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Magazines > Searcher > September 2004
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Vol. 12 No. 8 — September 2004
Going the Distance
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

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 driving.

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 one.

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
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