Miriam Kahn has been a frequent blogger for Lucidea. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with her and ask her questions about her career and her perspective on the future of special libraries. Highlights of our conversation are below.
Lauren Hays: Please describe your career in libraries.
Miriam Kahn: I started off in the early 80s and my background is in classics and ancient history; I was trained as a classicist and got my degree a long time ago, let’s put it that way. I trained at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and then I decided I wanted to be a librarian because there was not a lot to do with classics so, what are you going to do? A friend of mine suggested I could become a librarian—so I got my library degree at Queens College in New York and then I trained in New York Public.
I worked at the Mid-Manhattan branch, which is the largest academic level library in New York City and did all of my thesis work at the NYPL Research Libraries. During this time, I also got a master’s in history, mostly ancient history. I spent about three years at New York Public which I absolutely loved. I learned all about being a librarian, particularly a reference and research librarian. That is my specialty—although I learned lots of things that are no longer taught as part of the degree, the specialty in rare books being one of them. While I was at NYPL in the reference research world, computers were just starting to come into libraries. When I left New York Public they were still mostly paper-based.
Next, I went to the University of South Dakota as their online specialist and I trained faculty on how to use online databases like BRS, DIALOG and Chemical Abstracts. After two years in South Dakota, I moved to Ohio and I worked as a preservation officer and rare book librarian for the State Library of Ohio, so I guess that’s where my special libraries experience comes in. I was there for about three years and then they had a massive layoff and that began my consulting career.
As part of my consulting career, I worked in preservation and I worked in disaster response. That’s where I made my name, and I wrote a lot in the area of disaster response on a whole variety of types of disasters—but mostly what happens when everything gets wet. There’s a hurricane or tornado, there’s a blizzard, the building collapses, there is a massive flood, and I did a lot of disaster recovery as I was learning and teaching it. But I also learned about computers and disasters that occur to computers, (strictly as a non-programmer) and I do think that’s important to know about.
Beginning in 1992, I taught for the Kent State Library Science Program for 25 years and retired three and a half years ago. I also taught for the state library consortium in Ohio called OhioNet. I also started teaching librarians about the Internet in 1994 when the Internet was “invented,” but I was actually teaching about online things even before that. And I really, really liked it so I did a lot of that. Throughout my career, I’ve done a lot of beta testing of online reference tools and databases.
Since 1992, I’ve worked remotely providing reference services. I also worked doing research in courthouses and thus worked with different kinds public access or facing information systems. My work with courthouse records taught me about records management and archives.
I guess my involvement with special libraries has been mostly working with librarians on projects. I have worked with corporate librarians, I have worked on corporate intelligence, and I have worked with librarians in museums and in special collections within academic and public libraries, and in archives.
Lauren Hays: What trends have you seen evolve over time?
Miriam Kahn: You mean other than books to computers? Well, that’s probably the biggest thing. I’ll put it this way, I never would have believed that everything on Star Trek would be possible in my lifetime, and it’s all come to fruition. Gene Roddenberry was pretty prescient. Even if the show is now pretty hokey, in the original Star Trek series they got it all, and the technology that they conceptualized, the ways that librarians or information worked within a society and within an exploring vessel, has surely become what our societies do today.
Today, when we want to know about something, most people don’t go to a book, they don’t look at the dictionary—they go online. Most people today see those paper skills to use a book or to look something up in the dictionary as antique. Because online is the way we all retrieve information today. I got a smartphone and my world completely changed. I think that’s one of the biggest trends I see. All of our work is portable, we take it with us, it’s at the tip of our fingertips, because it’s on our smartphone or it’s on our little tablet or it’s on our smartwatch and sooner or later it’ll be embedded in our heads! Although I hope not. I see the online shift as a major change over the the last 40 years and for me, definitely in the last two years.
In the last two years, since we’ve been dealing with this pandemic we’ve been working from home if at all possible. We’ve had to turn our world around and figure out everything that we can do from a place that’s mobile. So that’s a really big shift, and I see that (I hope) continuing on a really nice trajectory forward that will increase at a nice steady pace.
