Vol. 10 No. 7 July/August 2002
Lessons of a Searcher's Life
by Barbara Quint Editor, Searcher Magazine
Table of Contents Previous Issues Subscribe Now! ITI Home
"The Third Millennium Information Professional: Tasks, Tools, Triumphs"! The theme of this special issue has been an exciting and inspirational one to develop. All the authors and columnists and staff at the publisher, Information Today Inc. not to mention our beloved advertisers hope that it will help all our readers to realize their own professional goals and to support the expansion of the profession's contribution in the future.

Now that I've gotten all that grandiosity off my chest, I face one more professional challenge myself. As usual, writing the "Searcher's Voice" editorial is the very last task performed in the production of the editorial content for an issue of Searcher. And this issue, this very special issue, has me in a quandary. Here I am, supposed to be intoning words of wisdom in my own inimitable manner (described by my first employer as an editor as "breezy but profound"), and, looking back on my career, all I can see is a slapdash, haphazard array of blind luck and "too dumb to know any better" persistence. By some standards fortunately, including my own I've had a good career, but it's a career for which I never did a lick of planning. So how can I advise people on how to plan their own careers? The fact that I'm having such a good time with the career I've stumbled into even invalidates my role as a horrible example of What Not to Do.

Perhaps I can supply a minimalist approach to career planning. Perhaps I can help define the ABCs, even if I personally never got past HIJ in my own careering. So herewith the rules of the road that even a skateboarder knows:

1. It's NOT a job; it's a career.

Long ago, while working on behalf of women's rights in an affirmative action program, I had a discussion with a human resources professional about "women's jobs" in our corporation. We went back and forth on the issue of professional status, in particular how certain job categories in the company seemed to lead nowhere, how they never tracked into promotions or even lateral options. (In those long ago days, these categories seemed to have an inordinately high percentage of female inhabitants.) The Personnel Department representative explained the rule of thumb they had to define "true" professionals, instead of just "non-exempt" salaried employees. When you sought to hire a full professional, you tapped a national job market; for a member of the lower orders, you only needed a local recruiting campaign.

Alright, so the policy sounds arbitrary and rigid and probably biased, but there is an element of legitimacy there. People with important careers treat their careers as important. They plan them. They sacrifice for them. They move for them. And, in turn, employers seek them out and ask them to move. Thinking of oneself as a player on a national stage can be the first step in becoming a player on that stage.

A professional attitude toward one's career can also supply leverage in the eternal struggle between information professionals and their employers to accept the standards and best practices of the profession when and if they come into conflict with the management assumptions of the specific institution. The same attitude toward professional careering can warn you when conflicts between your career goals or professional standards and those management assumptions mean it's time to move on.

In the past, "I'm outta here" decisions have primarily improved individual lives, but only rarely caused managements to change their treatment of information professionals to guarantee they could get and keep good ones. But such decisions may have more importance in the future. Today's and tomorrow's technologies make remote supply of information services more and more prevalent. Technology can also support more scalability, i.e., more ability to absorb increased workloads, which, combined with the widespread consumer expectation of 24/7 service, could lead to competition for running information services. For example, smaller academic institutions could decide to outsource their library services to a larger institution, to centralized "all-system" operations at a headquarters facility, or to the library services of an institution specializing in distance education. Large public library systems could decide to shut down branches and operate enhanced centralized services or outsource to prepackaged services.

Such settings would need the best service possible ("no 'warm bodies' need apply"), and, if the total number of information professionals required dropped due to consolidation, they could get the best. On the upside, the remote jobs might also offer telecommuting options that would not require moving hearth and home across the land. Nonetheless, the profession, the roles it performs, and the settings in which it performs them are changing. Those who rise to the challenges of those changes will prevail. Those who do not may sink.

2. Put your best foot forward.

Go with your strengths, but make sure you know what they are. For example, I have always regarded myself as an introvert and, in many respects, I am, but, when I got into librarianship, I thought that condition meant that I should work forever as a cataloger, my first professional job. Imagine my surprise when I turned out to be a blabbermouth. In a short-lived attempt to cross-fertilize catalogers and reference librarians at my library, I ended up doing reference work a half-day a week. One day a library manager saw me chatting with a researcher in the card catalog room. When she walked by 15 minutes later and 30 minutes and 45 minutes AHEM! he and I were still chatting. After the AHEM!, I scurried back to work and, as I passed her, she just looked at me and said, "Hmm. I guess you're not a phony." (Wonder what she could have meant by that.)

When the head of reference slot opened up, that same manager drafted me for the job. And the rest is history.

