This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. As the 2015 Code4Lib conference approaches, I wanted to share some conversations that Lisa Rabey had at the 2014 Code4Lib conference with some various attendees who were working through some issues dealing with gender in the profession. You’ll hear from J. Gubernick, Rachel Vasek, Vanessa Lucas, and Karen Coombs.
[Lisa] I’m with J. Gubernick. She’s the Web Development Librarian at Pima County Public Library and J., can you kind of give me a little bit about your background, about how you became a web development librarian.
[J.] Okay, so this is actually a pretty recent position for me that was just created two months ago. So I started out working in bookstores and then working as a paraprofessional in public libraries and I really liked working in public libraries, mostly because I had never worked in a female-dominated profession and although I don’t identify as female, I identify as genderqueer, just the lack of institutional sexism was really appealing to me about librarianship, so at that point I started going to library school and I got my MLS while I was working as a library associate and after I got my MLS and also a certificate in digital information management, I changed my status to substitute librarian and because I happened to know the person who was running the website, I started doing web development work just because she knew that I did that kind of thing as a hobby, so she kind of took a chance on somebody who hadn’t had a lot of professional experience with technology just because she’d worked with me, she knew I was good at it, and she had lost her professional developer and designer positions. So I did that for about a year and then they actually created a full-time web development librarian position. So I’m really happy that that worked out for me. This is my first time going to Code4Lib, so it’s been just really cool to kind of… You know, you feel kind of isolated being the only person in a, in a job and nobody else, even my boss doesn’t really understand the ins and outs of what I do, so it’s just been really cool to kind of make connections with the community.
Okay, so you said you kind of started playing around with doing web development on the side. Have you always been interested in technology, or was this a fairly recent thing? And, and to either question, kind of like how, what kind of lead you up to that point, to kind of start playing around with it?
So that’s cool, so you started out basically completely self-taught, but you’re kind of moving through the ranks as it were. What was kind of the support you’ve been getting, like within the library community?
Well, I probably should have mentioned earlier that when I was getting my MLS, there were some technology classes, like an XML class, a metadata class, that I took as part of my library school track and then once I, once I started working on the digital information certificate, it does do some digital archive stuff and it also focuses on, like, applied technology, so over the course of the, the program, you’re installing your own virtual servers, like, I think we did about 30 total, like you do your own installation of DSpace, or Drupal, or whatever and, so you become really, really comfortable with stuff that you might have been afraid of touching just because like “Okay, the whole class is doing it,” everybody’s like able to collaborate, so a lot of the people in those classes, you know, that was kind of painful for them, but there were a few of us who were really nerdy and really into that, so that helped me build a community and I also did a kind of, an unofficial internship where I did a year-long volunteer project with the website redesign committee at the University of Arizona libraries, where my partner works, so it was kind of easy for me to get an in because I was a Master’s student. I was just able to do it not as a student worker, but as an unpaid volunteer and they work with Drupal and a lot of like what I did was really boring data entry kind of stuff and web content stuff, which is also fun, but you know, totally not related to coding, but it was really helpful just to kind of see the project management side of major projects, like they redesigned two websites while I was there and the process of, you know, meeting with the stakeholders, translating the user needs into design and development tasks, how that kind of broke up between the development lead and the design lead and all that, so that was definitely really helpful for me and just to have contacts at the U of A library, which is also in Tucson, who I can kind of talk to about programming stuff.
That’s kind of amazing. Like, there’s, you’ve got all this built-in kind of community right there. Cause I know for some, there was kind of this “Oh my gosh I’m completely kind of alone and I don’t really have that support built in” and it sounds like you’ve just like kind of lucked out by that.
You know, the funny thing is, so until I came to this conference, I really like thought of myself as being, like, the worst programmer and like, I mean, I think a lot of it is because of taking, so I’ve been taking undergrad CS classes, just because, you know, “Hey why not keep improving these skills?”, learning new languages, learning things that were kind of gaps in my knowledge as far as like terminology, there’s like little things about how, like how to pronounce things that like you could have been working with some tool for years, but then you don’t know the right way to say it. So, you sound like an idiot, it’s kind of like a gatekeeper mechanism so, really like coming to this has really been eye-opening in terms of like oh maybe I’m not like “Oh I really lucked out into having this position and I don’t really deserve it” and like all this imposter syndrome stuff that was kind of in my head.
