Tim the Toolman

September 28, 2011

We Wear Many Hats

I wasn’t a faithful follower of the television show, “Home Improvement”, but I caught enough episodes of it over the years to know that Tim (the Toolman) was the face of the show-within-a-show, Tool Time, while Al, his sidekick, was the individual who actually knew how to use the tools they talked about. While Tim was skilled in talk and sales, Al was skilled in carpentry or plumbing or electrical work or whatever the topic and/or tool of the show was. Tim though, with his access to the tools, liked to believe he was also skilled in them. The fact that he didn’t actually have the foggiest notion of how to operate the gazillion watt drill made, of course, for pretty funny physical comedy and sight gags.

I know everyone is guilty of being Tim the Toolman at some time or another. I once purchased a Kitchen Aid stand mixer and a Julia Child cookbook on baking that told me there are really only like eight different doughs one needs to master in order to be a great baker. I had the instructions and I had the tool. What more did I need? Suffice it to say, I was frustrated before getting half-way through my very first attempt at the flaky dough recipe. I swore and cried and gave up. Thank goodness my partner, Lynn, is a very good cook and thus our pricey stand mixer has hardly gone to waste.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Tim the Toolman lately. Well, maybe not literally, but figuratively. I thought of him yesterday as I sat in a meeting at work and we discussed the publication of our new eJournal. I’m really excited about this and had really been the one lobbying and hoping for us to take on such a task for some time. As we talked about the review process for articles and the subsequent editing that would follow, we started to raise some questions and state some facts that reminded me of something I heard from one of the publishers at a conference on library publishing that I attended last spring. I cannot quote the person verbatim, but his sentiment was this… just because you have a lot of exposure to something, it doesn’t make you an expert in it. In other words, just because librarians know a lot about the publishing business from our purview as librarians, this does not make us publishers. Just because we have a tool that allows us to publish electronic journals, it’s important to remember that we don’t necessarily know how.

Libraries and/or librarians are hardly alone in this behavior, though. In many ways, it’s a behavior born of survival. There ARE things that we need to do in our profession to keep it relevant and we don’t necessarily have the time, effort or money to learn everything we need to know to accomplish them. Likewise, it’s quite frightening to come to grips with the notion that what we do know professionally is no longer what we need to know for the future. Do we change library school curricula or do we change the library, i.e. the make-up of the professional staff who work there? It’s not an easy question to answer, yet for librarians in particular, I believe it’s one we need to address. Here’s why…

I know of few, if any, other professions that get SO offended when people assume that they know how to do our work. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear a colleague say and/or see a colleague post online how frustrated they are that students think they know how to search for information better than librarians do. We go so far, in health science librarianship, to call ourselves “expert searchers”, meaning we really  know how to search PubMed. We know it! Those 1st year med students do not know what they’re talking about. They search everything like it’s Google. Google… the bane of every librarians existence.  The tool that started this entire wave of false thinking. Google… the tool that searches the internetz. And once everyone had the tool, everyone knew how search. Curse you, Google!

THIS is why I believe that librarians, the defenders of good searching and quality information seeking behavior, need to stop assuming that we know how to do other things simply because we have the tools, too. It is offensive to those who really do know what they are doing.

Lynn worked for many years as a graphic designer for a number of different commercial printers. She started this kind of work in a day when artists spent about a week drawing, by hand, a barcode. They had to draw it on a much exaggerated scale and to very, very precise measurements to that it would work when shrunk to the normal size. She did layouts for magazines and brochures and newsletters long before things like Microsoft Publisher or Adobe InDesign existed, or at least were made affordable to the general public. She was a professional designer and deserved to be paid in accordance with the her degree of skill and professionalism. Over time though, as PCs made their way to everyone’s desktops and, much like Google, Microsoft took over the arena for office productivity tools, her skill was slowly pushed aside. People came to the printer with their business cards ready to be printed. They came with their church newsletters nicely formatted in a Word Perfect file. It didn’t matter if the individual used six different fonts or colors that would never print the same as the monitor screen displayed them. It didn’t matter that pictures were blurry, their resolution all messed up. It didn’t matter if there were typos. All that mattered is that people had the tool, and thus they believed they had the skill to use it. And as business owners most often HAVE to be concerned more about the bottom line of profit, sometimes at the expense of the quality of the ultimate output, they are more than happy to save the money of paying a designer anymore. (And the same difficult decisions face library directors, school board administrators, town council members, and representatives in Congress.)

