ABQLA/SLA Ottawa Trip

On November 16 approximately 20 aspiring librarians and archivists got up really early to take a road trip to Ottawa. The day’s schedule included a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Gallery of Canada’s library and archive, as well as a tour of the Library of Parliament. It was a gorgeous day, albeit a little chilly, and we learned about lots of neat stuff!

Our first stop was the National Gallery where our group was split into two so we could fit in the stacks of the library and archive. The library houses a number of books and periodicals about Canadian and international artists, although the focus is generally on Western art. As our guide explained, most of these books serve researchers, but they can also be used by other people, such as those who are looking for auction price information. They also house a large number of exhibit guides from museums around the world.

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The archives on the other hand, house more actual works of art. One staff member explained to us about an art periodical that regularly produces a small piece of art to go along with each issue. She told us about the challenges involved in cataloguing untypical objects, showing us a recently acquired ball that she had yet to catalogue. We were also able to see some other examples from the collection, including some sketchbooks belonging to Emily Carr, amongst other small pieces of art.

After spending the morning in the National Gallery, the group continued on to the Parliament buildings, where after making it through security we met up with two Parliamentary librarians. The best part of this tour was that we actually got to see the collection close up, as well as visit their rare book room. Normal tours of Parliament will only get a short glimpse into the Library, but we were able to get a much more extensive tour. After hearing about the library’s history, we were taken into the stacks, and then down into the basement to see the rare books collection. We were able to get a look at John James Audubon’s Birds of America of which the Library of Parliament has a unique copy. For the most part though, the library collection holds reference materials for Parliament, as well as parliamentary and committee proceedings.

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It was certainly well worth the early morning and drive to Ottawa to see these libraries and archives, and thanks to the ABQLA and the SLA student chapters for putting together a great trip. Also, as a side note, 3 out of 4 librarians or archivists who led our tours were SIS graduates!

Thanks to Jiamin Dai for all the lovely photos!

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The Highlights from Web 2.U 2014

By Anastasia Prozorova

On Friday February 7, 2014, many information professionals, students and enthusiasts gathered at Thomson House for the annual student-organized conference, Web 2.U. The insightful speakers, who were invited to this day-long event, had a chance to share their thoughts on a variety of cool, but challenging media and on the role of information professionals in the changing world. Let me share with you some of the highlights from this year’s event:

  • Connie Crosby, a Toronto-based consultant, shared her experience in customer outreach and customer relationship management.
  • AJ West, a second-year student graduating from McGill’s MLIS program, dazzled the audience with his knowledge of one of the hottest trends in information technology: wearable devices.
  • Mark Blevis, Ottawa-based Digital Public Affairs Strategist, thrilled the audience with some amazing interactive media and demonstrated how books and libraries can immerse readers into a more engaging and participatory environment.
  • David Weigl, PhD candidate at SIS, carefully guided the audience through the intricacies of relevance in music search.
  • Guillermo Galdamez, a first-year student of McGill’s MLIS program and Knowledge Continuity Officer for MLISSA, talked about the challenges of maintaining and promoting SIS Wikis.
  • Michael Groenendyk, the newly hired business librarian for Concordia University Libraries, made some incredible revelations about the opportunities and challenges of 3D printing and 3D scanning.
  • Laurie Devine, Social Media Manager at McGill’s Media Relations Office, demonstrated some terrific features of her new social media tool, Flipboard, and compelled the audience to stay alert to emerging social media technologies.
  • David Lee King, Digital Services Director at Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, flew to Montreal all the way from Kansas. He shared some of his invaluable experiences in social media marketing for libraries.
  • Edward Bilodeau, McGill’s Web Services Librarian, skilfully animated the round table discussion at the end of the day.

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I would like to thank everyone who took an interest in Web 2.U 2014 and those who generously helped make it happen. If you have some ideas to share for next year’s conference, feel free to contact me: anastasia.prozorova@mail.mcgill.ca.

Characterizing a Collection: An Analysis of the McGill Library System

By Caitlin Bailey

Online library catalogues are not often regarded as sources for historical analysis. While they are designed and used for resource location, their consideration as a primary source document is infrequent. Extending the work of her doctoral thesis “ The Imprint of The Scholar: An Analysis of the Printed Books of McGill’s Raymond Klibansky Collection”, Dr. Jillian Tomm is now engaged in postdoctoral work, examining the character of the McGill Library’s historical collections. The primary source for her analysis? The library catalogue.