Yeah, I, that’s, that’s been a big topic of conversation with the people I’ve been having so far, is just that we all kind of feel a little bit like we’re not worthy to do this, but yet we are and so I wish I knew, like, sometimes it’s just been interesting to hear how, cause there’s also a community sense in that too, like the number of people who’ve kind of confessed “Yeah, I kind of feel a little like I shouldn’t be here” and then [laughs] and I’m like “Yeah, I agree cause I kind of don’t feel like I should be here either” and we’re all kind of nodding and we’re like okay, obviously there’s something to this that we kind of need to address. What about the dominant society who feel they’re being excluded from this conversation. Do you think that we need to make notice of that? Or do you think we need to apologize to them for this? Or, I kind of feel, I guess what I’m kind of getting at is that I kind of feel this is their already constructed reality, I don’t feel like I need to keep defending why I need to do these things. As a woman, as somebody who’s in a career field that’s predominated by men, but yet it seems that I’m asked to do this in order to play nice and it doesn’t, I am not as classy I think as Valerie is, because I don’t think I could have probably tolerated that question. And she handled it very gracefully and with a lot of poise, I think what, one day I hope I will, I will gain myself. But, any thoughts on kind of, like, that concept?
Yeah, actually, one thing that really stood out to me at the session and I won’t name names, I’m just going to speak in kind of a general quote of the thought that came up was, you know, somebody feeling that hey they are, they are in this position where other people are privileged above them and feeling guilty for not doing more and feeling guilty for not speaking up and I think this really works both ways where honestly I don’t really care if people who are very comfortable in their position of power and privilege feel a little uncomfortable, or feel bothered. I am really more concerned about people who are at a disadvantage and who are disempowered, who are feeling like they’re being personally taxed by this work because it’s really hard work and it’s emotionally draining, it’s very difficult just being a woman with, you know, just having a female name on the internet and putting stuff out there that’s completely non-controversial. Like when you go and put yourself out there in a way that you’re saying things that are very threatening to the established powers in the field, it’s… I don’t feel like anybody has the responsibility to do anything other than protect themselves, but I’m really glad that some people are comfortable doing this work because it really has to get done.
Yeah, I agree, I found it interesting that a lot of people that I had approached in addition to you to kind of interview, the main, there was a lot, I’m shaking my head right now, there was a lot of “No, I don’t, I don’t want to talk about anything about this topic because one, I have so much I have to process, and two, there’s so many facets in this conversation that we could be sitting here talking for days and will not cover everything. Three, you know, it’s just so overwhelming, I don’t even know where my place in this conversation begins,” but I think, again I think it kind of touches back that to what you had said and what Sumana had said, which is long as we’re kind of working through our privilege and we realize that these are the positions that we play, and how we can best help others, I think that’s gonna be the positive force that goes forward.
Yeah, and I think there is something that we said that yes librarians and technology, it is a male dominated subset of a female dominated profession, but that also means that we have a lot of privilege in the non-technology library field and I think that we could be, we have a lot of allies that we don’t necessarily see as allies, who are working in other parts of the library and who are very successful and influential, who can help us out with things that are more generally about librarianship, like the ALA Code of Conduct that wasn’t something that had to come from technical people and they’re a lot of things that we can all work together and I think that’s something that we should really strive for because I think that’s, that’s how we’re going to get anything useful accomplished, is by working together.
And somebody had asked me, they were like “Oh, well this is only about, you know all the topics you’re discussing, they’re only about libraries and technology right?” And I’m like no, I mean this is, you don’t have to be a geek or in tech or what have you to go and start talking about these issues. This is why it was important that whether or not they were a geek, checking out the geek feminism meme, all that other related stuff, but I think our time is coming to an end. I would like to thank J. for her time and for her expertise today and we’ll be talking to her soon.
[Lisa] Okay, I am with Rachel Vacek who is the head of Web Services at University of Houston. Rachel, can you kind of give me an idea of how you got to where you are and kind of the steps you did?
[Rachel] Hi Lisa, thanks for having me. I got to where I am, I’m, like Lisa said, I’m the head of Web Services. I started back in library school back in Pittsburgh and I originally didn’t know I wanted to be a librarian. I graduated with an English degree and I was working in a bookstore and I was waitressing and I came across this article about how libraries were really changing, how technology’s really changing the way libraries operate and the way the users interact with people in the library and I thought “Oh, maybe libraries aren’t all dusty, big places full of books.” Cause I didn’t have a lot of good experiences with libraries unfortunately when I was younger. So I thought I’d give it a try, cause I was kind of into technology and I managed a computer lab in undergrads so I thought I’d give it a try. And here I am now head of a web department, so you never know what direction you’re going to go in.
Okay, so when you said you were into technology in undergrad, so what were you specifically into? Like were a programmer? Were you just like…?
Well, the internet was all fairly new and I had had a basic programming class and I thought “Wow, I can build something and see the results like instantly and if it doesn’t work, I can keep working on it and make it better.” And I loved that possibility, so I had some basic programming and I liked stuff on the internet, I liked being able to access things, I thought that the internet was not going to go away. Luckily it hasn’t.
