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2001 by SLA WCC

Learning valuable lessons, and painful ones, on the "cutting edge"

by Michelle Mallette

I had arranged to carry out a two-week practicum at AMEC's Research and Information Services in the summer between my first and second years of library school. Ten days before I was to start my practicum, I received a call asking if I could start the practicum a week early, and then stay on for the summer.

AMEC is a provider of services, engineering and project development to clients in the forestry, pulp and paper, mining, infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, and power sectors. My undergraduate degree is in history. But I blithely clung to the principle that a good librarian (even a student one) does not need a subject specialisation to be able to provide information service in that subject.

Then someone asked for a standard. Coolly, I tried not to look blank or scared, but interested and relaxed. I copied down all the information, even remembering to ask for their name, sent them on their way, and proceeded to pester my colleagues with questions: What's a standard? What's ASME? How do I look this up in the catalogue? What do you mean, they might not be catalogued? Are they shelved by letter or number? WHAT'S A STANDARD?!!!

Now of course, after more than four months of chasing down British standards, IEEE standards, CSA standards, building and fire codes, among others, I consider myself a standards queen (as opposed to a standard queen; that would be Liz), able and willing to find a standard on any subject, knowing now that in this special library, that IS the easy question!

Without divulging the information requests I was asked to perform, I must say I can name nearly every pulp and paper mill in North America, I can pronounce Norske Skog (it's skoog), and I agree that the best company name in the world is Sons of Gwalia.

I also learned to use DB Textworks. I didn't just search for and retrieve records, though. I added records, edited them, created PDF, xml and html versions of documents, fired them off to different groups of subscribers, and even created a whole new database containing more than 700 records. Those folks at AMEC really work their summer students, let me tell you!

Several things struck me about special library work:

  • The variety of the questions is staggering. It seems it isn't possible to ever know enough to be prepared to address any question.
  • I was unprepared for the isolation of the service from its customers. Most of my questions came via e-mail. I've never met Vince, but he made my day with a reply to some information I sent him: "You rock!" Another distant client sent me into gales of laughter, when he responded: "I feel somewhat oppressed by your abundant and relentless efficiency. I shall have to perform my task here with somewhat more alacrity than I had planned if I wish to live up to the standard of your assistance." I'm working that one into my resume.
  • I was also surprised by the librarians' reliance on the Internet for information, and the success of that approach. Their ability to ferret out facts and data from a variety of sources was astounding.
  • The marketing aspect of special library work was also quite startling. They never missed an opportunity to promote their service, and made sure to take credit for their work. They constantly evaluated how to best provide access to online resources via the intranet, and were always flexible when responding to special requests - How can we do this? never Can we do this?

All in all, it was an illuminating summer for me. I laughed a great deal, cried once, struggled and determinedly overcame, decided I needed a lot more training in reference work, and felt the thrill of finding just what was needed, just in time. It reaffirmed my decision to become a librarian, and given more training and a few years of experience, I might even be a good one.


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