Dr. Tomm’s methodology builds on the mining of the library catalogue to build sets for data analysis. Using the results along with pre-existing knowledge of individual collections, she hopes to contribute to a better understanding of the McGill collections as a whole within the larger context of intellectual history and their relationships with each other. The project also aims to support the development of collections-level searching to help users identify individual special collections (as opposed to individual items) of likely value to their research based on their strengths, such as materials published in a particular country or time period or those rich in illustrated books.

J.Tomm, The Imprint of the Scholar. 2012.

For the moment, Dr. Tomm will be considering the 18th century as her primary area of interest, however she intends to expand to earlier periods. Additionally, Dr. Tomm notes that the project is only considering printed materials, however this may also serve as an expansion point in the future. The current timeline for the project is two years; to further her work after this period, Dr. Tomm has committed to documenting her project as completely as possible to facilitate further building on her work.

An interview with Stéfan Sinclair

By Jacob Siefring

In a class or elsewhere in the vast field of library-and-information-science, you might have come upon a reference to digital humanities. Digital humanities is basically an academic discipline concerned with the application of computational tools and methods to traditional objects of scholarship (i.e. texts, artifacts, art works, historical data, etc.). The field is interdisciplinary and vast, and also highly collaborative.

Earlier this week, I paid a visit to Stéfan Sinclair, who is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities in McGill’s Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. Since he received his Ph.D. in French literature, Professor Sinclair has worked on numerous projects designing digital humanities text visualization tools, often in collaboration with other scholars. He was most generous and open in responding to my questions as we sat in his windowed office overlooking the intersection of rue Sherbrooke and rue University.

I noticed that it’s kind of common in the digital humanities to start giving a talk by stating how you got into it, because it’s kind of a hybrid field and everybody takes a kind of circuitous route or ends up there in a different way. I know you have a background in French literature. But were you drawn towards programming and computers prior to your work in the humanities?

Yes. What I can recall is that, during the early part of my undergraduate studies, I liked fiddling with computers and doing some programming. At that point, I was especially playing with Visual Basic. I was home-brewing beer, and I had built an application that would allow me to manage time, and various settings, and fermentation and so on. At that time, it was really about building things for my own interest. I had done my first couple of years of undergraduate taking courses from all over the place, everything actually except French literature. Then in my third year I decided that I would do French literature as something that seemed more specific, leveraging my background as a francophone, Franco-Albertan, and so on. I loved literature, but not enough that my first instinct was to know that I was going to go into undergraduate studies and take literature. I was more interested in philosophy and religious studies and all sorts of other stuff. There happened to be a course—I can’t remember if I was in my third or fourth year—on computer applications in French at UBC. That’s sort of the moment where it clicked. This very unusual, very rare course that was in the French department made me realize that I could combine these two interests that I had probably never thought of as merging at any point. There’s something very empowering and magical about getting a computer to do something that you build it to do. That I think was a big motivation for any of the programming that I was doing. I’d almost put programming in quotes, because it wouldn’t be programming by computer science standards, it would just be sort of hacking, scripting—except that it wasn’t really scripts, it was Visual Basic. Anyway, this course made a connection for me between literature and computing. From there I started thinking about and building tools where my work in literature would be supplemented, augmented by some of the tools that I wanted to build. And it sort of kept growing from there. Over time, the balance has shifted. Initially, I was doing a bit of programming and computers to complement the literary side. Over time, it’s sort of gone the other way, where I’m mostly doing programming and building stuff and relatively little literature, though I hope to do more. So I don’t know if that really answers your question…

I think that’s very interesting, because a lot of the time those narratives aren’t the ones that get relayed, and yet they’re so important in determining how we end up where we do.

It seems so natural now that this is the direction that I took, and yet I recognize that it’s really an enormous coincidence. I didn’t go to UBC because this person prof, Bill Winder was there. I didn’t know he was there. Part of the experience has also been not only that very serendipitous first experience that made the connection that I probably wouldn’t have made if this course hadn’t been there, but also a willingness to kind of ignore what… if people had given me academic advice at that point it would have been to not do computing stuff because that was just too weird, and too fringe, too marginal. But it’s what I was interested in. So it’s hard to say what lesson to pull out of this except that I happened to have been extremely lucky because I did sort of do what interested me and it ended up working out.

Can I ask what your dissertation work was on?

