career in librarianship, I’ve belonged to several related professional organizations – the Medical Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, the American Library Association, the Special Libraries Association, plus regional chapters and state organizations associated with each of these. I’ve tried different groups at different times, looking for the best fit as my work changed. Among these, the one organization that I’ve invested the most time and effort (and felt the most a part of) for the past dozen years has been the Medical Library Association. It makes since, since I worked the first decade of my career in an academic medical library (and even today still work at the same medical school). Regardless of how many times that my job title and/or role changed within the Library, I still worked in a medical library and thus, MLA worked for me.

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about being a member of MLA is attending the annual meeting. It’s where I get to see so many of my friends and colleagues, where I’m always renewed and energized by the sessions and speakers and topics, where I get to share some of my own work with colleagues, and where I remember where I belong professionally. It’s such a highlight of my professional life.

Last week, I withdrew my accepted posters from this year’s meeting and accepted the decision that I’d not be attending MLA 2016 in Toronto. I’d be lying if I didn’t say how sad the choice makes me. But it’s the choice that I had to make. As I looked through the content of the meeting this year, there simply wasn’t enough related to the work that I do as an evaluator for the UMCCTS. There aren’t any sessions devoted to librarians working with and/or as part of their CTSA offices. There aren’t enough talks about measuring research impact and evaluating programs (outside of evaluating library programs). Given that I’d be paying to travel and attend out of my own pocket, and knowing without enough related content offered I’d have to take personal vacation time to attend, I just couldn’t justify the expenses. And it makes me really sad.

Since I left the physical library to use all of the very same skills that I possess as a librarian, it’s become harder and harder to face the fact (or is it “harder and harder to ignore the fact”?) that most folks, even many I consider colleagues, don’t think of me as a librarian anymore. What makes it all the more difficult is my “new” professional home, the American Evaluation Association, hardly feels like home either. Despite the fact that our skill sets overlap in so many areas, despite the fact that I got the job I have today because I have the skill set of a librarian, it seems like evaluators are evaluators and librarians are librarians, and a librarian who happens be an evaluator is an odd duck, alone in the pond. 

I don’t wish to turn this post into a pity party. I enjoy what I do, I’m very proud to be a librarian, and I know that despite the inability (or at least difficulty) of our professional pigeon holes to expand, those of us willing to seek out new and different opportunities will find them. It’s not always easy, but it’s okay. Yes, I’m sad about the particulars of this year’s MLA annual meeting and I’m grieving a little, knowing I’ll not be having fun with friends in Toronto, but more than anything, the situation has caused me to think a great deal about the benefits, the purpose, and the future of our professional organizations. Why do we have them? What do they provide? Why do we belong? I’ve been part of executive boards of these very groups, asking these very questions for awhile. It isn’t new, but it did hit me differently this go ’round.

The instructor for my graphic design course said that when you do iterations, you need to push the boundaries; work with the image until you get right up to the point where it falls apart – where it no longer resembles the object you started with. I’ve been thinking a good bit if that’s not the perfect metaphor for my professional journey as a librarian. I’ve pushed many boundaries of the profession and now I wonder if I’ve pushed to the point that the image of me as a librarian has fallen apart.

7 Responses to “Iterations on a Profession”

  1. Beti Horvath April 6, 2016 at 11:27 am #

    Wow, does this hit home. My career has gone in a very different direction, but similarly has morphed into something almost unrecognizable. From a degree in Theater Education, then a Master’s in Library Science, I started out as the hospital librarian in a Psychiatric Center, working part-time with patients, and a majority of the time ministering to the information needs of staff members. Somewhere along the line, I was given more responsibility for the Patients’ information needs, the Staff Library ceased to exist, and I am now embarking on a new phase of this job as a clinician, using my arts and communications background to run groups.

