I recently had the fortune of job shadowing with Ulla de Stricker thanks to the Faculty of Information Alumni Association (FIAA). Each year, FIAA hosts a Job Shadowing Program for iSchool students at the University of Toronto, which pairs currently enrolled students with practicing information professionals. Job shadowing with Ulla opened my eyes to the realities of working as an information professional. It also gave me a way to bridge my course of study with those realities.
As a first-year student focusing on the knowledge management path, my career at the iSchool so far had involved courses on the management of information organizations, records management, and organizational information behaviors and knowledge creation. These courses were invaluable in giving me a means of identifying information silos in organizations as well as tools to remedy them. I started developing an interest in information consulting and the process of the information audit, which led me to the opportunity to “follow” Ulla as she carried out a project for a client (with the client’s permission and a non-disclosure agreement Ulla provided for me to sign). The project was typical of the work she does, in that its focus was determining the way in which the organization would provide access to professional and scientific information for its knowledge workers and leverage information professionals’ skills in supporting collaboration between knowledge workers.
Ulla explained to me the steps she was going to undertake, showed me the instrument she would use in obtaining the views of staff members identified for her to interview, and shared the evolution of the project as she gathered factual information (e.g. measures of current practices) and subjective views from client employees. She walked me through her experience during the interviews and then through her findings and recommendations reports, clarifying the reasons for their structure and content and emphasizing the need to understand the mindset of current and potential future readers. I could trace the links from hearing about “what was said” to “what Ulla would recommend.”
I was able to directly connect what I was learning in the iSchool program with what she shared, and my meetings with Ulla added healthy doses of reality checks.
For me, the biggest reality check was this: even in organizations whose mission depends on quality information access and research, the opinion may prevail that “all subject matter experts are qualified researchers” and “everything anybody needs is available on the internet for free.” I draw the conclusion that in today’s economy, organizations with little or no obvious information-specific component in their mandate would be tempted not to invest in professional information services.
I also learned that the value of an information service must be stated in as concrete and quantitative terms as possible. An information audit like Ulla’s must elicit the link between knowledge, information, and knowledge worker productivity by framing questions such as: “If you did not have access to [the information content and librarian support in question], what would be the impact on your work?” For example, statistics about kinds and numbers of articles retrieved by knowledge workers—while by no means persuasive by themselves—are necessary in demonstrating to upper management that appropriate information services are integral to knowledge workers’ day-to-day activities.
Further reflection on these matters made me even more aware that ongoing advocacy and awareness-raising about information services is not an optional matter. Events such as budgeting exercises may trigger reviews of information services, but there is a need for vigilance. Knowledge workers are busy and may fall into “poor habits”—they need to be constantly shown how valuable “real” information services are.
Although the professors in my program continuously caution us about the need for ongoing advocacy for the role of information professionals, being in school inevitably means being in a highly “information friendly” environment. We are told advocacy is part of being an information professional, but in a bubble such as this, we are rarely put on the spot to have to defend our skills and our services against budget cuts. Job shadowing with Ulla on her project brought me face-to-face with the need for future librarians to shed light on the value of their work and on the direct link between their efforts and the organization’s ability to realize its stated strategic goals.
The lesson is clear: the time to start advocating is now. Don’t just be good at what you do. Make sure others see it—and be sure they tell the ones who manage budgets “access to appropriate professional information is a non-negotiable.”
— Sarah Farrukh
iSchool Student, sarahfarrukh.com