Sure. There’s a group of primarily French mathematicians and writers called the Oulipo and they’re interested in formal constraints in literature and the idea that all forms of literature—be it a sonnet, a play or theatre, whatever—what determines that it’s that genre are is a set of rules. And so by formulating new rules they think they open new forms of literature. It looks like a constraining act but in some ways it’s an opening-up act. I became interested in whether or not that formalized aspect might be a good foothold for computational methods, and so I became interested in the Oulipo and Georges Perec in particular. Georges Perec wrote a three-hundred page novel in French without the letter e. So my dissertation was primarily on La Disparition, on this novel; that was half of it, and the other half was using a text-analysis tool that I built called HyperPo that was meant to help me in examining some of the things that I wanted to examine about the text. So it was a very hybrid project, but again, I was fortunate to have support for it where I was so that it worked out.

Do you still follow contemporary French literature?

Umm… that’s a good question. I will say with some degree of shame and regret that not really. Except for the fact that I tend to still read contemporary French literature for pleasure.

Well yeah, that counts, that counts!

But I don’t turn my attention to analysing it and doing literary criticism, which is a big part of my intellectual upbringing. It’s just more for the interest of reading.

Wouldn’t reading be less fun if you had to analyse what you read?

Yeah, I guess in some ways it would be. I actually do find it a lot of fun to analyse texts as well, so it’s a very different kind of experience. But I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. As I did with La Disparition I thoroughly loved reading it as a novel, as literature, and I thoroughly enjoyed analyzing it as a piece of digital text.

I want to ask about Voyant Tools, which you developed with Geoffrey Rockwell. You’re probably able to see from the site stats what kind of use that tool’s getting, and maybe even where it’s being adopted, where geographic use is coming from. What does that look like?

Yes. I would say it’s gotten, for an academic project, moderate traction. It gets in the thousands of hits per week. The way it’s structured is that there’s a landing page where you can do some things, and it’s also a Web application, so that doesn’t really count the multiple pages that people might be consulting within the site. What it does count, though, which is misleading and also interesting in other ways, is that Voyant Tools has this mechanism where you can embed any of the tools into a blog or Web page, just as you would embed a YouTube clip on a blog or site. An example of this is a German site on Narratology that happens to have embedded Voyant. I know that a good part of the traffic comes from there. My own blog and various other sites that have embedded the tool contribute as well. Part of the traffic is people going to Voyant to use it as a tool, and that tends to spike whenever someone’s doing a workshop or something. That does happen increasingly, which I think is another way of measuring and understanding the traction of the project. Beyond that, it gets regular steady use but not an enormous amount of use, not yet.

As I mentioned to you in a Twitter conversation, I found it very helpful for a project I was doing which was in a class called “Knowledge Taxonomies.” The assignment was to redesign the taxonomy and the navigation tool for a website. So we selected one, 3QuarksDaily. It’s a large aggregator blog with probably over twenty posts per day. So we started with the word frequencies as a way to see what some of the hottest and most frequent topics were.

Cool.

I don’t know how we would have proceeded without that, but that was definitely the best way to start our content audit.

So what were some of the limitations and frustrations?

We applied the Taporware words, and then we manually went through the frequency list, and then clustered the terms… what’s that process called, topic modelling?

Right, so you did topic modelling separately?

Topic modelling, if I’m not mistaken, would refer to an automated process. We were doing it manually in a group by consensus. So that consisted of accounting for stemming changes as well as ruling out insubstantial terms, like colors. That wasn’t a real challenge, it was just a bit of work that we had to do as part of our process. I think we didn’t go that far down into the word frequencies either. We were fairly satisfied that what we were seeing was comprehensive in terms of the topics at least.

Now, a skeptic’s question. Recently, Matt Jockers, who is a leader in the digital humanities in my opinion, tweeted the following message with the hashtag “overly honest methods”: “We deconstructed the text because we didn’t have any good ideas.” I wonder about this. We start playing around with texts with digital humanities tools, maybe without a particular question in mind, and it does end up yielding questions. But I wonder if having that really powerful tool kit at our disposal doesn’t in some cases impair us to have strong conceptual questions to begin with. Do you think that is ever the case?

