Technically Sound

To this day, the wise words of professor Jamshid Beheshti ring clearly in my head (for all those who had GLIS601 with him in Fall 2017 or before, I will do my best to paraphrase him); ‘do you really think you are going to be paid the big bucks with your master’s degree to stock shelves or catalogue? No, you will be managers!’. As true as this statement is, it does raise another issue. If we are not the ones ‘stocking shelves’ or ‘cataloguing’, then who will? Where will these people come from and if we are to be managers, how are we to recognize them?

Here enters the role of library and information technicians. Information technicians are highly skilled and in high demand in information organization including document centres, archives, special libraries, and beyond. In Quebec, the training of these technicians falls under the responsibilities of CEGEPs and there are currently 6 institutions scattered around the province which offer a Technique de la Documentation program. Of those 6 schools, there is only one who offers the program in English and (surprise, surprise) it is right here in Montreal.

John Abbott College (johnabbott.qc.ca) is one of 8 English-language public colleges in the province and the only one to offer the Information and Library Technologies (ILT) program. It is a 3-year technical degree, however there is a 2-year intensive stream offered for anyone who already holds a CEGEP diploma (DEC). By the end of their time in the program, ILT students will have learned several hard skills and be more proficient in the day-to-day operations of a library than any of us in the MISt program. I had the chance to sit down with one of the program’s instructors, Esther Szeben (McGill, MLIS ’99), and talk about the program as well as her professional and educative journey.

MS: Can you tell me a little bit about the Information and Library Technologies program and your position in the program?

ES: Our program is very comprehensive. We are trying to prepare technicians to work in libraries or record centres to support information management and work in conjunction with librarians. Our students graduate with a lot of concrete skills. For example, they take three classification courses and two cataloguing courses… when they graduate, they really know where to place everything. They come out and they know tangibly what to do with a record, a file, a CD, etc. They know how to descriptively catalogue it, they know how to download the MARC record and integrate it into the library system. They get a number of computer courses. They know HTML, they can create web-sites, they can do advanced PowerPoint presentations, they know the majority of the large integrated library systems like Koha and Regard, they can create a relational database in Access, etc.

MS: Roughly how many students come into the program every year?

ES: This year I believe there were about 27 new students. It is a small program but growing. In the program they need to do their general education classes (English, French, Physical Education, etc.), and then they have the core program courses. Last year about 18 students graduated and half of them had job offers before graduation in June. Some are working in academic libraries at Concordia and McGill, they are working in school libraries, some are in special libraries (e.g. law libraries, the Federal Space Agency).

MS: What would the professional relationship be between a graduate from your program and a MISt graduate?

ES: You will work in parallel, you will work together. They will be your cataloguer and so on. The librarian will have to know the macro of how the library is set up while the technicians will know the micro. These students are specialists in the hands-on tasks of an information center. I couldn’t catalogue to save my life, but these students come out of this program having perfected the art of cataloguing.

Another thing we do teach is communications. Some of our students might have chosen this field because they are shy, but they will still have to effectively communicate with suppliers, sometimes with patrons, and for sure with the librarians. So, we feel communication skills are very important too.

MS: So, do you teach teaching? With information literacy being very important now, do you show your students how to teach others to use information services?

ES: It is covered in a few courses. Our program is currently going through a revision and I can tell you that information literacy is slatted as a new course. We have a consulting committee which meets twice a year and we meet with librarians from academia, special and school libraries, and other institutions to see what is happening; to get our finger on the pulse of what is going on. Through these discussions it has been resolved that IL and education instruction is going to have to be a focus for our program.

MS: Could you tell me more about your position in the program?

ES: I teach reference courses. I teach a class called “Documents and their Producers”. It is a third-year course which focuses on the publishing industry. We look at traditional publishing and now with the advent of self-publishing and open source we talk about those too. We also talk about the government as a producer of information. They understand the structure of the government, where to find information about the House of Commons and the Senate, once a bill becomes a law where do they find the consolidated statutes and all those very exciting things. They also learn where to find and how to use the various [Statistics Canada] products like the consumer price index, the census, and the daily bulletins so that they can manipulate the data that is out there which the government manages.

MS: You have had professional experiences in many information fields, what advice could you give to a MISt student?

ES: My advice is this: if you are able to, study part-time and work, in the field, part-time. Academia is good, but we do not want to only become a cog in the assessment machine (hear, learn, test, assess, write a paper, etc.). It is very difficult to absorb and integrate knowledge in such a system. My first year in MLIS I did full-time and then I went down to part-time and got to work in a pharmaceutical library. I got to put the theory which I was learning in class into practice.

Also, I wouldn’t have known that I wanted to work in a library and do reference until I tried it. I finished my undergrad and had some experience as an information professional but never in a library. I assumed my natural path would be continuing in research and knowledge management. But once I tried academic library reference, I fell in love with it and that is where I have spent most of my professional career. I guess I am saying, try everything and anything. Some people are really lucky and fall upon their dream job right away, but my experience is that ultimately it is a crap-shoot. If you see a position, apply and try it out. You never know. I have worked in public libraries, corporate libraries, record centers, fundraising, academia, and now here. When I saw this position, I knew it was for me and I love it here; but I have learned something from every professional experience which has led me to this place.

MS: Is there anything else to add?

ES: I miss my days at Thomson House…? Those were good times!

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