by Barbara Quint
Have you ever played the "Before" memory game? That's
the one where you guess someone's age by what they
can remember back to living without. "I can remember
before sushi came to L.A." vs. "I can remember before
pizza came to L.A." Or, "I can remember before Rocky" vs. "I
can remember before Elvis." An example of the game
for librarians occurs in a sidebar to this month's
coverage of the American Library Association's annual
conference. (Dare I say "Winchell's"? Dare you say "Sheehy's"?)
It's an interesting exercise. It can serve to remind
one of the impact of change and, at the same time,
of the timelessness of human behavior. People adapt.
They have to. Change is a constant. Which brings us
to a discussion of career planning. Many of us have
spent our entire working lives in prestructured situations.
Someone defined our workday before they ever met us
and those same "someone's" or their successors have
done any tweaking or re-design, while we just did the
job. Even those of us who now work with considerably
more self-direction and flexibility probably all started
out in prestructured positions (aka "day jobs").
At times, we all assume that at least some of these
prestructured jobs will exist forever. But then would
any of us have guessed that we might outlive pay telephones,
on their way out as cell phones take over? Would anyone
have predicted 3 decades ago that Westerns would cease
to exist as an active cinematic genre? When automobiles
began back in the beginning of the 20th century, most
owners had chauffeurs to drive them. Then along came
Henry Ford with his Model T and Model A and voila! end-user
Looking at a career from a lifelong perspective,
some of the jobs you will have may turn out to be ones
forced upon you by changes out of your control. If
you're lucky, you may come to regard the changes as
lucky occurrences that pushed you into places you loved
to be. Positive reactions to dramatic career changes
may have an element of self-delusion, of course, driven
by sheer relief at having escaped being crushed by
unperceived forces. Too often, however, people hit
by changes severe enough to eliminate traditional jobs
en masse feel like dumb oxen being driven to the slaughter.
Information professionals bear the additional burden
of losing their professional self-esteem. After all,
who would want to hire an information professional
who couldn't even see change in their own field before
it mowed them down? When severe change eliminates jobs
dramatically, some people drift into other fields,
tapping into other employable job skills; others just
cling to the few remaining slots left and wait for
the buffalo to come back.
You've heard the expression, "The light at the end
of the tunnel may be an oncoming train." So what if
it is? What choices does that produce? What preparations
does it suggest? Well, you can decide not to go into
the tunnel at all. If you are just starting your career,
you should examine the long-term prospects in the field.
Where do you think information professionals will work
in coming years? What will they be doing? Who will
employ them? How many will those employers need? How
essential will information professionals be to the
success of the employer organizations? If you don't
like the answers you get, stay out of the tunnel. If
you do like some of the answers, make sure you're in
the right tunnel.
But what if you're already committed to a specific
tunnel? The choices change. An informed awareness of
broad changes and trends in the field will always help.
With enough illumination, a train schedule, and a swinging
lantern, you may even be able to slow down the train
in time to jump on board and let it carry you off to
strange and wondrous lands. At the very least, sensible
research will show you how to avoid walking down the
middle of the tracks with your back to the light and
a blaring headset drowning out the sound of the train
whistle. Best of all, if you can confirm the light
is not a train's headlight, you can relax and
speed up your pace. The light is your friend.
Most important, look at the long haul. Realize that
your career is a lifelong activity. Even if you could
find a comfortable, convenient, well-paying, and secure
position, are you sure you want to stay anywhere forever?
Sometimes the best way to use a ladder is not to climb
up a structure, but to stretch it between two parallel
points and crawl across it to a new structure.
The other day I was chatting with a friend. He's
hot now. In demand everywhere. On the road, going from
continent to continent doing speeches. Editors crying
out for his copy. Reporters filing his name and contact
information in their rolodexes, online and off. An
ineffable combination of extensive hands-on experience
and a strong network of clued-in confidants have made
him the "go-to" guy in a hot area of modern technology.
It's a good feeling. I ought to know. Back in the
days of traditional online vendors, I was the "go-to" guy
myself. Want a comparison of LexNex vs. Big D vs. DJN/R
(now Factiva)? Call bq. Sigh. Those days have changed.
I am not the Google or Yahoo! or even Scirus expert.
I still know a lot and get a lot of calls, but that
heady rapture of being on top of your game in the best
league in the land has passed. Even Michael Jordan
retired. But the same cycle of life could hit my friend
and colleague in time. He'll be better equipped to
handle the change if he never stops expecting and looking
for the arrival of the "Next Big Thing." When it comes,
he should be able to study it and maybe become an equivalent
expert. At least, he'll be able to integrate his awareness
of the arrival with his knowledge of the older technology.
He'll stay a player, but in a different role. And,
unless he's a lot fonder of those airline peanuts than
I ever was, he may come to find the adjustment a happy
Life is full of cycles. If we can open ourselves
to change, it will come as a friend, not an enemy,
as a pleasant traveling companion subject to occasional,
but endurable, temper tantrums. And the cycle may swing
in unexpected directions. For example, this month's
issue offers the second of two articles by Steve Coffman
and Linda Arret on virtual reference. Coffman and Arret
express discouragement about current activities in
VR desk services and suggest dramatic changes, even
elimination. They may be right. When it comes to recommending
phone-based adjunct services, I tend to agree.
However, the chat- or Web-form-based virtual reference
models the authors decry may simply need new venues.
For example, what if the government document librarians their
future now threatened by federal information policies
pushing government documents onto Web sites decided
to convert their service model to offering live reference
service through whatever medium round the clock focused
on this specific document area? What if online vendors
wanted to add clickable, phone-able reference service
to their offerings? What if distance learning providers
needed to staff round-the-clock virtual reference desks
to serve students scattered around the country or around
the world? New opportunities, new employers, new clients.
Everything old is new again.
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.