I definitely think it can be. To say that it impairs us is also to say that we’re not willing to sit down at some point and work hard at trying to come up with the concepts and intuitions separately. Partly what it’s saying is, the tool and a certain number of methodologies are there, and it seems simpler just to start banging away at that than to really think about the text or whatever you happen to be looking at. And I don’t know how common that is. In a lot of cases you’re either working with text that you know already, and so you’ve probably gone through the process of thinking about it. What the tool does and can do very effectively then is to stimulate new ways of looking at and new representations of the text that you wouldn’t have thought of. It opens up new channels. In other cases, where you haven’t read the texts, and Matt will admit to this for some of the texts, it’s also a way of including and dealing with those texts that maybe you don’t have the time and the inclination to read. It’s an impairment in some ways except that maybe realistically you never would have sat down to read those texts and so it’s better than nothing. You know, at least you’re including them in some sense. It’s actually strangely, vaguely reminiscent of what Georges Perec says about constraints when he’s starting to write. He said that nothing scares him more than the blank page. In  other words, if he sits down and has to start writing something, he finds that terrifying. What the constraint allows him to do, when he sits down and he’s working on an Oulipian constraint like writing a novel without the letter e, that gives him a structure in which things can happen. It sort of removes that paralysis of the blank page. In some ways I wonder if in some cases with text analysis it can’t be similar. Sometimes you’re looking at a text and it can be very intimidating and paralyzing to say, now what am I going to do with this thing? In some ways working with text analysis methodologies allows for a breaking up of things and then you go back and you read it. It’s the reverse of how things are sometimes done. But maybe you start doing text analysis and then go back and start reading chunks of text more closely in a way that’s already been informed with some first observations that you’ve made or some intuitions that you’ve had. It’s a way into the text that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. I wouldn’t exaggerate that too much. I present that as one scenario. Another scenario is that you’re too lazy or too unmotivated to read the text and so you start deconstructing it, as Matt says, with the methodologies. In my experience the challenge has been that the more you practice some methodologies the more that can become a habit and a rut, and in some cases the challenge is finding variants of a methodology or new methodologies that would be more appropriate or more fruitful for a given text or corpus.

Yes, there are two really good metaphors that have come to me through you. In your interview with Adam Bluestein that appeared on Fast Company, you said something along the lines of, “When you’re holding a hammer everything starts to look like a nail.” The other is from Ted Underwood. When he was at McGill for a day of digital humanities presentations that you organised, he said, “You have to know when to get out of the jeep.” And he was talking about the limits of formal analysis and the toolkit. So those have stayed with me. I like that.

So do I.

What do you predict for the digital humanities in the next decade?

Hmm… I predict I’m a bad predictor of predictions. [pause] I think most people would agree that digital humanities has been enjoying momentum and administrative support and a willingness by some people to find out what it is, and so on. Some people think that has plateau-ed. I don’t think it actually has, but it will. I think what’s going to happen between now and then, though, is that some aspects of working with digital texts will just become more normalised, in the same way that most researchers will start googling and start looking in a library database and working with digital text. Maybe they don’t admit to that. I know that there are colleagues who would find quotations that are of interest to them in digital form, and then they’ll go look it up in the print version and cite the print version. What I would hope is that people don’t feel like they need to do that anymore, and that there’s a more gradual, iterative movement towards additional exploitation of the strengths of the digital text. Not doing things like topic modeling necessarily, but being able to search in a PDF for those words that you know are there, but would take forever to find in a print edition. That doesn’t seem like very interesting text analysis, but it can be a fundamental part of a research process. And it is significant in that maybe something that you feel like you wanted to say, and then you say, argh, it would take me forever to find that quotation that I was interested in, so I’m just going to drop it; what the digital text allows you to do is to go and look and to see if it would actually be that useful. So I’m actually not convinced that digital scholarship, the form it takes, will change all that much. But the process that leads to there will change. That’s sort of a behind-the-curtains kind of thing, so in some ways it may not seem like things change that much, but I think they really will. And especially the ability to try things out, to experiment. Malcolm McCullough, for example, writes about how the big breakthrough of spreadsheet programs for businesses in the late seventies was not so much in how quickly things could be computed. By the time you enter them it’s not that different from a calculator. But the speed at which you could try things—you know, what if I change this number, what happens to the worksheet number 18 in the cell 4A for example—is increased, and you can try things out very quickly, you can experiment. It’s an endless palimpsest that you can experiment with very quickly. And I think that maybe one of the most significant contributions from digital texts is the ability to try things out very quickly, that there’s a low cost to some paths that you might want to explore. I think that enriches scholarship in general.

