Crossing boundaries: Corporate and academic librarians – #SLA2014

I was intrigued to see this session in the SLA conference schedule. I was keen to see if the panel’s experiences of changing sector were similar to my own.

A view of Yaletown, Downtown Vancouver
A view of Yaletown, Downtown Vancouver

I’ve been in my new role as a healthcare librarian for about six months now. Enough time to feel settled and start reflecting on the time passed so far, but short enough that my academic library days are still fresh in mind.

Crossing boundaries: Corporate and academic librarians

Chris Ewing, EWU-JKF Library; Tasha Maddison, University of Saskatchewan; Valerie Tucci, College of New jersey; Jim Van Loon, Wayne State University; Christie Wiley, University of Illinois

This session was a series of individual presentations, in which many of the themes were similar. So these are the key points and advice I found most interesting or useful. The slides are available on the SLA Online Planner.

  • Learning the ropes

Coming in new to a sector is obviously where you feel the differences most keenly. Jim Van Loon pointed out the differences in the workflow and tasks/responsibilities; in the corporate world, they are well-defined and well-documented, whereas in academic libraries they are often loosely structured and changeable, which can be difficult for someone new to the setting.

I’m not sure how fully I agree, as the size of my current library (small) and previous library (large) meant the local induction (small = informal, large = more structured) was sort of the reverse of Jim’s theory.

Jim suggested “process mapping” to determine how things get done, and by who. Enlisting colleagues and mentors for guidance can also help, and you can learn a lot just by watching. Although I have found all of these useful to varying degrees, it is tricky adapting to a new organisational culture which is markedly different to my previous library – more hierarchical, but less formal. Val Tucci also found there is a flatter organisational structure in academic libraries, and felt there is less room for growth. I did ask the panellists for further advice about adapting to a new organisational culture, but unfortunately didn’t get a satisfactory answer – so I welcome any thoughts in the comments.

  • “Other duties as assigned”

In a corporate environment, Jim felt information professionals have specialised roles in order to achieve more efficiency. In comparison, academic librarians will have a broad range of duties, for several academic departments, requiring adaptation and new skills.

Again, I’m not convinced it’s this clear-cut (though he did point out every organisation is different), but maybe that’s because I’m not in a corporate library. In my experience, in a large university library there are teams for functions (cataloguing, acquisitions, etc), though staff themselves usually worked in one of these teams but also had a subject-liaison role. In a smaller library, I do ‘a little bit of everything’.

  • Bringing a bit of the corporate sector into the academic library

Tasha Maddison presented on her career story so far. I found Tasha’s talk the most interesting and personable. She spoke about applying her experience in a corporate firm (EBSCO) to her current work as an academic librarian.

Customer service:
Tasha admitted she is the kind of person “who sends a thank you to a thank you”. She always follows up emails, even if her full answer might take a while. This is common sense, but it’s very ingrained in the culture in a corporate setting.

Sharing files and documentations makes it easy to find out what people have done and how they solved problems. She delegates a lot to the team of assistants, who are excited to take projects on, and it frees up her time to innovate and get involved in more.

Basically, this means ‘How do you cope under the threat of being laid off’? Tasha’s positive approach, having been laid off in the past, is this:
I will always work until they tell me otherwise, and I try to work so they will miss me when I’m gone.

I felt there was a lot of commonality between my experience of changing sector and the presenters’, in the step-change of organisational culture, structure, and adaptation process. It’s hard enough starting a new job, let alone in a new sector, so it’s comforting to know others have similar experiences.

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