I think that’s kind of funny because I remember when, cause a class that I took, cause I did a Intro to Unix and I did C++ program and then I took something else and I remember when they installed Netscape, at that point I was only using Gopher, Telnet FTP, all that stuff and I was thinking “Oh this internet thing, you know the pictures is, you know, that’s just going to be a fad!” So, you know, if you were to have me be like a futurist, I totally would have failed as a futurist, so.
Yeah, so I’m excited I came in this direction and in library school I had a bunch of classes on information architecture, on XML, I actually learned XML before HTML – it was kind of weird, trust me – and CSS and I thought CSS was like the most amazing thing, the whole concept of separating content from design is awesome. And then, you know, the further you go into, to programming you’re like “Oh this concept works with other things too, I can separate this from this and do more with it!” So it was pretty amazing and I, in previous jobs, at other institutions I’ve worked at, I always kind of had the position of, like, part reference librarian or trainer, doing stuff with instruction, and a little bit of tech and I kept, I don’t mind the jack-of-all-trades, I think it’s been really good experience and it’s helped me understand a lot more of the needs in the library world and make me a more effective position as head of Web Services because when somebody’s talking about information literacy, I’ve kind of been there, I’ve lead a whole initiative at one of the other places I worked at around information literacy, I taught a three credit hour class on information literacy, so I feel like my background experience has really helped me in being a better head of a web department.
Now would you ever had considered going, like, in the private sector and basically like leaving libraries and doing your own development work or any kind of technology? Like, can you talk a little bit about like if you had like, what you’d be doing or, you know, why you wouldn’t necessarily go in that route?
Yeah, I think I wasn’t really interested in leaving academia because academia was familiar and comfortable and I could be myself, I didn’t have to wear a suit to work everyday, although now as a department head I wear a suit more often maybe than I’d like. But, I didn’t necessarily want to continue always programming. I’m more of a people person, even though I really like the possibilities of what you can build and do, but I also like having a team that I can brainstorm with and talk about big ideas and talk about what is it that we can build that will maybe make a service better, or an experience more memorable.
So, I kind of decided to go more towards that route and stick with the technology and stay in academia just because I think in the corporate world there’s a lot more pressure, and I’m not a developer. I mean, I can do some development and I can read code and I can understand what’s going on and I, I have a general understanding of how systems need to be integrated in order to provide a smoother, more seamless user experience, but I do not any more really want to be the hard-core developer and I worry that, you know, if I were to leave academia and go into that world it would be, I’d almost feel like an imposter, that no, I’m not a developer, I’m familiar with user experience, I’m familiar with, again, the things I previously mentioned about system integration, but I feel a lot more secure in an academic library. One of the things I have to remind myself all the time is that just because I’m not a developer and I’m managing a web development department, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have skills. I have mad skills with people, with creating buy-in, with getting maybe disparate people to work together and getting people excited about certain things. I like to bring ideas into the library and get people thinking about the what-ifs and the possibilities and I think it sometimes drives the guys or the very detail-focused introverted developers that I manage, it might drive them a little crazy at times, but I think it’s really important to have a diverse team.
One of the challenges I’ve experienced over the years is that sometimes developers or people working in technology don’t have a lot of empathy. Sumana, who works at Wikimedia and was the keynote speaker on Tuesday at the Code4lib conference, I really connected with what she said. She was talking about how a lot of people in the technology field don’t have as much empathy as some other people and that we really need to work on figuring out how to scale hospitality and I loved the phrase that she came up with, “disciplined empathy.” And I think that’s really important. In my library we do a lot of professional development and take tests to learn about ourselves and learn how we interact better with one another and one of the tests we took was an emotional intelligence test and it often referred to as EQI, your emotional intelligence quotient, and it was quite funny, I was the complete opposite of my team. So, I think sometimes that’s a challenge in management or when you’re working closely together on a project to solve a problem, when you’re trying to come up with solutions and some people in the team are very familiar with working together in a particular way and then you have a female intro, extroverted, opinionated person with big ideas coming in and the team suddenly has to adjust how they work together. So it’s challenging, but I like challenges and I think in the future, you know, when I’m hiring I want to make sure that I bring in diversity because it makes it a little bit easier, so it’s not so one-sided towards one way. Does that make sense?
Yeah, that makes total sense. Can you talk a little bit about your differences between when you were coming up and through the early days to where you’re at now and anything that you kind of noticed, that kind of stands out to you?