I was recently reading a post that came out of the recent MLA digital humanities sessions about setting up a digital humanities lab, where there’s departments, or people from different departments, who say, let’s do this, it’s a great idea, can we do it? In digital humanities, McGill has you and Andrew Piper, and others. To what extent do you see it being practised, either now or in the future, among graduate students at McGill? I don’t want to ask whether or not it’s in McGill’s future to have what might be called a digital humanities ‘lab,’ because it’s so much of an ad hoc thing sometimes, and it’s not a physical space necessarily.

In this very exact case I can say yes, I really do believe it’s in McGill’s future to have a digital humanities lab, institute, centre, whatever. And that’s for various reasons. But you’re hitting on something more significant which is, how does that interact with existing programs, and how does that affect graduate and undergraduate teaching and that sort of thing, especially when you have at best a handful of people and it’s very difficult to build a program out of that. I think that the momentum in a university and an institution is a difficult thing to really predict, because some things happen very quickly that surprise you, and other things that you think would be quick are very slow. So in the meantime, I think the focus is to ensure that we’re starting to build a set of courses that have a strong digital humanities component, even if we don’t call it like that, but that do. That will build interest and a need, a desire for more. By filling my graduate and undergraduate courses, that sort of sends an indication that we could do more of these, and they would be well attended, that people are interested. When the English department, the grad society organises a panel or an event on digital humanities and lots of people show up, that’s sort of an indication that there’s an interest for it. There may be an interest in ways that warrant additional examination, you know, maybe there’s a curiosity, a sense of, what is this thing?, it’s not that I necessarily want to do it, I just want to know what it is; some students go because of that. So I think it’s a combination of things, where there are pure or primarily digital humanities courses that are taught—and I think there will be more and more of those—but also where more and more aspects of digital humanities manifest themselves in existing courses. I think that will happen. I think that some of our colleagues here are genuinely interested and would like to incorporate some of the methodologies. Truth be told, academics tend to be pretty busy and if it’s a prospect of learning a bunch of new technical skills, it may not happen. It’s not necessarily that it’s going to be primarily those people who teach it, but there’s a slow trickle-down effect where more courses mean that there are more students who have come through the system who have taught themselves as I did or who have courses that they take that help with the training. There’s the digital humanities summer institute in Victoria, there’s something similar in Maryland now, and there are things being planned in Europe. Some of those students may go on to academic jobs and those students will incorporate that digital methodology into their teaching. So we recognize that things don’t change as quickly in academia as they do in society. There’s a greater prevalence of digital aspects in society—the prevalence of social media—than you see in typical humanities courses. But there is a constant catching-up process that happens.

My thanks go to Professor Sinclair for taking the time to participate in this interview and for reviewing the interview draft.

How Do I Work in Rare Books? A Career Primer

By Caitlin Bailey

For you Name of the Rose lovers out there, remember Eco’s descriptions of the abbey library and all its mysterious contents? I certainly do; in some way it was responsible for my desire to work as a Special Collections librarian.  However, there is a big difference between “wanting and doing” as they say, and pinning down just how to do it has proved problematic. So, to help both myself and others who may be considering the academic and Special Collection stream (either librarians or archivists) I decided to contact the Rare Books department here at McGill and ask, who else? A librarian…

Ann Marie Holland, the Liaison Librarian for the William Colgate History of Printing Collection, the Lande Canadiana Collection and various French Enlightenment collections (among others), kindly agreed to meet me on the fourth floor and to let me ask her all of the annoying unanswered questions that had been plaguing my career path for the last year. During the course of our interview, Ms. Holland revealed herself to be not only charming, but also passionately interested in her field and committed to her work. As she told me the rare books field is not an easily entered career, but once there most people don’t think of leaving.

'The press.' Photograph by C. Bailey.

Ms. Holland received her Bachelor of Arts in French Language and Literature from McMaster University and, after travelling in France for some time, decided to begin the MLIS program here at McGill. She holds a further Master of Arts in French Literature in addition to her MLIS. When asked to speak to the necessity of a second higher-level degree in a relevant subject area, she noted that in the world of academic librarianship it is critical to a competitive CV, though it is possible to work without one.

Regarding the absolute necessity of further schooling, the Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Cultural Heritage wrote that 82% of job postings in the field  “preferred” a second specialized advanced degree; however, only 14.5% “preferred” a PhD and even fewer required it[1]. However, Ms. Holland noted that for those pursuing a high level position, such as Head or Assistant Head, a PhD might become more important.

