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An interview with Jill Emery

Interview by: Arnaud Pelle

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Photo: Jill Emery
Jill Emery is head librarian, Serials and Electronic Resources at the University of Texas Libraries at Austin after several years as director for the electronic resources programmes at the University of Houston.

This interview was conducted as she prepared to take up the post.

Has librarianship always been your vocation?

I am not entirely sure about that to be perfectly honest. The intent initially was that this would be an interim step before I went on and did something else. However, there's still enough challenge in it for me and I'm happy being where I'm at right now.

What advice would you give to LIS students?

My advice is to always try and get some practical experience so as to have a sense of what things are. I'm pretty adamant that students should have a job and work in a library at the same time because a lot of what you've been taught at the classes is a more theoretical approach to things. Sometimes it shocks people when they have gone straight through a degree and they're suddenly faced with the reality of their first job. Libraries are pretty bureaucratic organizations and a lot of what you learn working in a bureaucratic organization is what the bureaucratic paths are. This is something that a lot of students don't quite grasp and understand when they first start out.

What are the challenges you face in your position?

There are a couple of challenges. Right now, there's still no real consistent way to manage work flow and to manage the whole life cycle of electronic resources. I'm still trying to find better ways of doing that. Electronic resources are vastly different from other format changes that have happened in the past. You hear some of the older librarians say that electronic resources are just like microforms of the past. It turned out that we could process microforms just like we process print, but electronic resources are very different. With electronic resources, you're putting things out there virtually, for people to get access to. There's the opportunity for that person to turn around and come directly back to you.

Electronic resources librarians face more of a public role than acquisitions librarians in the past. It's a different situation because access is not always consistent. It's not always being maintained for you by the providers who are giving it to you, so you also have to continue to make sure that what you're providing is available and accessible. Just finding ways to do that in a consistent manner, so you're not all over the place, is one of the challenges. As well as making sure that what you are providing meets the technological means and expectations of what your users are doing.

For instance, recently, The University of Texas created a MySpace profile for their library users. There are so many students out there who are using MySpace as a social forum to learn about bands, see videos and generally interact with their friends in this sort of online community environment. It was such a brilliant idea for the library to say "if you want to learn about this, you should go to the library". They're actually going out looking for users who live in Austin and adding them so they can send information out to them, which is great. They're going into that environment where the users actually exist, as opposed to waiting for the users to come through the library doors.

Is this the way forward for libraries to promote themselves?

Yes, but I think it is hard for some people to understand and accept this. We really have to be pushing our services and our operations out, as opposed to trying to pull people in. I think there's still quite a bit of tension now. And that's where some of the politics come into play. Being able to convince, primarily to convince the administration, that's what needs to be really going on.

Going back to electronic resources, what is your opinion about the big digitisation projects?

Generally I think it will have an impact in a good way because it is yet another way to provide information. I still don't think that the technological devices exist to make reading extending works in electronic format comfortable for the average person. Most people's attention span lasts for two or three pages.

What do you think of the Emerald led TOCRoSS project to provide Tables of Contents as RSS feeds?

I can definitely see applications for it. That's the sort of thing I would want to put out on the subject page or into a subject blog as an RSS feed for, say, the management faculty or the marketing faculty. They could see what's in this or that journal. It could be fantastic for that.

I'm at this point when I'm beginning to think that our integrated library systems need to become disintegrated. We are not providing the functionality to really do all the things that we can and want to do and we are more and more doing things in a web environment. We need to step back from the way we do things and see if there is a better way.

I heard someone [at the UKSG conference] talk about creating a content management system for all the library services and resources instead of having a catalogue and I think that would be fantastic.

What has your experience of the UKSG conference been like? Have there been any noticeable differences in the way libraries work in the UK and in the relationships between librarians and publishers?

Yes, there have been. I would say, technologically, the UK is probably in the same place as the United States. But, because of organizations like JISC and NESLI, more things are able to be provided to more people in the UK. These organizations are also able to do national initiatives for purchasing of materials, which is unlikely to happen in the United States. There is purchasing at a state level but it is unlikely to happen across the board in all the United States. That's just the reality of the size of the country.

The content of the conference has been really good. It is very much focused on the serials industry. It is like some of our more focused conferences in the United States, as opposed to the really big American Library conferences where things are so diluted due to all the constituents who are served by this national organization.

I think there is a better synthesis between publishers/vendors and libraries and a better working relationship between those parties at this conference than there is in the United States.

What are the hot LIS topics for you at the moment?

I think electronic books are starting to have a much larger impact than what they've had previously. Now that we are moving into the electronic book world we have to really seriously re-think our mode of collection development and collection management. We really need to make the end user more responsible for what they feel they need. There's no longer a reason to process this physical entity that then goes to its shelf, so we don't necessarily need to be in as much control of items as we were previously. We should step back from that and let users order the item they need themselves. Then we'll worry about getting this item incorporated into a collection.

Generally, if a professor or a researcher feels like they need something, then somebody else in that same area will more than likely need the same thing as well. Or, if they are going to use it in a teaching situation, then suddenly there are going to be 25 students who feel like they need that same resource. So, this might be a better sort of collection management mode. And it is a really big issue.

I feel that we do need to make things simpler and easier for people. Easy is good and easy is valuable. We should be providing what makes the work easy. There's still some of that mind set: "if I don't show somebody how to do it, they're not going to know how to do it", and it's just not true.

Do you find, like the OCLC reported, that there is a different perception of the library between library professionals and library users? Has it changed your day-to-day activities?

Oh, definitely. Right now, the OCLC has a worldcat trial out for their new interface. One of the things to jump out from that trial is that comments from librarians and comments from the end users are completely different. I think there's a very definite disconnect between what the end users feel they really need and what libraries feel they need to be providing to the end users.

And Jill agrees, with her trademark laughter, that this is definitely a frustration factor in her job...