The Specialist Is In

Three women reading a book together in a library setting

Instruction and information sharing in a school library, 1951. (CC)

This blog post was written by Rachel Baron Singer, a User Information Services Specialist.

I had only been a User Information Services Specialist for two weeks before a student employee approached me for professional guidance. I knew the position had been created for this very purpose—to provide added expertise on the reference desk and support for student staffers—but nonetheless, when this first happened, I found myself somewhat taken aback; baffled that I could be perceived as an authority by anybody else, when in fact I had only just made the transition from student employee to regular staff member myself. I was even more surprised when the answer I offered was met, not with wariness, but rather with an exuberant response of “Now it makes sense! That’s so helpful, thank you!” As I picked my jaw up off the floor it dawned on me that maybe I knew what I was doing, after all.

I became a User Information Services Assistant (i.e. a student reference employee) in the Summer of 2014. Getting the job was unexpected. I was neither a University of Michigan student, nor was I initially planning on a career in reference. In actuality, I was studying digital archiving at Wayne State, and only doing an observation at the Hatcher Library reference desk for a required class project. But when somebody at one of the best academic libraries in the country says “Hey, do you want to work here?” it’s advisable to say yes, and thus I soon found myself a member of UM’s Ask a Librarian team. When I graduated a little over a year later, the User Information Services Specialist position opened up, and before long I had a salary, an office, and, it must be said, subscriptions to more staff email listservs than I knew existed. Somehow, I had managed to turn my student job into an actual career.

It’s difficult to make the mental leap from “I’m a just student; I’m so green,” to “Stand back, everybody, I’m a reference professional!” but interactions like the one I mentioned above make the transition a whole lot easier. Training new student employees has been a wonderful experience for me, and not just because I get to share my nerdy passions for research and data tracking with a captive audience. Rather, I’ve discovered that, on a professional level, there’s nothing quite as bolstering as being able to share your knowledge in a way that not only helps others grow, but also reinforces your own sense of skillfulness. Developing the necessary tools to do your job is one thing, but imparting what you’ve learned along the way to those just getting started is what makes it expertise.

I recently had the opportunity to sit on a hiring committee for another User Information Services Specialist, and despite being one of the least senior staff members in the group, I found that, just by the virtue of being in the position myself, I had knowledge to share with the candidates that nobody else could provide. This was especially true when it came to the candidate we ended up hiring, who, like me, had started as a student employee, and was interested in taking the next step in her career. My student background made me uniquely qualified to answer her questions about moving from one role to another.

Because of these experiences, I’ve made it my goal to explore more professional leadership opportunities in the coming year—a decision I don’t think I would have made without my student employee background. Obviously, the desire to share information is an integral part of librarianship, but I think my personal trajectory has made me especially passionate about training and guiding new students. Before, I was mostly focused on providing access to reference; now, I actually aspire to be one myself. I’m a specialist; come and ask me.