Blogs allow us to write to an audience about politics or sports. Bingo! I’m a journalist. Doodling software lets us draw cartoons. Ta da! I’m a cartoonist. I can buy software or go to a website to create a will and just like that, I’m doing the work of an estate lawyer. I know all about accounting because I use TurboTax. I know all about managing a football team because I’m in a fantasy league.

Hopefully, you see the point. This kind of thinking and behavior is hardly confined to the world of libraries and librarians, but as we are so in tune to it and so negatively affected by it, I would like to hope that we, as a group, can stop partaking in it. As a librarian, I want to stop offending my friends who have spent years becoming expert educators by thinking that just because I’m charged to teach a class, I automatically know what I’m doing (something that I wish the vast majority of people in higher education would admit, too). I want to stop offending my artist friends that because I can put together a subject guide using LibGuides, that I’m a website designer. And I want to put aside any notion whatsoever that just because I can read and write, that I can, by default, edit. I cannot.

In the same way, of course, I hope others will stop doing the same to me and others in my profession. We do actually have a sophisticated skill set – admittedly, a skill set that I believe needs to be revamped and expanded, but a skill set all the same.

  • Dear young student or experienced doctor, please realize that we DO truly know a thing or two about how to navigate and best use the tools that we have spent time and effort honing our skills toward. We know how and what needs to be done so that information can be better found and better accessed.
  • Dear researcher, I have personally spent 5+ years following the issue of NIH funding and public access to published literature. I guarantee you that I know the subject better than you. Let me help you. Let me do what I do best and I promise to let you do the same.

There are so many different hats to wear, but we all have only one head. True, some people ARE really good at wearing multiple hats. Some people ARE skilled in multiple areas. When this is the case, we’re all the better for working with such folks, but when it’s not – and most often, we’re not – it’s much more productive to learn to work together with others who do know what we don’t. It’s a sign of respect, not to mention a much better way to achieve success.

(These thoughts arose over lunchtime after seeing a post from a Library Director that I know who posed the question on her Facebook page, “How do you imagine the health sciences library of the future?” This is my answer. It’s a place of mixed skills and talent, not just librarians.)

What’s in a Name?

September 6, 2011

A few weeks back, a very nice librarian from a large university in the Midwest came to speak to a group of us in my own library who are involved in eScience. For the sake of the reader, I’ll spare the details of what eScience is and what libraries/librarians are doing in this field. Besides, it’s not necessary in order to understand the point of this post.

This very nice librarian gave a very nice presentation about some of the projects being undertaken at his library. Good stuff, interesting projects, new and relevant things, and a lot of takeaways for work we’re doing in my library. But I got stuck on the slide where he outlined the staff working on said stuff, including himself. His job title: Research Data Scientist.

And so here is my point: A research librarian is not a research scientist, even if s/he stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night.

Calling one’s self something isn’t all that it takes to make it so. I know there’s a tendency within our media culture to repeat things over and over and over again, believing that such insidious repetition will in fact give the thing credence, but really all it does is give one a headache. And a deep desire to tune out.

So I asked the very nice librarian why his job title is “Research Data Scientist” instead of the more appropriate, “Research Data Librarian”. He referenced a text on the subject of scientific data management where the term “Research Data Scientist” was used and said that there was agreement among his library’s administration that the role described in the book for this position was exactly what librarians do, i.e. “We add value to the data.”

All well and good, and most importantly, true, but my unvoiced follow-up question is this:

If what a research data scientist does is exactly what a librarian does, then why not simply call the position research data librarian? Why is “scientist” chosen over “librarian”? The consensus wasn’t “That’s exactly what scientists do,” but “That’s exactly what librarians do.”

A parallel thought came to me over the weekend as I saw numerous ads in a magazine offering certification in becoming a Celebrant. In case you’re unfamiliar, per the Celebrant Institute, “Celebrants are people in your community who are trained to officiate at, compose and perform the highest quality personalized ceremonies for couples, individuals and organizations.” In a former career, I officiated and performed very personal ceremonies for any number of occasions from weddings to funerals to commitment ceremonies to Gay Pride events. You know what I was called?

