Connecting People With Knowledge: Speaks With an Academic Librarian

Oct 20, 2010

In celebration of National Book Month, is interviewing librarians to find out what's going on with libraries - and books! - these days. Read on to hear the academic side of the story from Miriam Rigby, Social Sciences Librarian at the University of Oregon.

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By Megan Driscoll

Miriam Rigby, Academic Librarian at the University of Oregon It's National Book Month! What's your favorite book? If you can't pick just one, try your favorite novel, your favorite nonfiction book and your favorite reference text.

Miriam Rigby: There's no way I can pick just one, so I'll go with what I've read recently. Novel: Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Non-fiction: Paul Robbins' Lawn People; and choosing a favorite reference work is just impossible for me - there are thousands of useful encyclopedias on thousands of very specific topics. In the 'digital age' of online research and ebooks, the traditional library seems outdated to many people. How do you see the role of both the book and the library evolving in the 21st century?

MR: When people think about 'the library,' they often are thinking of a building where books are stored, but libraries are much more than that. Even if we entered a full-on 'digital age', someone would still have to collect and organize all that information and make it findable and accessible. This is one of the many things that librarians are especially good at. And no matter what Google might like you to think, no one is anywhere near digitizing all the books and other information held by libraries (or stashed away in private collections), so you'll still have to use print items for some time yet.

This doesn't mean that libraries aren't changing though. Academic libraries are embracing the idea of the Learning Commons, in which libraries support all sorts of university community needs, including computing support, research assistance and possibly most desired by students: space for studying. Many libraries are switching over to almost exclusively electronic subscriptions to news sources and academic journals. We also are buying e-books when the circumstances work for it. We want people to be able to do their research from their homes and in the field on the other side of the globe. And when people run into trouble with this, librarians are available via chat-reference to instantly provide assistance.

Running into trouble brings us to another important role for libraries in an increasingly online/digital intellectual world. The more information there is, the harder it is to sort through it all. Librarians can help manage this - labeling an item with metadata to help identify what it is and the important details about it so that people can find what they want when they want it. And librarians can help manage this on the user-end as well - we're expert searchers, and we know about dozens, if not hundreds, of tools to search with and places to search. So when people can't find what they want, we can troubleshoot. Google is great, Google Scholar is even better for academic work and Google books has a lot of promise, but people need to know that not everything is findable with Google. For instance, millions of items are hidden behind pay-walls and even more are not yet online. This is where libraries and librarians will continue to be needed, and is just one more area in which libraries will continue to evolve their services. What inspired you to become a librarian?

MR: Librarians are nice. It's almost just as simple as that. Sure I enjoy helping people with their research, and I needed to do something productive with my MA in Cultural Anthropology, but it's really the people who work in libraries who drew me in. Virtually everyone who works in a library works there because they want to help someone with something, and this makes for great coworkers. Can you tell us about the education required to become an academic librarian? Assuming many of our readers are still undergraduates, or are just thinking about starting school, what would you suggest they do if they're interested in pursuing the same career path?

MR: There are hundreds of different jobs and job duties that fall under the heading 'academic librarian' and so academic librarians have a wide range of backgrounds. Some academic librarians spend their days organizing information in a manner that is similar to a computer programmer. Others teach library skills, perform customer service, develop library collections through selection and purchasing, do in-depth research assistance, perform outreach to any of the numerous people on campus, pursue their own research to publish books and articles, make webpages, etc.

Virtually any undergrad major can be useful. If you major in biology, you'll have a great background to be a biology reference librarian. If you major in another language, you could become a cataloger who specializes in foreign language cataloging. Talking to your university's librarians while you're in school is a great step toward starting to understand all your options in an academic library. And while you're at it, you might as well test out their skills helping you with your research - no matter how smart and talented you are, they'll always have some useful ways to make you more efficient (and who doesn't want to save time on their homework?).