Sure, I can talk about that. One of the things first I noticed is that at this conference, Code4lib, there’s a lot of women here and a lot of diversity. Maybe not as much ethnic diversity that I was expecting, but I knew that there was a scholarship committee that is for women and minorities and I’m very pleased to see how many people are here of color and women. So, I was actually surprised by that because I remember being at the LITA forum and other more tech conferences years ago and there were a lot more guys. Even like you mentioned, in the library world, there’s, it’s predominately women so it is interesting to see how things have changed.
When I think back to my first library job, the tech department was all men and I wasn’t in the tech department, I was in a department called Electronic Information Services so I was kind of like a fine line between reference and technology. But most of the techies were guys and here I am in a library now where it’s all guys. But I’ve also seen a lot of really strong women leaders, like Karen, like Bess Sadler, Karen Schneider, there’s Sarah Houghton, I mean there’s tons of examples out there of people who are doing amazing things in leadership, not just in technology but in other areas so they’re sort of role models for a lot of people that, you know, helping us with our self-confidence, realizing “Yeah, we can do this and we’re just as good as, as other genders.”
When I had gone and approached a couple of males that were at the pre-conference, I’m like “Hey, you know, I’m doing a podcast for Steve, do you want to let me come interview you?” And they’re like “Yeah I don’t know if I’m the person you need to talk to.” And I’m like “Well you were there all day, you’re exactly the person I want to talk to” and they’re like “Yeah, but you know, you know…” they still, I think we’re still processing so much information and I totally get it, I mean one thing I had mentioned, I don’t know if you were there at the time when I did mention it, somebody had found my rebuttal to one of the code of conducts, somebody was slamming the code of conduct and my rebuttal was printed in Library Journal and one of, it was either Publishers Weekly or Library Journal, I don’t remember which and this person is apparently a big, he’s a persona non grata in SFF community, the Science Fiction and Fantasy community, and he referred to me as “Wacky Lisa,” or “Wacky Lisa the Librarian” all through his tens of thousand word length missive about women and gender and stuff like that. And I was like “Oh, wow I must have made it big if somebody outside the library community is slamming on me,” right? But it, you know, I had to, I couldn’t even read it, like after I found it was just, I had to step away. So yeah, it’s all, the vulnerability is definitely there and it’s even difficult to talk about between friends, as it were, because you don’t know what the other person’s thinking and you don’t want to disappoint them or step on their toes, so, you know, that’s, it’s kind of hard.
Yeah, it is very difficult to talk about issues that are a little touchy-feely and sometimes maybe more uncomfortable for certain people, whether or not you’re a guy or a girl and it is challenging and it takes what a former colleague of mine always said, courageous conversations to have the courage to talk about this, about the challenges that you might experience in being a leader who’s a woman in technology when you’re maybe a minority or maybe even the only one. And the challenges that you have to face in your, your job in working situations or sometimes conflict and knowing how to process those experiences, to understand those experiences and even maybe approach colleagues about how something made you feel when, again, it’s not something you can easily identify or put your thumb on. It’s very hard to have those courageous conversations about these issues. So I think this is a great opportunity to encourage all other women out there in library technology to speak up and don’t feel alone, that there’s other people out there who are probably feeling like you are and find a buddy. Find a mentor, find a colleague, find a friend, and it can be male or female, again it doesn’t matter, but find someone you trust and you can talk to about this and work through if you’re having a problem, find someone you can talk to and work through those problems.
Yeah, I had a conversation with a couple of people and I want to mention this because it’s important that there are people of color and I am attempting to woo them, well, I think I did woo them because they agreed, but wooing them for a project that I’m working on and both of them have emphatically said “I don’t want to be the unicorn,” and you have to respect that and I think that kind of can fold back into women who want to talk about these topics but can’t because they don’t want to be seen necessarily as The Voice when there’s other voices out there. But then it kind of, on the flip side though it’s like the conversations won’t get started unless somebody starts talking, so it’s kind of like, it’s like a dual edged sword, right? You know, you have to kind of make a conscious decision that you want to pursue this, that you know that sometimes, you know, there’s not necessarily going to be a positive response to what you’re doing and it goes back to what I said earlier, you know, there’s no real right way to do social justice and that’s one thing I keep reminding myself, that we’re all on different levels, we all have to kind of remind ourselves that we’re going at different speeds and that some of us are going to lag behind and some of us are going to gonna be, you know, fifty steps ahead and that’s also totally okay. But I think it’s important that we begin these small conversations, even amongst friends or colleagues and maybe we can kind of give each other the strength, to kind of move that conversation forward which is kind of the point of why I’m doing it, is that I want people to go back to their institutions after the pre-conf and be like “Hey, let’s, you know, let’s have a day of, and it doesn’t have to be diversity training, but let’s have a day where we’re talking about like allies and back-ups and back-ups meaning not backing up your server, but, you know, being a back-up in case of problems or what have you.”
