Kerri Hicks (’14) is the Library Web Manager at Brown University. Kerri has been working as a web developer and programmer since the 90s and offers fantastic insight into the integration of the library and technology.
Kerri, you are the Library Web Manager at Brown University. What do your responsibilities include?
My primary responsibilities involve developing content and web infrastructure for the library’s web site. We support all sorts of digital services, including our interlibrary loan tools, content management systems, and of course, LibGuides. There are three of us in my group, one of whom focuses on web content such as publicizing our events and workshops, keeping web page content up to date, social media, blogging, and such, and the other person focuses more on the care and feeding of our content management systems.
I also work with librarians who want to publish specific content about their areas of expertise, with Special Collections to help build online exhibits, and I develop and recommend policies to make sure our web site is useful, usable, and consistent. For some of our patrons, most of the work they do is online — so to them, the library *is* the web site. We want to make sure their experiences are as positive as those our face-to-face patrons enjoy.
What do you find the most rewarding about your position at an academic library? What do you find the most challenging?
The most rewarding part of my job is when people tell me that the work *we* do makes *their* work easier. It’s the interactions with both patrons and other librarians that encourage us to work collaboratively and come up with creative solutions to interesting problems. My favorite part of my job, though, is probably our Personal Librarian Program. At the beginning of the year, every librarian who wishes to participate is assigned a handful of first-year students, and we become the “personal librarian” for each of those students. We send them emails periodically to let them know about interesting or helpful things going on in the library, and encourage them to get in touch with us about their research work, or any other questions they have about using the library. Those interactions invariably put a smile on my face. I’ve also been given the opportunity to staff our online reference chat for an hour a week. I absolutely love doing that.
As for challenges, really it’s the changing nature of libraries in general that patrons are continuing to adjust to. We offer so many services, sometimes things that our visitors would never dream of, and it’s hard to break the stereotypical perception that a library is a quiet place (shhhhh!) where lots of books live. Actually, no, it’s not! I mean, sure, we have lots of books, but along with our more traditional circulation, reference, outreach services, special collections, and such, we have built modern collaborative spaces, offer workshops on managing data and scholarly communications and citation management, have a makerspace with 3D printing, 3D scanning, and audio/visual production areas, we support innovative digital humanities projects…we’ve even got a collection of recent entertainment DVDs that students can check out!
Before obtaining your MLIS at URI, you were a web developer at two higher education institutions for nearly twenty years. What drew you to the Library and Information Studies field?
Honestly, I’ve wanted to be a librarian since the early ‘90s. Shortly after I finished my undergraduate degree, I got a job at a magazine as an editor and fact checker. Now, in the ‘90s, we didn’t have much in the way of an Internet — much of the fact-checking I did involved me calling the Providence Public Library, and asking them random questions. At least a few times a week, I’d ask all manner of questions: tidal conditions in the nineteenth century, middle names of politicians, financial figures from non-profits…you name it, the librarians were able to help me. The appeal for me was strong. “These people know everything!” I thought to myself. It wasn’t in the cards then for me to go to graduate school, but once the timing was right, I was delighted to have the opportunity to work on an MLIS at URI, and make a career change.
While at GSLIS, were there any experiences or classes that had an impact on your work?
A lot. Early on, I took Information Ethics, and it really changed my thoughts about what libraries are and what they do. As someone who’s responsible for lots of electronic information, I make a point to recommend and follow information retention guidelines. I don’t want to know who’s searching for what on our web site. So while we do aggregate data about our web site usage, I know, from having taken this course, that I mustn’t keep a store of data that tracks what our web visitors search for or read.
Also, even though I don’t do collection development, that course really changed my perception of materials and services that libraries offer. I’ve never been one who’s found it easy to part with books, but after that course, I realize that sometimes, you have to scale back services or weed materials in order to make room for better offerings. Are there services we are putting effort into supporting that folks don’t really use anymore? That sort of evaluation should be ongoing in any library.
And probably the most important course I took was Research Methods with Professor Adams. My final project in that class has been a model for a research project I recommended, and am currently leading, in our library. Having a framework for setting up and developing this research project was a huge benefit.
For future librarians, where do you think the profession is heading? And as an award-winning web specialist, what tools and skills do you believe to be the most valuable to new grads?
If I really knew the answer to that, I probably wouldn’t have to work another day in my life. 🙂
But seriously, I think the most important skill that any librarian can have is empathy, and an understanding of the experiences of information seekers. We often need to predict what our patrons are going to need, before they even recognize that they need it. We need to understand that our visitors may be stressed out or embarrassed or frustrated after trying to find information themselves, and sometimes the kindness we offer is as valuable as the information we share.
Of course, it’s also critical that librarians have a high level of digital literacy. Knowing how to power-search the web (thanks, Professor Izenstark, for teaching me about Google’s “Verbatim” search filter!), learning all the tricks and advanced features of our databases, OPACs, WorldCat, interlibrary loan request programs, and all the other tools we use regularly should be a core competency of all librarians. Knowing your tools inside and out is the hallmark of an excellent library service provider.
When it comes to delivering electronic services in libraries, the most important tools we have are words, images, custom-built user experiences, and the quality and consistency thereof. It sounds simplistic, but really, online library services have become disjointed and confusing. If we can avoid jargon (should patrons really have to learn the difference between OverDrive and the catalog? EBSCO and Springer?), and realize that we are not our target audience (we librarians know the ins and outs about how libraries work — to most patrons, looking something up “on the web” at the library shouldn’t involve searching in five different tools in five different places), we can go a long way in offering amazing levels of online services to patrons.
Do you have any advice to library professionals graduating from GSLIS?
Really invest time in learning the differences between school library/media work, public library work, academic library work, and special library work. Before starting the GSLIS program, I really had no idea there was such a broad and deep difference between them. Also, do everything you can to become a power user of technology. A lot of the people I support in an academic setting have a great deal of experience with technology, so expectations for what I know are high. But you also have the opportunity to share that knowledge and those skills with others who may not be as technologically literate.
And finally, stay in touch with your classmates, and remain involved with GSLIS alumni and faculty! Some of the best professional development opportunities and networking I’ve had have been through the folks I met and worked with in our program.
By: Allison Barker & Alyssa Taft