Saturday, March 21, 2009

SLA-TSG Event Report: Alternative Careers Panel (March 19th)

This past Thursday the SLA Toronto Student Group, jointly with the TALL student representative, hosted a panel of information professionals employed in some of the alternative (meaning non-library) career paths available to iSchool graduates. The turnout was significantly higher than that of our other recent panel, with a head-count, this time, of somewhere between 35 and 40. There were enough attendees that the TALL rep actually had to go drag chairs in from a nearby student lounge to accommodate the extra bodies. Evidently iSchool students (many of whom will be graduating this Spring) are very interested in finding less-than-obvious uses for their degrees. It would be trite of me to pin this on the state of the economy, but it's a tempting conclusion to draw, nevertheless.

We had five panelists this time around. They were (from left to right):

Alison Colvin: An FI graduate from the early '80s, now working as Director of Information Services for the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal.

Eileen Lewis - An FI graduate from just last year, now working as an information officer for United Way Toronto.

Jennifer Toews: An FI graduate from 1998, who for the past nine years has worked at the Fisher Rare Book Library at U of T, arranging and describing author papers.

Sophia Apostol: A Western graduate (and recent Professional Profile), now working for Coutts Information Services.

Jennifer Zhang: An FI graduate from 1995, now working as a researcher for the Sunnybrook Foundation.

The positions held by these five panelists fell broadly into a few major classes. Jennifer Zhang and Eileen Lewis said they were involved, for the most part, in what's known in the non-profit world as “prospect research.” Prospect research, as these two explained it, is essentially the art of leveraging information to actively locate and solicit donations from wealthy individuals whose backgrounds and interests suggest they might be willing to donate sizeable amounts of money to whatever specific cause or organization is paying for the research. Jennifer put it most succinctly: “It's all about making the right ask, at the right time, for the right program,” she said. Eileen added that “there really is an impact” associated with this type of research; United Way studies have shown that well-researched donation requests always produce better donations than more passive methods of soliciting contributions. “It's a really nice sector to work in,” Eileen added, perhaps alluding to the fact that this kind of activity, while competitive, isn't exactly crass or corporate, either. To work in prospect research is to serve humanitarian causes. Jennifer and Eileen mentioned that the salary is great, as well.

Sopia Apostol and Alison Colvin both had positions that defied easy description. Their actual job duties sounded malleable, as though they could change at any time according to the dictates of whatever data and human resources requirements happened to arise. Sophia's job was mutable to the extent that she was actually able to mold its description to suit her own tastes—she made it up from scratch with input from a contact at Coutts. “I wrote out, like, this dream job description,” she said, which then became a working reality. Her job now consists, she said, of “a lot of train-the-trainer” duties. She's also involved in creating a wiki-driven knowledge base.

Alison said she was likewise involved in building a knowledge base for her employer, using Microsoft's Sharepoint product. Aside from the informational aspects of the task, which her years as a legal librarian had left her well prepared for, she said there was a pronounced human aspect to her work at the Tribunal. For instance, to convince Tribunal members, most of whom were in their seventies, to contribute to the knowledge base, Alison and her team hit upon the idea of moving payroll functions onto Sharepoint, to serve as an irresistible enticement to participation. In other words, no Sharepoint, no paycheck. Alison said that she looks to hire new employees who possess the “relationship-building skills” necessary to work and navigate in this highly social information environment.

Sophia and Alison were also in agreement on another very important point: being an information professional means finding ways to make oneself invaluable to an employer. “You want to be part of the solution,” said Alison. This means getting close to decision-makers and finding out what problems are facing an organization, then devising ways of using information practices to alleviate those problems. In Alison's case, this involved attending lots of board meetings and listening very closely to all that was being said. “I'm a nosy person,” she said. Her natural curiosity seems to have paid off.

Jennifer Toews was the member of the panel with the closest thing to what could be considered a traditional library job. Her primary job function at Fisher, she said, is arranging and describing personal papers of authors and poets, but she's also responsible for negotiating directly with some of those authors and poets for donations of new material. This aspect of her work coincides with some of the social competencies touted by Sophia and Alison. “Building interpersonal relationships is very important,” Jennifer said.

In general, it seems as though pursuing a career in any of the “alternative” areas of information professionalism requires a combination of talent, drive, and political acumen. It seems as though there's plenty of opportunity for the quick and the clever to find their place in some of the information world's interstices, recession or no recession. Oh, right--we weren't going to talk about the economy. Sorry.

Jennifer Zhang and Sophia Apostol left behind lots of business cards, many of which are still in the possession of the SLA-TSG. If anyone who attended the panel would like to get in touch with Jennifer or Sophia, they should not hesitate to contact us.