  2. Margo Coletti April 6, 2016 at 11:38 am #

    This boundary pushing is exactly what we were looking at when the original MLA Futures Task Force met 2 years ago. Our original idea was to expand our membership to create a “professional home” for information professionals of all stripes – and to name the “Domains” of our organization so that everyone would find at least one “room” to hang out. Research was to be one of 6 domains (Clinical Care, Research, Education, Bioinformatics, Public Health, and Consumer Health). Research would include a wide range of research activities in which we find ourselves working. The domains were to be used to drive programming in the organization. (Many people on the task force thought that in order to expand our focus we would have to change the name of the organization as well. Most information professionals, working in, say, a medical school – but without an MLS – would probably not join an organization with “library” in the name.) In any case, the “domain” idea did not go anywhere, unfortunately. I think it would have helped us to redefine our organization and expand our “professional home.”

  3. Kate Thornhill April 6, 2016 at 12:01 pm #

    Sally, thank you so much for writing this thoughtful post. It makes me feel less alone as I really start the deep dive into figuring out what kind of librarian, archivist, curator, project manager, or whatever I need to be for academic libraries wanting to develop programming around repository services. I’m struggling finding my professional identity via library organizations. I feel that putting all my eggs in one professional organization basket will pigeon hold me. I realized quickly it’s going to be a long road trying to find cross pollination communities. Keep strong and going sistah! Keep the PMA (positive mental attitude) up! You are awesome.

  4. Patricia Carroll-Mathes April 6, 2016 at 12:04 pm #

    A well wrought and well thought post!

    While I retired finally at 72, my library based professional career too evolved and morphed over the years into a form barely recognizable from the beginning…..I too found the MLA a comfortable and challenging professional home and letting go was hard to do. The pace of change eventually became too much…good luck to you as you continue to reinvent yourself and find your way…..professional boundaries blur but organizations are slow to change.

    Patricia Carroll-Mathes Sent from my iPad


  5. Barbara April 6, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

    I love your blog. How true it is, that we push until it ALMOST falls apart…the fear is real of failure in not pushing overmuch. Keep going!

  6. T Scott Plutchak April 6, 2016 at 7:53 pm #

    A year and a half ago I moved from being the director of the library I’d led for 19 years into a newly created position in the Provost’s office focused on developing institutional strategies for research data management. The shift in perspective has been fascinating. Now that I’m no longer working in the library, it’s easier for me to see things from an institutional perspective. At the same time, because I am a librarian, I bring a particular set of skills & knowledge to my work that I think makes me particularly effective. Although I’m no longer working in a library, I feel just as strongly as ever that a librarian is what I am and that it’s out of that background that I can be most useful.

    Another spin on it — I just got back from the annual editorial board meeting of The BMJ in London. I’m the only librarian in the group — the rest are a very distinguished group of clinicians, researchers and health professionals (mostly M.D.s) from around the world. That I don’t any longer work in a library is irrelevant to them — my contributions are valued because I bring a vital perspective that none of them have. It’s that I am a librarian that matters.

    Final example (and probably a major part of the reason I feel so strongly that how we define ourselves professionally should not be determined by where we work) — my wife, Lynn, started out as an academic medical librarian and then, in ’91 (or thereabouts) went to Ebsco in the role that eventually was labelled Director of the Biomedical Division. But for all of that time she was adamant that she remained a librarian first and foremost even though she didn’t work in a library and only rarely did her daily work tasks resemble the tasks she performed when she was working in a library.

    I won’t be going to MLA this year either. In my case it’s because of a family conflict but, truth be told, there’s not a huge amount of meeting content that’s relevant to me either. But that’s okay — I don’t expect MLA to be all things to all of its members. We’re a very diverse group with lots of different needs and I think the annual meeting generally does a good job of trying to address many of those.

    I’m nearing the end of my career. (When people ask when I’m retiring I say that I think it’ll be somewhere between one year and five from now, depending on how long I’m still having fun). I don’t expect to ever be working in a library again (although, who knows?), but my identity as a librarian is, and will be, as strong as ever.

    All of which is to address your last line and to suggest that the image of you as a librarian isn’t falling apart, it’s just becoming richer and more vibrant than you imagined it could be.

    • salgore April 6, 2016 at 9:10 pm #

      Thanks so much, Scott, for these thoughts. Your such an important figure in our profession and professional organization. I appreciate you sharing. Truly. SG

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