This little tale has another aspect to it. The best promotions and advancements I have ever experienced have usually come when not doing my job. I exaggerate, but it's oddly true. I got my first job because, when faced with nothing to say, in a round robin of my library school class as to their career plans, I lied and proclaimed that I was going to work at the RAND Corporation after graduation, a company I had only read about in a Time magazine article. Someone in the class actually worked at RAND and told me of an opening, which turned out to be a job with my former high-school teacher. That blabbermouth episode I described above was hardly a proper use of staff time and yet it led to the head of reference job. An improvised standup routine (actually done sitting down) at a cocktail party on a string of traveling disasters during my first trip back east led to a connection to a corporate vice president that opened up new options. A newsletter I wrote for the Southern California Online Users Group (SCOUG) on my own time led to my writing for professional magazines and then to the beginning of my first editing jobs.

3. Plan.

So if my haphazard approach has led to such a fine life, why do I regret my lack of career planning? Because of the waste of time, which is life's only nonrenewable resource. About 5 years before I left to become an editor, I got back from a short vacation. As I walked into the company, as I had for well over a decade, suddenly it looked strange to me. I felt like I was visiting a place once utterly familiar, but now just a locale revisited out of nostalgia. And that feeling recurred, off and on, for years. My subconscious was obviously weary of subtle messages and was now screaming to me to GET OUT. Your time here is done, cowboy, saddle up Old Paint and ride into the sunset. MOVE IT! But there I sat, deaf and dumb, waiting for someone to move me.

How should I have known? A simple rule. If your job does not teach you any more or require you to learn, if you have mastered it all and now all or almost all of your day is spent returning the gifts of that mastery to your employers and clients, GET OUT!! When an information professional stops learning, they start dying, or at least their career does. And any information professional in this day and age, with all the changes upon us and more coming, who does not or cannot allot a significant portion of their work time to learning and study will not be able to perform well the job they have now for much longer, much less the future jobs they should have.

4. Keep climbing upwards.

Gravity is the enemy. Once I participated in a leadership exercise at a conference. The scenario posited a dire situation in an academic library setting and offered four possible solutions. One of the solutions was very daring and probably beyond implementation. The others were more conservative, within the control of the scenario's central organization, but just wouldn't solve the problem. Naturally I picked the high-risk, high-payoff option. Practically the whole room picked one of the conservative ones; most picked the best of the conservative ones, but, though better than the other ineffective solutions, it still wouldn't work. I couldn't understand their choice.

Suddenly as I looked around the room, the scales fell from my eyes. They had picked the solution that offered an acceptable failure. No one would lose their jobs from picking this solution, and, if the department did shut down due to that failure, no one would blame them individually, so it would not interfere with their chances of getting other jobs.

Well, I guess that's one way to plan a career. The problem is that it won't work any more. Unless you're actually clutching your first Social Security retirement check in your hand, our information profession has already embarked upon the path of radical change or been pushed down it. What we have done is not what we will do. The lack of safety should give you an exhilarating sense of freedom. As Alexander the Great said to his few thousand Macedonian soldiers as they set off to conquer the world, "Cowards! Would you live forever?"

Recently, an author contributed an article to this magazine that espoused a conservative strategy toward digital collection development. Now, when it comes to prose and facts, I could be called an aggressive editor, but, when it comes to concepts, an author's work is an author's work. Nonetheless, I did call the author and argue some points just on their merits. The author listened to me and said they would make some changes. When it came back, the whole thrust of the conservative section had changed. Now it agreed with me completely too completely. So I called to apologize for having apparently muscled the author into adopting my beliefs instead of their own. Instead of the reaction I expected, the author a relative newcomer to our profession thanked me for having brought her back to what she herself had originally felt. Apparently older colleagues who had seen the piece had suggested some of the conservative lines of thought. Just the zest in the author's voice told me that this information professional would trust to their own personal judgment in the future and require clear, logical arguments to overturn it.

Go for it!

5. Have FUN.

You know all that advice people give you about "getting a life." Won't work. The numbers just aren't there. As long as you are employed, you will end up at least 5 days a week, at least 8 hours a day, going to work. For 8 hours a weekday you will sleep or perform some equivalently low-grade bodily function. Of the remaining 8 weekday hours, at least 2-3 will be spent getting ready to go to work or conducting the tasks you would have done during the day, if you didn't have to go to work. The remaining 5-6 hours you will probably fritter away eating, watching TV, talking to friends and family. As for the weekends, Saturday is shot doing chores. So why should you risk your career for one lousy day a week and that one day a Sunday when nothing's open?

Nope. Your work takes up too much of your life and shapes too much of the rest of it for you to merely endure it. It must supply you with pleasure and friendship and laughter and zest and adventure and achievement and...and...and...FUN.

And in this last lesson, I can finally speak from a position of absolute authority. 'Cause I, for one, am having a ball! Join me? 
Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
Table of Contents Previous Issues Subscribe Now! ITI Home
© 2001