Yeah, I’ve had a pretty diverse staff as head of Web Services. I’ve had transgendered, I’ve had female developers who were Taiwanese but lived in England and had a lovely accent. And I’ve had Asian, and I’ve had African-American and it’s been wonderful. Right now, my team is a little bit smaller and maybe a little bit less diverse, but I think there’s a lot of benefit to working with all kinds of people. One of the reasons I really like Toledo is because I found people that were like me. Whether they, any gender, any color, it was people who were struggling with the same things that I struggle with in technology, in libraries, and we could talk shop. We could get together over a beer and talk shop and we could share stories and share experiences and learn from one another. So I strongly encourage people coming into the field to network, network, network, network. And find someone that you aspire to, connect with them, stay in contact with that person and try your hardest. Be who you are and be yourself and if you’re true to yourself, and you try your hardest, I think you’ll succeed.
All right, well, thank you again, Rachel, and I hope I’ll be seeing you soon.
[Lisa] Okay, I’m with Vanessa Lucas. She’s a student at the University of South Carolina Library School of Information and we are going to be talking about a little bit of everything today, I think. So, Vanessa, can you tell me a little bit about as a student you’re kind of figuring out your paths and I know you and I had a couple of conversations off the record about, you know, you’ve become really super interested in tech and that’s kind of a path and you are especially passionate about doing that crosswalk between taking a geek talk and kind of bringing it over to plain persons right. So can you kind of give me a little bit of background on kind of how you got from before to where you’re at now?
[Vanessa] Yes, I actually have spent over ten years, probably about 15 years in the restaurant business so I was skilled in hospitality, provision and customer service and I really enjoyed that aspect. However, I felt like it was time to take another step. I started school in 2002 in the fall, 2012, pardon me, in the fall and I didn’t really know where I wanted to kind of land in the field of library and information science, however, I had just gotten started getting exposed to technology and really what it could do for us, especially in the climate of information studies and I started taking a couple of the intro classes and interacting with the learning system Blackboard and realizing a lot of the things that I kind of like to change and make different about that system. And moving forward into my classes, evaluating resources and performing research I started to learn and see some of the interfaces, some of the references and some of the resources that I kind of wanted to do, make some changes with. Initially when I began this path I really just wanted to help people and it’s kind of great because now I’m able to help people, but I’m also to help how their impressions are formed through technology. Currently, I am working on gaining a lot of the terminology necessary to interact with people in the field of libraries and library institutions, whether they be academic or public and I’m really interested in looking into opportunities that are going to allow me to grow my skill set in the environment of technology.
What kind of, like, interested you in coming into the pre-conf on libraries, technologies and gender and what did you expect? And then what did you get out of it? And then what are you leaving with?
I actually decided to come to Code4lib just as a kind of a step in a different direction, aside from ALA and my state organization. I did go to ALA Annual, ALA Midwinter and South Carolina Library Association conference in November and I just wanted to do something a little bit different and kind of get out there and I’ve currently been working on several different projects that are dealing with the application of technology in several different ways. But, I guess a part of it was I’m interested in a lot of technology, however, I didn’t have enough of a background in any of the other pre-conferences. So that’s kind of one of the things, but the other thing was I had heard so many great things about the ALA presentation during Midwinter in Philadelphia and unfortunately I had missed that, so I thought that this would be a great replacement. In actuality, it actually was, there were a lot of things that I haven’t had an opportunity to study in regards to gender studies. I do know that there are a lot of discussions going on in the library world and externally and I really just kind of wanted to be a part of that discussion and what I’m taking away is kind of the impression that everybody, everybody is subject to imposter syndrome, even though that wasn’t something that was directly discussed.
It’s kind of something that began the thread there with the description of the pre-conference and kind of wound its way throughout the conference. For me, as a, someone who thought I was an imposter, so that introduced that and the Ada Initiative, Valerie Aurora was very intriguing in the pre-conference as well as in the closing keynote and so I really felt grateful to have been able to interact with her and Sumana with the Wikimedia Foundation and just kind of start being a part of the conversation that’s going on currently with gender and technology and trying to get into a collaborative mindset with that as I begin my career.
So, what parts of technology are you super passionate about? And what are you looking forward in working with?
