For those of you who don’t know me—and I suspect that is just about everyone—my name is Max Eckard. I am currently enrolled in the School of Library and Information Sciences at North Carolina Central University and, if everything goes according to plan, I’ll be graduating this coming May with dual concentrations in Academic and Digital Librarianship. This semester, I am completing a Practicum under Lesley’s excellent supervision in the Cataloging and Metadata Services Department of Duke University Libraries.
This past summer I had the very unique experience of interning for the State Department with the Research Unit of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City.
The Research Unit serves as the Mission’s UN-focused research library and archives and covers the full spectrum of U.S.-UN relations. They provide U.S. Mission staff, State Department personnel and other government agencies with a wide range of information and library services, including interpretive and analytical research on a broad range of political, economic, social, legal, financial and parliamentary questions concerning the United Nations.
As the institutional memory and archives of the U.S. Mission to the UN, the Unit creates and maintains the Mission’s permanent central subject files for current and retrospective research, as well as a master file of major UN documents dating back to 1945, and a specialized collection of materials focused on the United Nations. The holdings and resources of the Unit represent a unique collection within the U.S. government, and its staff has extensive knowledge of UN affairs.
It really is a great library, and come to think of it, I still have an item that I need to return!
My favorite part, though, was the people:
Library Lessons Learned
As you might have expected, I learned a lot about doing research and reference work in a highly specialized environment. The other intern and I sat on the reference desk with a rotating analyst who fielded numerous requests daily about all kinds of historical and contemporary international topics—Palestine’s impending bid for UN membership was a favorite—and we assisted them in drafting replies. Sometimes the requests were a little mundane (i.e., all a patron needed was a certain document, and they already knew which one), but for the more complex requests, analysts would draft Research Memos that could take a couple hours or even days to complete. By the end of the internship I even got to file a few of these memos on my own!
In general, we would work on average requests for an hour or so—that five minute reference rule didn’t really seem to apply—and if the question was particularly pertinent or it had some sort of ongoing value, we’d write up memos to the file after the fact to refer to later.
And, while all of this certainly kept us busy, there were times when the environment became even more fast-paced. Once or twice we even got a high priority question from an advisor’s BlackBerry in the middle of a Security Council meeting!
Learning the UN documentation system was a bit of a challenge, too. Like US government documentation, the UN classification scheme was developed in house to describe a specific and highly specialized collection and, like all classification schemes, it looks foreign to the untrained eye. Needless to say, it took me a couple of weeks to get comfortable with it. Actually, the UN system in general is pretty complex, and even after working there for 10 weeks I still don’t understand it completely.
I also got some experience with digital librarianship. Staff members there are in the early stages of digitizing parts of their collection. This is for preservation (the UN has been around since 1946 and some of its documents are starting to show their age) and access purposes, with the goal of the project being to make their collection, especially their unique holdings, available to be searched and browsed by the entire Mission staff, and eventually the entire State Department. While the importance of project planning has certainly been stressed in all of my digital library classes, I had no idea how long and complicated this process could be. When I was there, many of the conceptual challenges of a project like this had already been addressed, as far as the scope, audience and purpose of the digital library were concerned. Many of the more technical details, however, were still being worked out, and I got to watch and learn as the analysts customized the software to fit the Research Unit’s needs, tested and retested the hardware, worked the kinks out of those parts of the system that would be automated, created a system of unique identification for each document, and a planned the workflow for the actual digitization process.
At times, the analysts were constrained in this process because the State Department has a unique security challenge. The department as a whole has over one million attempts to breach their system daily and on any given day the US Mission itself gets over 400 attempted hacks. Therefore, any software (including digital collection management software) that will be installed on the computers there has to meet very stringent security requirements (CONTENTdm, I am sorry to say, did not make the cut). Ironically, it seems like the older systems, while a little less exciting aesthetically, are more secure than the newer ones!
Throughout my schooling here at NCCU, I have also worked as a graduate assistant in the SLIS Library, a smaller library for sure, but really a microcosm of a larger library world. One of the things I really enjoy about it is that I get practice in all aspects of librarianship: cataloging, serials maintenance, reference work, circulation, &c. We are also a repository for the Black Caucus of the ALA and we have all kinds of treasures in our archives (we recently came across a document signed by Langston Hughes, for example). Over the summer I enjoyed putting some of the skills I learned there in the archives to use in NYC, even though the two libraries serve quite different populations.
This was because in addition to all of its other functions, the Research Unit serves as the archives and records management section of the US Mission. I enjoyed learning (and doing) some subject indexing, and the skills the other graduate assistants and I learned while going through and organizing the materials for NCCU’s Black Caucus of the ALA collection (how to evaluate a diverse collection of material, and how to organize it into a logical, useful system so that it doesn’t remain “hidden” to researchers) were the same skills I needed there for a similar project dealing with a collection of pamphlets that we were using to populate a research database the analysts had created.