A minister.

So is there some relationship between librarians and ministers, something that makes it so that when people decide they want to do whole or part of these vocations, they feel the need to call themselves something else? Have we done something to offend, we librarians and ministers? Are they so out of date and out of touch that we just don’t want to be associated with such labels anymore?

I don’t know, but I do wonder.

Practice Makes Perfect Permanence

July 13, 2011

Two sayings, each with truth:

  • “Practice makes perfect.”
  • “Practice makes permanent.”

The first is familiar to most. We’ve heard it often. Anyone subjected to insert musical instrument lessons knows the answer to the question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice, practice, practice. The second, interestingly enough, I learned from a musical instrument instructor, a mandolin teacher I had once. His point – practice the wrong things, the wrong way, and you’ll end up permanently doing things wrong.

The common denominator of both sayings though, obviously, is that in order to get really good at anything (correctly or not) is to practice. A lot. Lots of people are richly talented. They come out of the womb with innate abilities to do things – draw, write, make music, understand quantum physics. We often see them perform or see the results of their talent and think to ourselves, “I could never do that.” There’s surely some truth to that saying, too. Sometimes. Talent is a gift to be thankful for and some are blessed with more of it than others. Still, I think sometimes we sell both ourselves and those talented people short in that we forget to recognize the really important role that practice plays in bringing out the full richness of one’s talent(s).

This morning, before getting out of bed, I finished Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle. I’ll not comment on the book here except to say it is, all at once, incredible and unbelievable, hopeful and infuriating. It’s definitely worth reading. But what I thought about as I closed the cover, got dressed, and took Zeb for his morning walk, was how Jeannette Walls became such a good writer. She had a story to tell, for sure, but she tells it well because she’s a good writer and she became a good writer by first reading and then writing. A lot.

As a child, she (as well as her parents and siblings) devoured books. She read and read and read. She describes fond memories of her family sitting together in the living room of some shack they occupied at the time, all reading together. They didn’t watch TV together – in part because they had no television, let alone any electricity to run one – but instead sat together, each in their own world of whatever story they were reading at the time. And she loved this.

As she entered high school, she started working on the school paper. She started editing and typesetting. She started writing. She wrote about everything. Hardly any other students wanted to work on the paper and so she wrote the stories of football games, class events and school board decisions. She left West Virginia as a teenager to join her older sister in New York City and soon found a job writing for a weekly paper there. She wrote and wrote and wrote, as she had read and read and read, and in doing so the talent that she discovered at 13 or so, developed and ultimately became her livelihood and her career. She is a writer.

The same story line can be traced for practically anyone who has become really good at what they do. How many millions of hours has your favorite musician practiced? What artist is ever found without a sketchbook in his or her bag? The Dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences where I work always has a nice black Moleskin notebook with him whenever I see him (I have a thing for journals and take note when I see one), as do others I know who think a lot, ask questions a lot, and try to solve problems a lot.

Scientists do a thousand experiments that go wrong before they experience the “Aha!” moment. Julia Child likely went through skeins of twine before she could tie that chicken up just right. Really good baseball players “only” hit .300 and no one’s come close to a .400 season in a long, long time now. That’s a lot of strikeouts and a lot of ground balls and a lot of pop ups in between the singles and the homeruns.

I may never write as well as Annie Dillard, play the mandolin like Chris Thile, run a marathon as fast as Joan Benoit Samuelson, or even be a library director like Jean Shipman – all people I admire for how they do what they do. But to say one will never be something without putting in the practice is much different than saying so while at the same time, showing up every day and working hard at what you enjoy and want to do.

So now I’ll head to work in the library where I’ve an article to finish, knowing that I’ve primed my writing brain by taking some time this morning for reading and writing. I’ll draw some pictures during lunch. I’ll slog through another slow, slow pace as I put in the miles training for the Chicago Marathon this fall. And then I’ll watch the recap of today’s Tour de France stage while I practice over and over that little riff Howie showed me on my mandolin. And it’ll be a good day.

Here’s hoping you have the same.