I’m actually mostly interested in the coding side. I’m just beginning, I started working with Code Academy as a kind of a side to all of my graduate work and the several jobs that I currently work. And it all kind of comes, stems from my initial interest in cataloging. So, you know, in the future I definitely see myself working with… actually, not too long ago I was able to kind of under the leadership of someone, build my own WordPress web page which was really great. So, you know, that tells you how really kind of green I am. But, the one thing that I’ve really learned over the course of the entire conference is, I have the ability to pick up these necessary skills and use, you know, my background to just kind of create these really awesome projects with the help of a lot of the materials that I’ve learned about. But, like I said, I’m just now starting with some, you know, playing around with Code Academy and I continue to, I will continue to work with that.
As far as people, since you’re fairly new to the community, do you want to talk a little bit about your experiences and then what you would recommend for other women who are interested in getting into libraries and technology?
My experiences kind of come from some guidance that I received early in my education and that was to get involved in as many different professional organizations as possible and so coming to Code4lib I was hoping to find a voice and find, you know, some people to talk to that had similar backgrounds as I. I would highly recommend anybody that is curious or interested in getting involved to get involved and not let it, not let the a lack of experience kind of stand in your way of doing so because it’s really where the growth starts to happen is where, you know, that, into that comfort zone of peers.
Yeah it’s really hard to kind of find your tribe. I’m not a programmer by nature, but most of my friends are programmers. It’s difficult to find people who are, like, interested in networking in server administration that are female. It’s been really difficult, I have found, like I don’t think I know anybody who is into it. Actually, I take that back, my friend Kate but she is not a librarian, she actually servers AS400 machines in Ohio, but yeah, you are right, I think there’s a lot of great opportunities, a couple of them are going to be the libtechwomen mailing list. If they want to concentrate on library specific. There’s also the IRC channel of the same name that can be found on Freenode. Both the tags, the hastags on Twitter and Tumblr for #libtechgender and the tag women are also going to be great places to start as well. I definitely always recommend that people check out both those options as far as finding information, primarily because there’s so many voices that are out there that the, and so many people use that tag now to disseminate everything. It’s kind of amazing that it’s been growing as much as it has. Other place, and other things you can do as well, which is the themes I’m highly encouraging people to actually take away from this, is when you go back to your institutions, start rallying the troops a little bit and kind of sit down and put the info on the Wiki so that we know where to find you. But I really do appreciate you taking your time today with me, Vanessa. Was there anything else you wanted to add before we kind of close out?
Actually no, I think that was pretty much it. I just wanted to thank you for putting this together, and I look forward to future collaboration with the group as well as Code4lib and all the other organizations, great organizations I learned about today.
Thank you again, Vanessa, I hope you have a good drive home and we’ll talk to you soon.
I’m with Karen Coombs who is the Senior Product Analyst for the Worldshare Platform at OCLC and today we’re going to talk about her experiences of being a women, not only in management but also in libraries and technology. So Karen, do you want to tell me how you got started?
So, my first job out of library school was as the information technology librarian at State University of New York, at Cortland. SUNY University of New York is a really, medium size college library and I basically was one of two librarians there who dealt with technology, the other person being the systems librarian. And my job was to deal with the library website primarily and the previous person who had had the job was a guy and when I called campus IT to get my password so that I could update the library website, one of the guys there said oh, “You’re the new chick in the library who’s dealing with the website.” So that’s kind of how I got my moniker of librarywebchick. I worked at SUNY Cortland for six years and then went to the University of Houston and became a department head, the head of web services there and I worked there for about four years before I left to work for OCLC and I’ve been at OCLC about four and a half years now.
I wanted to be in libraries ‘cause I’m a very detail-orientated and organized person and somebody said to me “Oh yeah, you should be a librarian.” What I didn’t realize when I got into libraries was that I sort of would be circling back and ending up back in the technology space because in high school I’d been really interested in math and technology, but I grew up in a really small town and being a woman and doing anything with science and technology there was, like, anathema, you couldn’t get a date. If you were good at math or science, and so even though I was offered a full ride in, or could have had a full ride in engineering at an engineering school, I didn’t go there, I, my bachelor’s degree is anthropology and music from a liberal arts school, cause it just was, the idea of having to be dealing with guys, teasing me constantly about the fact I was good at math and science did not appeal to me.
And, so, when I ended up in library school it was just sort of like oh great, now, what am I good at, library things, I’m good at cataloging, but I’m really good at this database technology, HTMLy stuff too. And most of my classmates who are good at that stuff, too, were also guys, so it was ironic to end up sort of back in the same space. So that’s basically kind of how I started in the profession and I’ve always done technology stuff, always done technology stuff and probably done pretty much every type of technology in the library from running the integrated library system and the proxy server to electronic resources of the library website. If it’s a technology in libraries I’ve done it ‘cause of working at a small place at the start, which I really like ‘cause it gives you a sense of just how much technical infrastructure is out there in libraries. But at the same time it can be a little daunting if you’re working in a small place, having to handle all that and being also asked to work the reference desk, or teach instruction sessions. So over the years I’ve sort of moved through the structure so that I could do more tech stuff and less library stuff, so there are days now where I’m like “Am I still a librarian?”
