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Monday, 8 December 2014

So you're an Information Specialist - What does that mean?


Me playing with the world's biggest tablet ;-)


So...what exactly do you do?

Library and information professionals are used to being asked questions, it comes with the territory. Yet one of the hardest questions I get asked on a personal and more often professional level as part of my role as an information specialist at The School of Health and Related Research is that of; ‘So what do you do?’
I’m sure I’m not alone in having problems trying to describe what I do, these days people’s job roles are either very diverse, specialised or complex. And like lots of my peers we get to meet lots of people at networking events and that invariably leads to ice-breaking questions such as that one.

Life was so much easier in the past

When I left school in Derbyshire in the 1980s I had the options of going to work down the mines, in a factory or a shop, in roles I could have easily explained in a couple of short lines. Thankfully subliminal teenage foresight stopped me from going into the doomed mining industry but I did start in a warehouse that fitted out and repaired fire engines and ambulances. Not realising it back then, this was an obvious toe-dip into library-associated work as I worked my hardest ensuring everything was catalogued; and could be sourced easily from behind the counter on request. Fast-forward nearly thirty years and things have changed somewhat. These days it’s far from easy to capture what I do, as I lecture, train, write, present, network, research and most importantly support others.

What does Chandler Bing do?
Anyone familiar with the series Friends and the character Chandler Bing will be familiar with the long running joke that no one really knew what he did. At times I feel a bit like Chandler and the thought of trying to explain my job to someone does fill me with dread. Take for example the night out I had whilst in London at Internet Librarian International where the problem again came to light. I had known the two friends I was at the bar with for over 20 years, one of whom is a master chef, the other a manager for a bike store. We got onto the topic of health research and information and I started a long monologue about how health research is carried out and how information is assessed for quality. I remember the odd look they gave me and could see their brains working overtime; “how does he know this?”. At that point I said: “you do know what I do for a living and where I work?” Obviously not, they had an idea of what I did, that it involved the Internet, social media, bits of teaching and probably a few other things.

With networking being an important aspect of our professional lives I am used to responding to the "what do you do " question in more formal situations, but even then it can feel like I don’t really know the answer myself. People can easily make assumptions: ‘ah, you’re a librarian - you shelve books’ or ‘you work in a library, so therefore say ‘shush’ a lot’. Obviously librarians reading this right now will say that is far from the case. For a start, there are different types of librarians, subject, liaison, cataloguers, systems ones to name but a few. Yet many jobs, even though not explicit, do give people an idea of what kind of environment they work in and potentially what they might do.

So again, what is it you do?

So I’m at an event or conference and that question pops up; ‘what do you do?’ My often stunted (it’s stunted as I subconsciously think; ‘oh oh, here we go again’), reply; ‘An information specialist’. I realise that the best option is just to have a pre-written short paragraph script I can call upon, but it is always too late.

The replies to that vary, from either, ‘what is that?’ to:
‘Is that like being an IT technician?’
‘Is that like being a learning technologist?’
‘Is that like being a librarian?’
‘Is that like doing social media stuff?’
‘Do you work for the Government?’
‘Ah, excuse me, I’ve just seen a friend I need to speak to’

My answers have been from the very short; ‘If I wasn’t working for a university, I’d be at GCHQ reading your emails’; to very long ones where I can see them eventually looking for the nearest exit or friend. The reality is, that for a large part of the time I do not know what I do, let’s be clear here, I know what I have to do and know how to do it - hopefully very well. Yet I do not know how to explain my job, if I was to apply for a new job (note to boss here, am not presently doing this) I would obviously use the additional information to capture the many things mentioned above as best I can. Yet, it would still leave many thinking, so what does he do again? Often this comes back to the previous notion that many people in our aligned professions are doing very diverse and unique jobs now. You could get a dozen library and information professionals in a room to talk about their profession, yet most would be coming from different perspectives, experiences and roles.

It is what it is

At my institution I’m in a fairly unique role and have been for about eight years, one where I try and look for opportunities to engage with new technologies and help others do so. So yes, to some extent I’m a learning technologist, although I lean more towards research support. I also try and keep an eye on issues relating to these technologies, security being one of them, as many are third party, so yes, there’s a bit of IT technician about me. I encourage people to use, understand and exploit technology more. I try to help people use everything from cameras to computers, from browsers to searching better, so the IT side does play a big part. I engage with social media and altmetrics quite a lot and like everything else, keep a keen eye on the ethics and privacy issues. I am interested in information and how it is used, afterall. I have a big interest in the areas of Altmetrics and social media and therefore using it a lot often means people come to me asking how to engage with social media, so yes I do that a bit.

I also have some involvement with libraries and librarians as they are a group aligned to my role, my research interests and my education. My team has a small academic library and I have had involvement with how that runs, I speak at library conferences, so again I can see why they say that I’m a librarian. What I’m trying to say is that like so many people in my profession, often our real value comes from the sum total of our parts. What underpins my role, like so many professionals I come into contact with is that I help people, or try to help them. Like any good library or information professional I may not always know the answer but can certainly find out or find someone who does know.

To conclude I have to say that to me, my job is rarely complicated, it is not hard and whilst I do not know how to hack computers or write php I am adept at using technology. It is however a very diverse role, at times demanding, very changeable and requires me to make quick decisions and think for myself whilst always looking for the right opportunities. That pretty much describes many jobs, so I am not sure why it can be so hard to describe mine. Perhaps the real reason is that the role is not only diverse, but many things to many people. Even if a lot of people see you as one thing and that one thing is useful for them then you still have a role to play in supporting them. It has been a common problem for libraries and their survival, often people see them as just a place where books are kept. Not that they are places where activities are held, experts are in residence or knowledge and technologies can be accessed. That said, for the individual in the library and information setting it remains ever-important to work hard at what you do best and exploit that area of expertise. And if anything, there will always be people who can’t really understand what you do, but will know where to find you when they need help.

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