One harder lesson learned: The patron base at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations has, as you might imagine, really specific information needs, and there were times when I wasn’t able to provide them the specific answer they needed. This was particularly true with the Legal team, our biggest customer. They were always looking for creative ways that international law or provisions of the U.N. Charter had been interpreted in order to draft the preamble of resolutions, and sometimes I simply wasn’t able to find an example of precedent that they could use. Of course, I could always fall back on my more experienced colleagues, who often knew more about how to find this information (often times they had so much experience they could just pull answers out of their head) than I did. Of course, I could always frame the answer (i.e., “I didn’t find that, but this other thing that you didn’t ask for but I still related is kind of interesting”), and there was always the option of just being honest, and admitting that I wasn’t as experienced with such and such database or resource as I’d like to be, and that I’m learning it. And don’t get me wrong, all that is fine, but at the end of the day I still had a patron leaving without his or her information need met and this looming feeling of inadequacy that followed me around for the rest of my shift.
Dr. Maloche, an instructor here at Central, deals with it this way:
“It is absolutely the case that the scope of what reference librarians deal with is immense. The people who come to us are frequently more expert in the areas of their discipline than we are. We are guides through sources to that information but we’re not experts, per say. So we should be able to establish the availability of something. If it’s unavailable through our mechanisms we should be able to recommend alternatives. We can’t produce what doesn’t exist within our domain, but we should be able to establish where it is and how it would be accessible. Again, we don’t do this in isolation; we do this through networks of individuals, professionals and information. One of the things that patrons often expect but rarely get is an instant response. We have to educate them about the effort and the time that it takes to do the work that we do and the service that we provide. These things are not instant. Given sufficient time, any of us can give them an appropriate answer, even if we can’t give them an immediate answer” (Thank you Dr. Morgan and Dr. Maloche).
I’d be interested to learn how other reference librarians deal with this day in and day out.
New York City Lessons Learned
I hope you’ll indulge me:
- All the best things in NYC happen along the 7 train. Some of the highlights headed to Flushing include stops at Times Square, Grand Central Station, Circus Warehouse, Sunnyside, Queens, particularly 40th St. and Lowery (my neighborhood), Turkish Grill and $5 matinees, Mets games, A Tribe Called Quest, the US Open Tennis Championships, the World’s Fair (I know, it’s been a while on that one) and the new and improved China Town.
- All the worst things happen on the G train. Avoid it at all costs.
- Don’t stand on the left side of the escalators exiting the subway during rush hour. You’ll get run over.
- NYC definitely isn’t Kansas, but it’s not Baghdad either. It’s expensive, but there’s something free and fun for everyone, really. One of the reasons NYC is so great is because you don’t even have to try very hard to find something to do. If you ever have the chance, go! And if you ever go, wait in line for ramen and pork buns at Ippudo in the city and catch a free Sunday night movie at Habana Outpost in Brooklyn—try their corn.
- The parks there are amazing. I particularly liked the pier along the Hudson River around 79th St. and the park on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge at night.
I hope all of you in library school have the opportunity to participate in any internship; no doubt it will be a meaningful experience that will complement your coursework. Employers are always looking for real world experience on resumes, more so than ever. The candidate field is saturated with MLSs, and employers know they have the luxury of looking for someone who can hit the ground running.
Employers: I really found this internship opportunity to be extremely beneficial because the staff there didn’t just have us doing busy work. I learned so much about working in a special, government library because we got to do real work with real analysts fielding real world requests in real time. I also appreciated the fact that my supervisors were flexible. Besides working in the library, they made time for us to have lunch with the heads of other Mission sections and to visit the UN when there was something there for us to learn.
The other interns and I, for example, got to shake hands with Susan Rice, a member of the President’s cabinet and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, to wine and dine with ambassadors from around the world at the Independence Day celebration at the Central Park Zoo, to see the Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, get reinstated, to celebrate the admission of the world’s newest country (South Sudan) to the UN General Assembly, to meet Jerry Robinson (comic book artist best known for creating the characters Robin and the Joker for DC Comics) and to sit in on security council meetings. One time I took a ride in a government-owned Crown Vic with the Ambassador’s personal driver. I even got to look at—but not touch!—the original U.N. Charter signed by, among other world leaders, President Harry S. Truman.
And I encourage everyone to consider an internship with the Research Unit. Check out the State Department brochure here and the U.S. Mission’s brochure here, but hurry, the deadline for Summer 2012 is November 1!