When speaking of the research requirements of academic librarians, Ms. Holland was quick to confirm that tenured academic librarians are required to conduct some sort of interest-based research, which may be based on the physical collection that they administer or alternately how users relate to that collection or libraries in general. While the options for research are virtually limitless, it is still considered “part of the job”; Ms. Holland has published book reviews for Papers, the journal of the Bibliographical Society of Canada and has written several articles highlighting the collections at McGill.

Perhaps the most critical question for those of us looking for an entrance into what is acknowledged as an extremely tight field is “how do I start?”.  Ms. Holland pointed out that while your first academic job may not be in a special collection per se, some experience with rare materials is essential. In her own case, her entry came after working in the architectural collection (which included a small archival holding) at the Université de Montréal. Furthermore,  Ms. Holland noted that volunteering work is a good way to gain initial experience and may garner later contractual work.

As many of the positions in Special Collections are rarely advertised and often occur through word of mouth, it may be difficult to find a permanent position immediately. Ms. Holland originally arrived at McGill as a replacement librarian and later left to work for an antiquarian book dealer in Montréal, when the official funds for her position ran out. Those with experience in the commercial antiquarian book trade may find themselves with an even more competitive CV. Again, the prerequisites for the Fisher position state that experience in ‘’the trade’’ is also preferred.

When asked about the future of Special Collections, Ms. Holland replied emphatically that it is digital, something which even the notoriously closed Vatican Library is embracing in its joint project with the Bodelian Library at Oxford. Special collections are notoriously difficult to physically access; as such digitization provides a particularly neat solution, given that most rare materials are not held under copyright laws. Through the increased use of digital exhibition techniques, Ms. Holland explained that collections were becoming available to a completely new audience and furthermore that audience is extremely excited to have the opportunity to “see inside” these famous treasure troves.

Perhaps the message we seekers of Special Collections careers should take from Ms. Holland’s thoughts is that while the path may be difficult, good things await those who persevere. Like many library jobs, the key appears to be experience, patience and the ability to learn from every job you take. Then one day you too may be involved digitizing a 10 ft.-long set of life-sized architectural specifications (drawn by hand) by the early 20th century architect Percy Nobbs, as Ms. Holland is currently doing for a future exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.

Sources Cited:

[1] Hansen, K. (2011). “Education, Training, and Recruitment of Special Collections Librarians: An Analysis of Job Advertisements.” RBM: The Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, & Cultural Heritage, (12)2, 110-132.

Get A Job, Or: The Ethics of Library Internships

By Laura Sanders

Make your own card catalogues at blyberg.net

Well, it’s that time of year again…classes have wound down, we have (mostly) caught up on sleep after the bleary, stress-filled days of final exams and projects. And now, as we step blinking into the sunlight for the first time in months, our minds turn to the chirping of birds, the roar of road construction…and summer work.

But just as exams and projects are stressful, finding a way to occupy your summer brings its own concerns.

Many library school students will spend their summers doing internships, or as they are more commonly known in Canada, practicums. The School of Information Studies at McGill University, where I attend library school, offers such a summer practicum program. Participants spend ten hours a week during the summer doing unpaid work at a variety of institutions, including public libraries, university libraries, school libraries, hospitals, museums, corporations, and archives. When it was first announced, I was extremely interested in participating, but I soon began to have reservations. In fact, I find the whole idea of practicums/internships extremely problematic.

On the plus side, practicums provide library students with hands-on opportunities that they probably wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. You get a taste of a real working environment, you do a range of different things, and you actually get to apply the concepts you’ve been talking about in class all year. Practicums also provide valuable networking and mentoring opportunities. And since we live in the real world, we have to acknowledge that if organizations were required to pay their practicum students, these positions would not be nearly so plentiful. But as this article in The Atlantic points out, practicums/internships nonetheless have an element of exploitation: “Internships have become an inextricable part of the college experience and a pre-req for post-graduate employment. But this presents a Catch-22 for lower-income students who want to work in politics, research, journalism, non-profits, or other industries that traffic in unpaid internships.”

In short, students who can’t afford to work for free miss out.

Back in February, a mass e-mail was sent to everyone in my program about a summer library internship available with the United Nations in Vienna. I was able to think of several particularly sharp and knowledgeable classmates who would have made excellent candidates for it, and the opportunity could no doubt have launched a stellar career for each of them. But as the internship program does not reimburse students for travel expenses, living arrangements, or visa costs, none of us could afford to do it. By not providing any financial recompense for its interns, the UN is excluding many of the brightest and best in the field in favour of applicants who come from privileged socio-economic backgrounds. Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but I do find it ironic that an organization that spearheads international aid does not facilitate the induction of a more diverse range of people into its ranks.

