Thirty years of traditions

I’ve been a traditional librarian for 30 years
Late last year I clocked up thirty years of working as a librarian. I think it is something to celebrate so I am going to inflict a little personal history on you.
I started my first proper library job on 24th Nov 1979. It was exciting – I was working for a big multinational drug company with about 2000 people on site. It was also daunting, with so many different and mysterious departments and laboratories to learn about. I worked in R&D Information Services, serving the R&D section of the site but there were also big manufacturing divisions and various management sections all of which made some use of our services.
My role was to run the library, undertaking typical library tasks like managing journal subscriptions, interlibrary loans, book purchases and cataloguing. I was helped by two junior staff who I managed, for want of a better word. I worked alongside three information scientists who ran the more technical scientific information services. However, I was supposed to be a new hybrid Librarian/Information Scientist, not just running the library but also having responsibility for scientific information in the legislative area (or legal information in the scientific area).
At that time there were not many dedicated sci/legal information sources. My main information duty was to scan the Federal Register every day, highlighting any interesting snippets and forwarding them to interested individuals. This was probably the most boring task I have ever had to do – each daily issue was about half an inch thick and the vast majority was quite irrelevant.
Then along came HSELine – an online database of health and safety information – and I had a chance to get into the exciting world of online searching, previously jealously guarded by my colleague, David. A little later I started to use an online database of food legislation (useful for information on food additives used in drugs) called FROSTI and Packaging Abstracts. For some reason I can’t quite remember I was even invited to join the international advisory board of Packaging Abstracts, though I knew next to nothing about packaging. On the principle that you should never say no to interesting opportunities I joined the board and went to some meetings.
Safety information was my main speciality though, and when the Health & Safety Executive established a big presence on Prestel, the teletext service, I got a Prestel terminal on my desk. This really irritated David when it arrived, but it was a bit of a curate’s egg. There was a good deal of information on Prestel and by the standards of those days (dumb terminals, command line interfaces) it was a gorgeous device, with multicoloured text filling the whole screen and a reasonably straightforward menu-driven interface. But it didn’t have the information riches of the big scientific databases, just news about new publications and legislation.
I also had some involvement in some library automation projects, though I was rather on the fringes of them. We acquired a minicomputer with an enormous 20Mb hard disk, running a system called Perline that managed journal subscriptions. The library catalogue was also automated in a perfunctory way.
I left after six interesting years and next found myself running a hospital library in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This was a well-funded and ambitious library serving a tertiary hospital. The Director of Medicine (and chair of the Library Committee) had high ambitions of creating a research centre so pushed for investment in the library. We offered free online searches to any clinician with questions to ask, so during my time there I honed my online searching skills and mastered Medline’s intricacies. I also developed my PC and database management skills and had my first taste of MARC cataloguing. I became expert at coping with the hospital’s highly bureaucratic system where paperwork was seen as a virtue. I think it took a total of 15 signatures across various different processes to go from ordering a book to paying for it. And I recall having to write a 200-word justification for a request to purchase tape for sealing parcels, as it wasn’t in the standard stationery catalogue. We got the tape. But after three years I had had enough and I came home to the UK, wondering what might be in store for me next.
I started work as Deputy Librarian at NIMR, Mill Hill on 27th November 1989. This was a large, specialist research institute with a long history of excellence and a strong library tradition. My role was to provide information services, including online searches, to a highly demanding community of researchers. I had some adjusting to do, learning that the word “Medical” in the Institute’s title didn’t mean that we had any interest in medicine; rather it was physiology, neuroscience, immunology, biochemistry, cell biology and tons of molecular biology. I soon felt at home though. I recall on my very first afternoon dealing with an enquirer, realising I needed to do an online search and successfully getting connected and retrieving some useful results. I continued in this vein, essentially acting as an information scientist to the researchers and also as the Library’s first-line tech support as we gradually increased the number of PCs. In those days, just before networking took off, I used to hand-deliver Current Contents on Diskette to a half-dozen enthusiastic users. Soon we installed Medline on CDROM which meant that for the first time any user could search Medline for themselves- the beginning of disintermediation. Overnight I had to become a trainer as well as a searcher, and show anyone who wanted to know how they get useful results from Medline. We also managed to network Medline across the Institute, and I remember having dreams of being lost in network drives, as I struggled to master PC-NFS. One nice spin-off of MRC’s wider presence in the world was an invitation to spend two weeks in the Gambia training staff at the MRC Labs there how to use Medline.
The job afforded me some time to explore new trends in information, and to attend interesting meetings. Thus, in 1990, I discovered JANET (the UK’s Joint Academic Network) and delved into the possibilities it offered. The JANET IP service followed soon after and I started telling people about Internet, telnet, Gopher, WAIS and the WWW and the wonderful routes to information that they offered. I was like a drug pusher, getting people hooked, then configuring their systems by installing a Winsock client to let them access this new world of networked information. Before I knew it I was also NIMR’s first webmaster and I even created the MRC’s first homepage.
