Advice from a Texan Yankee in McGill’s Library Court

By Justin Soles

When you enter Dr. Colleen Cook’s office, you are struck by a sense of order. Not the hurried “I’ve-got-someone-outside-the-door-my-place-is-a-mess-and-I-need-to-cleanup” order, nor the anal-retentive order imposed by someone who ensures that their desk materials are separated by a maximum tolerance of 0.5mm. No, the unhurried order evident in Dr. Cook’s office is more subtle and belies her organized mind and her long experience in keeping things organized – which is exactly what you would expect from McGill’s newest Trenholme Dean of Libraries.

However, after talking to Dr. Cook for a few minutes, you might be surprised just how totally at home this transplanted Texan seems here in Montreal, especially considering the majority of her 30 years of experience were spent at one of her alma-maters, Texas A&M University. And the more you talk to her, the more you see that this familiarity is born from a deep wellspring of experience that we fledgling librarians, archivists and knowledge managers can all benefit from.

It was the exciting prospect of drawing on this experience that lead me to meet Dr. Cook to discuss her life and career, as well as to get some advice for those of us thinking about possible careers in our field. Dr. Cook was very generous in sharing with me some of her stories, experiences and thoughts, which I’ve distilled into the following five points. Although Dr. Cook cautioned me that her experience and advice was generally limited to academic libraries (and large university libraries, at that), there is something all of us can relate to and take away from Dr. Cook’s observations and experience.

1. Be Prepared to Move Around

Though Dr. Cook advised that “I would never recommend anyone follow my career path”, her first piece of advice was that you should be prepared to move around, both in terms of moving between different libraries/archives/information centers, as well as moving around within an organization. She explained that this type of experience allows you to see how things are done elsewhere so you can get ideas and see what works and what doesn’t in practice.

For example, Dr. Cook spent time early in her career working with library directors who had “…particularly liberal views on how to run libraries…” and wanted to experiment. Although not all of the experiments worked out, these experiences showed her what library management theories did and didn’t work when they were put into practice.

Similarly, Dr. Cook took advantage of opportunities to move laterally within the Texas A&M library system to learn the various parts of the organization and see how they worked together. Although this didn’t translate into a stable work situation, she credits this strategy with helping her learn most of the parts of the university’s library operations and preparing her to take the reins when she became Dean.

Dr. Cook has 4 more pieces of advice for fresh information professionals, so stay tuned! 

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