To be an academic librarian, most universities require that you have a Master in Library Science (MLS or MLIS). After that, any specialization can come from your experience in other work (working or doing an internship in a library is highly recommended) or from additional education - many librarians have an additional master's degree in a specialized area (mine is an MA in Anthropology) or even a PhD. Academic law librarians have almost always graduated from law school with their JD as well - so if you're interested in law but don't want to practice as a lawyer, this can be a great way to go.

Major in whatever is interesting to you, and then either keep going with your studies into grad school, work for a while doing something interesting or just jump right into your graduate studies in library science. (And just in case you aren't sure you want to be an academic librarian - remember that your MLS/MLIS will be just as useful to become a public librarian, or a librarian in many private businesses, the military, art museums and more.)

Knight Library at the University of Oregon Besides sitting behind a reference desk, what's your role as a librarian at the university?

MR: On a broad scale, I connect people with information. On a day-to-day basis, this means I help students and professors learn how to research in our library. No matter how much research people do, things are always changing - each library is a bit different, every database is different, even a single library can change pretty significantly from year to year. So I teach people across the university community about the library and our finding tools, in classes and one-on-one. I also help people come up with research topics for their class projects, and help them figure out what approaches will work best for them.

My background in anthropology helps me with my specialized research duties as a Social Sciences Librarian. My work is focused on the anthropology, sociology and ethnic studies departments, and I'm also the liaison to the Clark Honors College. So I work closely with these students and faculty to support their library needs, by purchasing books and journals, teaching library research in their classes and meeting with individuals when they need extra help with their research projects.

Of course, to do this I need to be connected with the people in the department, which takes a lot of outreach effort. Different librarians do this in different ways depending on their personality. I enjoy being social with the people in my departments, and hanging out tends to lead to people remembering me when they need me to help them with research or to teach in their classes. So, basically, I make having fun with people a key part of my job.

To reach a bigger group of people while also providing much more in-depth support than usual, I also pursue chances to be an 'embedded librarian.' This is similar to being an embedded journalist, in that I'm in the 'war zone' with the students and their professors - sitting in on an entire course, contributing small lectures when appropriate, contributing to class discussions and learning exactly where the students need help as they encounter stumbling blocks throughout the course. I enjoy these classes because they let me stretch my social sciences thinking muscles a bit, and also help me really know who the students are and how best I can help them.

All of this put together might sound like an overwhelming amount of work, but most of the time it's spread out pretty well and still leaves me time to pursue my own research interests, go to conferences and even have a life outside of work. Best of all, it keeps things interesting, as no day is identical to the next, and I have a lot of control over how I schedule my day. Can you tell us about library outreach programs that promote library services and information literacy at your institution?

MR: We offer many outreach programs. Librarians often teach research sessions in classes, run library resource workshops and give little talks about interesting resources at other events. We also have display cases in the library that are often used to highlight some of our interesting holdings - right now, the Art History Librarian, Cara List, is showcasing a collection of book art. Science Librarian Dean Walton attracts students with his liquid-nitrogen-frozen pumpkin drop off the roof of the science building.

On the more 'out' end of our outreach, our Slavic Librarian, Heghine Hakobyan, runs a Russian Language conversation tea in one of the student dining halls, and Annie Zeidman-Karpinski, another of our Science Librarians, manages our video games collection, and runs a Rock Band station at a late-night orientation event on campus. Lately, I've been working with graduate students across a number of departments in the social sciences to organize social events, where not only can I meet them, but they can meet other grad students outside of their home departments. Do you and your colleagues ever partner with other groups or institutions to promote information literacy? What do those partnerships look like?

MR: We've had partnerships with the Eugene Public Library to promote a reading series. One was on Jewish American authors, which we cosponsored and hosted readings in the Knight Library at the UO. Another upcoming project in 2011 is a partnership with the National Baseball Hall of Fame to bring their touring exhibition of African Americans in Baseball to our library. Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share any information you'd like about libraries and your work at the University of Oregon.

MR: I've said quite a bit already, so I'll just say that librarians tend to be people who want to help and to make other people's research processes (and lives) easier and better. So anyone reading this, whether you're interested in a career in libraries or not, ought to go meet your university's librarians and get some help speeding up your research. While you're there, you can talk some more about your career potential in libraries.

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