This was a fantastic time to be a librarian in academia and especially in research. The Internet unleashed so many new information resources, many of them free (this was really unusual back then) and many of them highly relevant for science. I got involved in some broader proselytising work, with projects funded by the precursor of JISC, to spread the word about networked information and I also helped develop training materials both for the wider MRC community and for the national BIDS service, which offered networked bibliographic databases for the UK academic community. My first ever talk at a public event was about this time. It was supposed to be a series of screen shots, showing biological information resources, but my floppy disk proved unreadable so I had to improvise a live demonstration, which was quite stressful in those days!
The eLib programme started in 1994 and it crystallised some of these developments and helped to push them further forward. It was a substantial programme of projects in the electronic library & information arena. I devised and headed up one project and took part in a couple of others. This was my first experience of project work and I learned a valuable lesson about the benefits of collaborative working (viz that it is harder than doing it yourself, but you get a stronger and more adaptable end result). I started getting invited to give more talks as a result of this project.
As the Internet grew, the concept of “searching” started to change. Searching was no longer mainly carried out by trained specialists, and was no longer predominantly about bibliographic databases. We started to consider the “Internet search”, and some of the more important specialised databases that were now available on the Internet, as critical parts of a search strategy.
I became aware of GenBank not long after joining NIMR, about 1990, when an enquirer asked me about a GenBank accession number. I discovered that Medline indexed these numbers, and thus provided a useful link between the literature and the sequences, even in those days well before Entrez or PubMed. I started using the GenBank Online Service (a basic vt100 interface) to retrieve sequence data. That was replaced by better interfaces, based on gopher and then WWW technology. I kept a watching brief on the increasing range of gene and protein sequence databases at NCBI, HGMP, EBI etc, but after a few years I realised this was too big a job. I could help people to find an appropriate database but when it came to data analysis I had to back off. I regret not being able to deal with this area more satisfactorily.
In 1999 I changed jobs. I stayed at NIMR but moved to the role of Librarian, rather than Deputy. This meant I was in charge so I had more headaches, with responsibility for Library budgets, staffing, strategy and sundry other things, but I also felt a stronger connection to the heart and soul of the Institute. Taking on responsibility for the NIMR archives and archive enquiries made me more aware of the fascinating history of the Institute and the scientists who had worked there, while having to liaise more closely with senior scientific staff made me more aware of the current scientific output and directions.
Shortly after becoming Librarian I agreed to take on the editorship of the Mill Hill Essays – a small annual volume of essays on scientific topics aimed at a general audience and written by NIMR staff and occasional guests. This led me into the field of public engagement, and I pushed myself to sample some of the smells and noises coming from the PEST arena, and to learn about the main players. I’ve been involved in some other engagement activities at NIMR too, e.g. initiating and helping to run the school essay competition. Part of me would like to be more involved with the public engagement work, but, as with sequence databanks, there is a limit to what I can do as a non-specialist. I do wonder whether the future audience for scientific information services will be as much the general public as the Institute’s own staff.
More recently I have added the role of information officer to my portfolio, producing research news items for the NIMR website. I attended last year’s World Congress of Science Journalists (WCSJ), to help me get a handle on the world of press releases and scientific news dissemination. I did feel a bit of a fish out of water but I learnt a good deal. The event was one of my first major dalliances with Twitter and I haven’t looked back.
Digital curation is a newish area that isn’t exactly information work, isn’t exactly IT, isn’t exactly science, but it requires ideas and skills from all of those fields. Digital curation asks questions about how you manage data and it tries to provide better ways for you to manage it, to ensure the data remains usable. I went to the IDCC (International Digital Curation Conference) a few years back, and had the sense of a new frontier. I attended again in 2009 (as it was in London) and the conference felt far more developed; there were several examples of library involvement in data projects.
And here I am, 30 years later. I am still called a librarian, working in a place called a library, and I am happy with those names. To me they encompass everything that I do or might do in the future. But I know that to many people those names conjure up different images. Last year in a single day I heard two people use the term “traditional librarian” with a sneer in their voice, both people who (I thought) should have known better. If your picture of a librarian is someone in a cardigan sitting with a big pile of dusty books, carrying out arcane tasks that no-one needs any more, then it is you who is out of date, not the librarian.
Disparaging “traditional librarians” strikes me as odd – which traditions are you referring to: the tradition of stone tablets, papyrus scrolls, parchment manuscripts, early printed books, scientific journals, mass produced books, online databases, CDROMs, Internet, e-books, data curation, social media? The tradition changes and the the librarians change with it.
I think I am probably the only person who attended both the WCSJ and the IDCC (Digital Curation Conference) last year. That’s a measure of the current breadth that “information service” encompasses today, how far information has spread.
I am a traditional librarian. I fly around in the space between user needs and information flows, trying to make connections between the two without getting crushed. Sometimes the gap between the needs and the information is quite large and I have plenty of work to do. At the present time it seems that the gap I have been flying around in (books, journals, database searching) is narrowing. Therefore I need to look for where new gaps are emerging – public engagement, public information, data curation, and whatever else the next ten years may bring.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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8 Responses to Thirty years of traditions