As blogger named Lance at New Archivist states in this post: “I think most people will agree that diversity includes not only people of different racial and ethic backgrounds, but people of different economic backgrounds and experiences. However, at the same time we are giving a lot of lip service to diversity, we are also constructing roadblocks to achieving those goals.” People from all walks of life have a great deal to contribute to the library and archival communities and should have the opportunities to do so.

But not only may we be driving away those of lower socio-economic backgrounds, the willingness of volunteers to do the work that requires professional expertise undervalues our profession. This is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Sadly, this is an age where most people don’t see the relevance of librarians and archivists anymore (including, sadly, the Canadian federal government, which recently made enormous cuts to Library and Archives Canada). The task falls to us to be tireless in our efforts to explain why our services are more necessary than ever.

The summer practicum is not an option for me. At thirty years of age, I am too old for parental assistance and because I was employed full time before starting library school, I am not eligible for student loans. I am funding my studies through a combination of personal savings and part-time work during the school year. Full-time summer employment is my only chance to counter the alarming depletion of my bank account. Of course, because the library field relies so much on student practicums, summer library positions for students are few and far between. I spent much of April grinding my teeth wondering how it would all pan out.

A potential solution, one that The Atlantic doesn’t mention, is government programs. I was hugely fortunate to find full-time summer employment in the library field through a government-subsidized program called Young Canada Works. It provides grants to public institutions such as libraries, museums, and NGOs to hire summer students. The program is hugely beneficial to both parties. The student is paid a fair wage and gains experience in his or her field, and the hiring institution gets a helping hand at no cost to them. At my job I get to do a bit of everything: circulation, cataloguing, home delivery, selection, weeding, and event planning. It will go far toward helping me find a professional position after graduation. I thank my lucky stars that the Canadian government funds this program. As it turns out, my employer has also hired practicum students through McGill’s program, and our job descriptions are basically identical. But because of Young Canada Works, I get paid. Not for a second do I take this for granted.

So for me, it worked out extremely well. However, given the cuts the Canadian government has recently made to both libraries and youth services, I cannot expect that this solution will benefit a wide range of library students. If anything, the number of beneficiaries is only likely to decline over the next few years. I understand why many feel that unpaid internships are their only option.

The thing is, I should not be too swift to condemn practicums, as they can be hugely beneficial. Especially since I do still hope to do one. But the circumstances in which students undertake them makes an enormous difference. In my case, McGill offers a winter practicum as well, when students do their ten hours a week in lieu of a fourth library school course. To me, this is key. I will still pay the same amount of tuition. The time I spend doing practicum work will be the same amount of time I would spend on coursework for a fourth class. It will not cut into my summer earning time, nor even the part-time job I hold during the school year. In situations where internships do not negatively impact a student’s financial position, I am all for them.

Have any of you had experience with practicums or internships, paid or unpaid? What effect have they had on your library career? Feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comments or you can tweet me at laurainthelib.

Advice from a Texan Yankee in McGill’s Library Court

Whoa! It’s the last piece of advice from Dr. Cook! Big thanks to Justin Soles for this great article! Make sure to read the rest of the series in the posts below. What do you guys think? Anyone surprised by any of these tips? Leave comments!

By Justin Soles  

5. Expect to Work Hard!

Dr. Cook credits her success both as a library administrator with 30 years of experience at Texas A&M, and as a researcher associated closely with the internationally-renowned LibQual evaluation system, to her work ethic: “There’s no success that didn’t come from hard work.” Dr. Cook stressed that landing a job in a library, archive or information center is just the first step in your career and that those of us who will go the farthest in the profession will also be the ones who work the hardest in making the most of their opportunity.

Dr. Cook pointed to her own experience advancing through the ranks of the Texas A&M library system as evidence. Even when she was faced with a job that wasn’t particularly interesting or challenging, she tried to learn as much about that particular field and/or department as possible. This information became invaluable later once she moved into management, since she had in-depth knowledge of what every library department did, how it worked and who in it did (or didn’t) work hard .

Although Dr. Cook feels that the future in librarianship is bright, she cautioned that you will inevitably face certain challenges and have disappointments in your career. When these happen, she suggested that you need to accept them and move on by keeping them in perspective: just as rain clouds are always followed by sunshine, the disappointments you’ll face in our career will be followed by professional successes that may take you places that you never expected to go!

