When I entered SILS in 1973 I had never heard of special libraries. When I left in 1975 I had already been working in one for six months. Thirty-five years later I retired after a career spent working in and leading U.S. Government specialized libraries. I’m sure most students entering SILS have a vague plan to work in academic or public libraries, as I did, but I know from personal experience that SILS is a place to broaden one’s horizons and find--or perhaps create--one’s own niche.
I was fortunate to be in the first group of interns to work part-time at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency library in nearby Research Triangle Park while taking classes at SILS. Facing huge boxes of books and technical reports sent from EPA offices around the country to the newly consolidated library, and guided by a solo librarian dedicated to customer service, we interns quickly gained practical experience applying the theory we had been learning in classes at SILS. I had the opportunity to use lessons from my academic libraries classes, from cataloging and reference, and from the burgeoning areas of database management and online searching--subjects that are now fundamental to the SILS curriculum. I found that special libraries appealed to me because of the emphasis on the practical, the variety of tasks on a daily basis, and the immediate level of responsibility I was able to assume. I enjoyed getting to know our patrons--who uniformly were highly motivated seekers of information--and seeing how our assistance to them had an evident impact on their research and publications.
Upon finishing my studies at SILS, Dean Edward G. Holley, who had initiated the EPA Internship Program, offered me the job of On-site Supervisor of the interns, really launching me down the path of special librarianship. Although Dr. Holley was an expert in academic librarianship (serving as president of the American Library Association in 1975), he had a sharp interest in specialized technical libraries. He hired Dr. Herman Henkle, retired director of a large special library and a past president of the Special Libraries Association (SLA), to teach the special libraries seminar and advise the EPA internship program. These two professors had a long-lasting influence on me; not only did they spark my interest in special libraries, they also encouraged me to take an active role in library association leadership. As a result, I became active in the North Carolina Chapter of SLA, serving as president, and in the subject division on the national level, serving as chair of the Environmental Information Division. In subsequent years, I served on the international SLA’s Board of Directors and was a candidate for association president. I had the honor of chairing SLA’s Centennial Commission and planning the anniversary conference in Washington, DC, in 2009. So it was from SILS professors that I was inspired to be actively involved in library associations and reap the benefits of peer interaction and professional support throughout my career.
After two years at EPA, I was hired by the U.S. Government’s National Institutes of Health to build up the library at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in the Research Triangle Park, NC. I hardly suspected that I would spend 33 years there. From SILS and the EPA internship, I had gained the confidence to head a library and to know I could expand its services. When I started as the first professional librarian at NIEHS, I supervised a staff of four technical assistants serving 400 scientists and administrators. When I retired, we had five more professionals on the staff and two SILS students, serving 1,000 scientists and administrators. Our collection had grown from 1,000 books and a few subscriptions to a high at one time of 125,000 volumes, 900 subscriptions, and 9,000 online journal titles.
A number of factors kept me at NIEHS all this time. Certainly the subject matter and the sense that I was contributing to basic research and the welfare of humans in our environment was fundamental. Beyond that, and even with the fluctuations of federal budgets and initiatives like Re-inventing Government, I was able to hire outstanding staff, provide new services, implement new technologies, and have a discernible effect. Using the basic techniques learned at SILS, I concentrated on automating work and services and stayed on the cutting edge in library automation. I led the effort to bring OCLC services to special libraries in the RTP, pioneered microfiche and then online public catalogs, introduced client-server architecture in catalogs using microcomputers, and initiated the transition of the catalog to Web-based services. In 1996 I planned a new library and led the move to our new, larger facility. In more recent years, I negotiated agreements with a consortium of other Federal health libraries enabling us to gain access to thousands of online journals, books and databases at reduced costs. As a result, we remodeled the library to take advantage of space savings. With the advent of the Internet and Web services, I moved our reference librarians from behind the desk to being informationists embedded in lab groups, and I initiated a bioinformatics section within our information services. Besides relying on the fundamentals learned at SILS to pursue all these initiatives, I benefited from an on-going relation with SILS: in 1985, I convinced NIEHS to join EPA in the UNC Internship Program and employed three SILS students every year. Without doubt, the new ideas and ways of seeing things these students brought to our workplace brought to me an annual, invaluable renewal of energy and interest. The benefits of an education at SILS truly have lasted throughout my career.
I wound up working in specialized libraries because I was flexible and because SILS had prepared me to work in a variety of settings. Today, special libraries themselves are in decline, largely due to the ubiquity of online information resources, especially Google and online journals and other databases. But the skills for acquiring, organizing, managing, and delivering information that are taught at SILS are still needed in the government, corporate and academic sectors. The evolving role of information professionals in these settings has required changes in the curriculum, and SILS leads the way in preparing these knowledge workers of the future.