By Eileen Boswell
Local library hero Karen Huffman said something that changed my life. During a Fall 2007 presentation to my information systems class at the Catholic University of America, Karen commented that, “Special librarians work in the white spaces of the organizational chart.” The next day, during an interview with a small non-profit organization, I was asked, “And what do you think the role of a special librarian is in an organization such as ours?” Without missing a beat I replied, “Special librarians work in the white spaces of the organizational chart.”
Judging by the reaction I got, I may have been the first applicant to deliver a concise answer to that question. I was offered the job, accepted, and immediately contacted Karen to ask, “Who said that?” She told me that Susan Fifer Canby, retired Director of Libraries & Information Services at National Geographic, would often urge library staff to “get into the white spaces.” I later found the reference in a commencement speech Susan gave at the University of Maryland, and in a 2004 Information Outlook article. It is the single bit of wisdom I needed to focus my work in an unstructured, choose-your-own-adventure library position.
While I do a bit of cataloging, some web development, and the occasional research project, my real work has been to get comfortable with a very broad concept of “user needs” and “librarian response.” Sometimes I walk around the office asking people what they are working on so I can plan my next foray into the white spaces. Recently a colleague was lamenting the fact that we never catch things like Distracted Driving Awareness Month (April) or Disability Awareness Month (October) before it’s too late, so I created an “Opportunities Calendar” for staff to share. Our white spaces have also allowed me to draw up a marketing timeline for a website re-launch, draft a Twitter style guide, notarize documents, and plan a national conference session on what census data means for rural transportation. In another organization, the white spaces would look very different, but this is where I am right now.
I loved the day when one of my coworkers needed my library skills to determine how many paratransit trips in Florida last year were rural. But just as satisfying was the day I taught someone how to find the R/G/B values on a project logo so we could reproduce it in web-safe colors. What do your users need?
Eileen Boswell works as Information Specialist at the Community Transportation Association of America. This summer she will be part of the Success Stories of Solos panel at SLA 2011.