Jennifer Burns is a Collection Development Manager at YBP Library Services, a company that provides books and technical services to academic libraries all over the world. As Jennifer explains, “the company is based in Contoocook, New Hampshire; I work from my home office in Toronto, and my territory is Western Canada, so it’s a role that requires significant travel. I oversee the collection development process between the libraries and YBP to ensure that the libraries are getting the resources they need, according to their approval plans. The approval plan is a document that governs the library’s collecting in Library of Congress, Dewey or National Library of Medicine classes according to specific instructions that the library decides on in consultation with the Collection Development Manager. It’s a very logical document that evolves as a result of conversations and problem-solving, and it’s my job to have those conversations and work closely with the library and with my colleagues at YBP to ensure that everything is running according to plan.”
She has an Honours degree in English Literature from Concordia University in Montreal and a Master’s degree in Information Studies, LIS stream, from the Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto. She has completed several professional development courses, including online searching, usability, HR fundamentals and training evaluation. Last year, she was also privileged to participate in the tenth Northern Exposure to Leadership Institute in Emerald Lake, British Columbia, where she was able to meet and learn from librarians from across Canada.
Describe your first job as a librarian or information professional etc. and subsequent career path.
Jennifer worked full-time as a Help Desk Analyst at BI&I, a speciality-lines insurance company, while she pursued her Master’s degree part-time. In this position she provided first-level technical support to employees across Canada – troubleshooting basic software and hardware problems, performing database maintenance, coordinating the servicing of equipment and visits from vendors, and purchasing supplies. She also updated the company website, wrote user documentation for the software developed in-house, and maintained the telephone system in the Toronto office. She then left this position to pursue her Master’s degree full-time, and while she did that, she also worked part-time as a student Business Reference Assistant at the Rotman School of Management. That was her first job working in a library. She also worked on a short contract as a Research Assistant at the West Toronto Junction Historical Society. This position allowed her to work in an area of great interest for her: built heritage and urban history.
Following graduation from the Faculty of Information Studies in 2004, she joined BMO Financial Group as an Information Specialist at the Institute for Learning, the Bank’s corporate university, where she gained a lot of knowledge and experience in the area of learning and development. She joined YBP Library Services, her current employer, in September 2009. She has also been an active member of the Special Libraries Association Toronto Chapter since 2004, serving on the Advisory Board and now the Executive as President-Elect.
How did your information training and background prepare you for the job you now have?
Jennifer had this to say:
“One of the beautiful things about being an informational professional, especially now, with information communication technologies transforming our culture – the way we get work done, the way we live our daily lives – is that learning is practically like breathing to us. I think most of us are almost constantly in learning-mode – we tend to be a naturally curious, inquisitive group of people, always asking ‘Why?’ and ’How?’ and generally wanting to know. I don’t have a formal background in collection development, but what I do have is the ability to learn, and to pass on my knowledge. For me, a big part of my professional training was learning to learn. That’s a great foundation to build on.”
What advice would you give someone who is currently doing his or her Master of Information?
Jennifer did a lot of her Master’s degree part-time while holding down a full-time job, and while she points out that everybody’s experience of this is different, but she would say that, if you can, study full-time. For one thing, you will be able to focus your full attention on your studies, and it’s also important to get to know your colleagues. You will learn from each other as well as in the classroom, and you will also support one another. It’s an experience that’s difficult to have when you are juggling work and school. Her advice is also to encourage students to look into part-time work or internships in libraries, information centres, and anywhere that you are connecting people to information, because this will provide you with valuable hands-on experience. Also, get involved in the professional associations that are related to your interests. Not only are there membership rates for students, but there are always lots of volunteer opportunities in the local chapters, which is another way to gain experience, learn new skills and to connect with like-minded professionals.
What skills and experience should they be building up at this point, if they would like to work in this specific field?
Finding, creating, evaluating, organizing, classifying and describing information so that users can access and use it are key skills right now, Jennifer says. She doesn’t think there is any doubt that e-content is going to be really central going forward, but she doubts that traditional print resources will be completely eclipsed. It will be interesting to see how the two formats will co-exist in the future. Social media and user-generated content is also transforming the landscape. If you are knowledgeable about these trends and their impact, and – even better – if you can identify and leverage opportunities that arise as a result of these trends, you will be on your way to success. Presentation skills, the ability to negotiate and persuade, and to be able to lead from wherever you are in the organizational hierarchy will also serve you well.
Any general advice for new information professionals?
Some of Jennifer’s major advice came naturally throughout the interview, for instance, as earlier mentioned, if at all possible the ability to study full-time rather than part-time – understanding that this is not always possible, but the ability to be involved in the program and with your colleagues will be incredibly helpful throughout the program and in the future, as well.
Another point that Jennifer made was regarding flexibility. In the beginning you may not find yourself in your dream position, but you should try to remember that in every situation that you find yourself there is an opportunity to learn; about yourself and your abilities and that self-knowledge and self-awareness are extremely important and can come from these experiences. These are qualities that will assist you in becoming a leader, if you can be open-minded about the possibilities.
In our profession, you have to make peace with dealing with change, and to find yourself in situations that are appropriately challenging. About five years into her career, her best advice is that you can’t do it all by yourself. This, as a concept of leadership, is vitally important, and possibly the notion of leadership is being distorted in our current society. To be a true leader you must learn to elevate those around you, recognizing their strengths and giving them a chance to shine. Real leadership begins when you are able to see the strengths of others and delegate tasks to those strengths and allowing credit to be given where it is deserved.
What helpful lessons did you learn early in your career? Do any of them still apply today?
Some of Jennifer’s helpful lessons from early in her career – beyond the above advice – is to, first, remember that organizations often hire for fit, but that this is a fit for both you and the organization. Remember that you are interviewing them, as much as they are interviewing you. Second, in relation to interviewing, use positive language – avoid words like “don’t” and “can’t”. Storytelling is a very effective technique in an interview as well: if you can provide specific examples of how you contributed to a successful project or solved a problem, rather than listing your skills, abilities and accomplishments, you will paint a vivid picture of what you have to offer a prospective employer and stand out as a memorable candidate.