Okay, so you had this interesting background, so you came essentially from a science and math background and then ended up with a liberal arts degree and then you went into library school. So, in between all of that, like were you still kind of tinkering or hacking around with technology? Or were you just, like, not dealing with it til you got to library school? Or kinda, how did, like, your skills development before you got to where you’re at right now?
So, during undergrad I went into undergrad in the mid 90s, so the beginning of the internet, at least internet for the majority of people so I had an email address and I was learning how to, you know, chat with kids in California when I was in Wisconsin using, you know, Telnet and stuff and I still was sort of interested in it just from a perspective of “Oh this is neat, I can talk to other people,” and I worked on a project ‘cause I worked for the music department, where they needed a database built for all of their sheet music that they would use during the semester for classes. So, I was still doing technology stuff, but in sort of random ways. I worked for a professor and built her a database of all of her bibliographic citations and articles and I graduated and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew that I didn’t want to be a professor, which is sort of the path I was on with my degrees, but I knew I didn’t want to do that and so I bummed around for a year and took a job where I ended up doing some more technology stuff and helping with a database and this and that and so when I looked at library schools I kind of knew that I wanted to be a librarian, but I kind of also knew I wanted a technical bend to it. And so I looked at University of Wisconsin, University of Illinois and Syracuse and I ended up going to Syracuse because of the technology focus. But, I started out sort of thinking I wanted to do information architecture because my anthropology degree is in cultural anthropology and I’m really interested in the sort of psychology and anthropology of user interface and user experience. At least, I was at the time, like why do people organize things the way they organize things?
I took theory of subject classification representation where I was the only non-PhD student I think in that class and loved every second of it. At which point my adviser was like, “Why don’t you get your PhD?” And I was like, “No, no, no no.” So, you know, I always knew that I liked the technical stuff and I, and there, I knew that if I did technical stuff I’d be able to find a library job whereas everybody in my classes who were looking for reference jobs at, I could see that that was not going to end well. So, I started doing technical stuff and basically kept learning more and kept teaching myself more and kept learning more and kept teaching myself more and I ended up going back and getting my MS in information management from Syracuse from the I-school there, I guess they’re technically an I-school, but from the School of Information Science. And so during that time I took networking and telecommunications and security and all of kinds of things that IT managers and people who work in the IT sector would take and that was the point sort of where I tipped over and said yeah, I don’t really want to be a reference and instruction anything. I needed to find myself a job where I’m going to purely deal with library technology and that’s when I moved to Houston and took the department head job, but ultimately what happened was becoming a department head took me further away from, like, the actual writing of code and getting stuff done, at least I felt like it did and it wasn’t satisfying at all.
So, I resigned and went to work for OCLC because I wanted a job where I would have my fingers back in coding and making cool stuff again and so now I spend most of my time, well, my title’s Product Analyst and what Product Analysts do is they analyze stuff at a detail-oriented level and figure out how to build a product that solves all of those problems. So it’s very much about creating something and while most of the time I’m not involved in the actual coding of the thing we’re creating, a lot of the things we are creating are, well cause we work on web services, a lot of the things we’re creating when it gets created I get to test it cause, and act as the consumer, or as we say at OCLC the SME: the subject matter expert. So it, it’s kind of a unique place to be in cause I still get to play and build with stuff, I don’t have to build stuff that is real stuff, like, I don’t have to build productionized code because now that I work at OCLC I also am very humbled by what it really, really takes to build a production system because of the intense amount of process and tests and just making sure that something stays stable, but that doesn’t keep me from wanting to sort of play and tinker, so it, you know, it’s a great mix and it’s a great opportunity because I get to work on very leading edge kinds of things, like we have real use cases for linked data and we have real things we’re trying to do with them and if I was in a, most academic libraries, even some of the big shops, like, I wouldn’t have that opportunity at all, which would be a huge bummer cause I’m just not satisfied with usually working on, you know, the day-to-day same old, same old.
So, we kind of came up in the same age and I know that when I was in undergrad, also in the mid-90s, that one of the big things was that women weren’t really in tech and then the fact that I actually personally really got into it at such an early, I guess an early age, well relatively early I guess, you know the 14 year olds in Iowa and they can, they don’t count. But, I know then, it was kind of harder to kind of break in if you were coming in to technology and I’m finding it now, it’s almost harder than it was back then, even given all the promotion that’s given to kind of extend women into STEM and making all the opportunities available to them. Are you, do you still find that to be true as well? Or, you know, what’s your experience with, kind of that now versus women breaking into technology.