Advice from a Texan Yankee in McGill’s Library Court

By Justin Soles

Guys, we’ve got 80% of Dr. Cook’s advice! That’s like an A- or something! Check in at the end of the week for the final instalment of the Advice from a Texan Yankee in McGill’s Library Court series.

4. Care About Your People

Although it’s somewhat clichéd, a library is more than a static collection of books: it is also a collection of people, including librarians, cataloging technicians, shelvers, webmasters, desk staff and possibly library volunteers. Although this group may sometimes act like a dysfunctional family, Dr. Cook pointed out that your people skills are just as (if not more) important to the smooth functioning of a library, archive or information center as your technical and managerial skills.

In terms of the ‘soft-skills’ worth developing, Dr. Cook suggested focusing on effectively listening to your staff and users. She also recommended getting out of your office to regularly meet your staff and users in their “homes” since neither of these groups will actively seek you out until a crisis has developed.

However, the most important soft-skill that Dr. Cook feels that librarians must have can be the most difficult to maintain: caring genuinely about your staff and showing them that you do care about them as people. As anyone who’s taken Information Agency Management (GLIS 620) learns, factors like union rules/collective agreements, arguments and grudges over promotions, budget/staff cuts, flextime benefits and holiday/vacation schedules can affect library staff and lead to a toxic work environment. Regardless of the day-to-day struggles and problems, Dr. Cook pointed out that at the end of the day “…you really do have to care about your people…you just can’t fake this stuff.”

Advice from a Texan Yankee in McGill’s Library Court

By Justin Soles

This piece of advice from McGill’s Trenholme Dean of Libraries, Dr. Colleen Cook, is the third of five. Be sure to check out what else Dr. Cook has to share with us fledgling professionals in posts below!

3. Be Prepared to Make Decisions

Dr. Cook reiterated what Prof. Bouthillier said during SIS orientation: regardless of where you work or what you end up doing, you will be expected to make decisions. Although this might sound scary, Dr. Cook provided the following advice regarding decision-making:

  • Not making a decision is the same as making a decision…and the worst-case scenario might be to leave things as they are.
  • If you make a decision and it turns out to be wrong, be prepared to admit that you were wrong and then make it right.
  • No decision is permanent; you can always undo a decision that you made.
  • Regardless of the magnitude of the decision, always strive to avoid “doing harm” to anyone, including your users, your staff and yourself!

Dr. Cook also provided some advice about developing your own decision-making style. In her case, she watched how leaders at Texas A&M made their decisions (both good and bad), and was also challenged by her peers when it came to her own decisions. As a result, Dr. Cook’s decision making style is inclusive: she’ll listen to as many views as possible so her decision will be based on what she has heard tempered against her experience. If it turns out that the decision was wrong, she’ll admit it and then try to undo it.

Although Dr. Cook had the benefit of working with and learning from some great leaders, her advice regarding decisions is best summed up as follows: “There’s no decision in a library that can’t be undone…except maybe the amount of steel in the walls. And even then, you can always add to the [building’s] load-bearing capacity.”

Advice from a Texan Yankee in McGill’s Library Court

By Justin Soles

This piece of advice from McGill’s Trenholme Dean of Libraries, Dr. Colleen Cook, is the second of five. Thank you to Justin Soles for sharing this wonderful information! Check out Dr. Cook’s first tip and then stay tuned for more this week!

2. “Learn to Add!”

Dr. Cook notes that financial management is one of the most critical functions within a library: it’s what maintains the collection and allows services to be offered by the library, archive or information center to its users. Yet, she feels that financial management, budgeting and negotiation skills don’t seem to be taught well (if at all) to aspiring librarians today.

Dr. Cook’s admonition above (yes, that’s a direct quotation) is meant to help you avoid “… getting bamboozled…” by salespeople and vendors in the library industry. Knowing your library or information center’s revenues and expenses will help you focus on what is important and also provide some perspective when it comes to assessing the relevant importance of different projects. As Dr. Cook says, “The number of zeros…matters. A $300 expense is different from a $3,000 expense, which is altogether different from a $30,000 or $300,000 expense.”

Although Dr. Cook’s advice was focused mainly on library expenses, she also touched on fundraising as a revenue source, which is especially important in a University library. She said that although fundraising was a tiring and something thankless job for library managers, it could also be very rewarding: “…when the opportunity is right, it’s a win-win situation. The library wins and the donor gets the feeling that they’ve donated to something bigger than themselves.”

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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