Another thing I see with special libraries over the last few years is more integration, being more embedded into our organizations, as opposed to being isolated in a special library.
When I started out working as a consultant in disaster response, in the mid-1990s, I had a friend who was the head of a corporate library in a bank, a huge international bank. One day we were discussing disaster response and she said “I don’t care if everything paper is damaged or wet. It’s all online now, we don’t buy any paper reference tools anymore, and all of this paper? If it gets wet, we won’t even worry about it because all our reference resources are online.” So that’s the reality in many of the reference and research enters that were paper-based: they have specialized tools embedded within departments, and they work in an integrated manner.
Many corporate and special libraries today are building corporate intelligence and competitive intelligence skills, that is, investigating organizations.
And one of the things we need to keep in mind, of course, is the return on investment (ROI), because if we can’t prove our worth to the organization, we will lose resources, staff, and more. After all, everything’s on the Internet isn’t it? So why do we need librarians as intermediaries? You know I can teach others how to do the research. Therefore, we need to prove our worth and demonstrate we have the skills to find and work with specialized sources—and demonstrate that it’s worthwhile for the organization to keep us; and not just one person, but multiple people to serve the needs of an organization.
Lauren Hays: So you started talking about this, but can you expand, how do you see the COVID-19 pandemic impacting special libraries?
Miriam Kahn: Let’s think about what’s happened in the last 18 months. Our meetings are virtual, we’re working from home, or we’re working on a modified hybrid shift where we’re only coming in for the things that have to be done in-house, like processing. And we’re working in a collaborative virtual environment to a much higher degree. So some of what we struggle with—and I think that depends upon the size and type of special library—is reminding people that we are present, that we can be called upon. So being embedded, albeit virtually, is so much more important.
As we go forward post-pandemic, what will be important is remaining professional. For example, you’re giving a virtual tour, it needs to be a polished virtual tour. I think that’s really important.
Some of the other things we need to be looking at and must continue to look at, are being visible, being involved in projects, knowing what’s going on in the organization, staying really involved, and doing a lot of internal networking, as well as external networking, to prove our ROI.
The other thing that’s really important is to stay educated. It’s one thing that’s really easy to do if you make a point of it, but part of the impact of working from home is working too many hours and not getting anything done.
Lauren Hays: What professional development do you recommend for special librarians?
Miriam Kahn: Very good question. So I’m very big on reading, but let’s talk about some other types of things. I think we need to be doing more mentoring—we’ve always needed more mentoring within the profession. And I think librarians who are more seasoned archivists or records managers, for example, need to take the time to do more mentoring. We need to be serious about mentoring in a profession that’s primarily practiced by women. We need to encourage our younger women to succeed and to advance, and we need to ensure diversity.
Also, part of what we’re paid for as professionals is to read the professional literature and stay on top of trends, to be active readers and to at least read the abstracts in journals. And to read things that aren’t just librarian-oriented but focused on other professional material or subject disciplines. Special librarians also need to test their online databases, look at them, evaluate them, and do more beta testing, and I think that’s incredibly important. It makes us more educated and it makes us more valuable as employees.
Lauren Hays: What are the best ways to stay current on the changing information needs of special library stakeholders?
Miriam Kahn: Never stop learning, learn something new, every day, every week. Take a workshop, go hear a lecture, etc.
The other thing I would say that librarians need to be cognizant of is project management. Project management is probably the most important skill we never teach. How do we systematically get stuff completed in a timely manner? Project management is everything from writing the report, to getting an exhibit on the table, to teaching a class. If you don’t have a project schedule, then it always gets done at the last minute. It’s important to understand that project management skills are key to being really successful.
Lauren Hays: Final question, if you could give one piece of advice to special librarians what would it be?
Miriam Kahn: Being a librarian is the best profession in the world, there’s always something new to explore. There’s always something exciting to learn, and you need to keep that excitement and enthusiasm about what you do; you need to keep that throughout your professional life. For me, I’m still excited about being a librarian.
Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent speaker on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her professional interests include information literacy, educational technology, library and information science education, teacher identity, and academic development. Please read Lauren’s other posts about skills for special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.
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