So, in terms of breaking in, like, it was easy for me to break in because the market place was such that they needed a warm body and that’s not me demeaning my skills. It’s me saying, like, any prejudices that people might have had against the fact that I had, that I was a woman didn’t matter because they needed somebody and so in some respects it was “right place at the right time,” they needed somebody and it didn’t matter if that was a woman or a man. And so while they might of judged, judged me differently had there been a male candidate, I suspect they probably would have, they didn’t, there wasn’t one and they were like, “You seem skilled, we will bring you.”
You know, I personally, every job I’ve had I haven’t had any trouble getting. My challenges have more been with what I refer to as street cred. It stinks to be a woman working in a group that’s entirely men and not having the guys feel like they can trust you, like there’s not a known quantity to them and so it, you know, every place I’ve worked I’ve had to sort of start with sort of “Hmm, I’m not sure I trust you, do you really know what you’re doing?” and work from that to “Yeah you really know your stuff!” and that takes time and it can be sort of a painful process, but you know you just have to get in there and prove that you do know what you’re doing and the easiest way to do that is to take on something that’s a challenge and do it and demonstrate to everybody that “Yeah, I do know what I’m doing, I can do this.” I think also getting in the space is difficult because you don’t have anybody who you can look at and say well that’s how she did it, so I’ll just follow that same path, you know, this is the path to get in the space.
Like I remember when I first met Bess Sadler here at Code4lib, I was just like “Oh my god, oh my god, there’s somebody else like me who looks like me, talks like me, walks like me” in terms of like most the women I’ve met in technology work in a different place in the technology spectrum as I refer to it, like they work on front-end design or they might do sys admin. I hadn’t met anybody who wrote code, who was a woman and, so, meeting Bess was a big deal for me, it was a really big deal and then I met Naomi Dushay who also works at Stanford and that was even like more cool and sort of like oh good, more people who write code, more people who write code. I write code, you write code and I think in the early code years that was the hardest thing, was like who’s like me in this space ‘cause yes, there were women in the space, but I didn’t always feel like the other women were like me in the space because they were like “Well I’m working on user experience blah blah blah” and I’m like not that what you do isn’t super cool, but that’s not what, that’s the itch I’m trying to scratch so who’s trying to scratch the same itch that I’m trying to scratch. So meeting Naomi and Bess and Andromeda was really useful for me because they were coders. I think it also helped when Dan Chudnov said to me, I kept saying to Dan, “Yeah I just hack around,” and Dan said “No, no, no you write code, like you code, you’re a coder!” He’s like “You’ve got to stop acting like you’re not a coder, you are, that’s what you do” and have Dan say that was a very big self-esteem booster and you know, sometimes that’s all it really takes to break into a space, is like having somebody appreciate you and say, “Yes you belong here, you are one of us.” So, like I still have a lot of nostalgia for Code4lib because of coming and knowing the people that I know, or they’re in the early days who, you know, who were interested in the stuff I was working on and encouraged me, so, you know, I’m never going to forget that.
The unicorn that is known as a work/life balance. Have you found something with your skill? I mean being in tech people are usually pretty intense, so have you found some way to kind of balance between your home life and your work life that kind of makes sense for you? Like, for example, I know a lot of coders who, they’ll work and then they’ll get home and then they are not touching a computer at all.
So, for me, when I started working at home I had to basically come to some sort of detente about what was work and what wasn’t work and when I was going to work. So I have a space that’s basically my designated work space and if I’m not in there, I’m not doing work and if I’m in there, I’m doing work. So that keeps things fairly well split. I think the hardest thing for me is, with motherhood, is not wanting to go back to work. Like, there’s a part of me that didn’t really want to go back to work cause my son is six months old and he’s so cute and I feel like every little moment I miss, I just want to cry a little and die a little inside, but at the same time I feel like if I was missing out on some of the cool stuff that’s going on at OCLC, I’d cry a little or die a little inside too, so it’s a nice balance, like, I end my day when I end my day and I go get my son and I bring him home and we play and we do all the things that are not technical at all, not related to technology, we play peek-a-boo and he chases me around the house in the walker and it is such a great, refreshing change from “Oh crap I’m gotta look at how many more lines of code today? And read how many unit tests?” That it actually helps keep it in balance by having such a different kinds of things to do.
Thanks so much, Karen.
Hey, it’s Steve. Thanks again to Lisa for guest hosting this episode and facilitating these conversations.
[laughter] Thanks, J., I think this is where Steve’s, like, ninja skills at editing are going to come into play, so Steve, you can leave this bit in or you can leave it out.