  1. Heather Etchevers says:

    Chalk one up for the traditional librarian, then. Very interesting history. I did have to look up a “curate’s egg”, though – and the mere fact of looking things up is probably a skill I learned from a librarian somewhere along the line, there.

  2. Henry Gee says:

    Well done, Frank. But you left out the interesting part – how did you get into librarianship in the first place? What chances and choices led you to that career? Would you recommend it? And so on and so forth.

  3. Frank Norman says:

    @Heather – Glad you found it interesting. I think “looking it up” is probably a better description of how people find information, rather than “searching”. And “looking up” is something you can pick up quite easily, hence little instruction is needed.
    @Henry – Sorry to leave out the interesting part! I think it may need another post to do justice to that, but it was born of a desire to be in science, but not at the bench. I enjoyed maths and chemistry at school, so planned to do a chemistry degree. A careers aptitude test suggested I was good on knowledge organisation so information science/librarianship was suggested as a career. Having no better ideas of my own I stuck to that as my chosen career.

  4. Maxine Clarke says:

    What a great post, Frank. I very much enjoyed reading it (as a fellow veteran – I have been in continuous employment since 1977 and before that was a hard-working (?) student). I was always fascinated by librarianship and in a world where choice was free, I’d have elected to be either a librarian or a film critic. So it is fascinating to read your account, thank you.

  5. Frank Norman says:

    Thanks, Maxine. I’ve often wondered whether the film critic Geoff Andrew is the same Geoff Andrew who used to be a librarian, specialising in film and media librarianship. If so, then you might even have been able to combine both careers!

  6. Martin Fenner says:

    Frank, very nice post. You have done some really interesting things during the last 30 years.

  7. Frank Norman says:

    Martin – thanks. I’d say ( in all modesty) that the last 30 years has been a very interesting time. I think many of my colleagues would have similar tales to tell. Provided you were willing to grasp opportunities that presented themselves there have been plenty of information avenues to explore.

  8. Nathalie Cornee says:

    1979 … that is the year I was born 😉 Sorry, that’s a bit cheeky. I’ve found reading your retrospective not only interesting but also very encouraging because it is clear that your career has been (and will continue to be) fulfilling.
    Also, next time I see you, can you show me some Medline CDroms?!?