Off the Beaten Path: a Blueprint for LIS Career Moves
Q&A with Dr. Sandra Hirsh
by Alison Peters, INALJ Contributor
As a San José State University iSchool student, I’d heard of Dr. Sandra Hirsh, iSchool Director, and her many, many accomplishments, projects and accolades. But I was not expecting to speak with such a happy, down-to-earth person, as we talked about her process compiling and editing a 21st-century textbook, Information Services Today: An Introduction. Hirsh ended up obliging my curiosity by going into detail about her career path and job hunt strategies (networking makes her nervous!) from professor to Silicon Valley tech researcher to jobs within libraries and universities. The following Q&A provides an excellent blueprint for any LIS student or professional to follow as you plan your career in library and information services.
What was your first LIS job, and how did you get it?
As a second-generation librarian, I have grown up in the field. From a young age, I helped my mom with her publishing business (she writes and publishes her own reference books—financial aid directories) and attended ALA conferences with her. In college as a freshman and sophomore, I worked in the university library’s reserves. As a summer job after my freshman year, I worked at ABC-Clio on one of their reference products, updating the content by researching state and country data in the UC Santa Barbara Government Documents department.
In fact, that was what got me excited about the field of library and information science. I had one of the librarians who worked at the Government Documents reference desk who was extremely helpful and I saw the importance and the difference people trained in library and information science could make.
I continued to work in information-related jobs throughout my undergraduate education, ranging from working at a microfiche company to doing research for a political science professor at UCLA. After graduating with my Political Science/International Relations degree from UCLA, I didn’t have a good idea about what to pursue or what kind of job to get, and decided to got to library school. In library school, I had a number of jobs: I worked half-time in the chemistry library and I worked part-time on the reference desk at the undergraduate library too. I loved it so much that I decided to continue on to get my PhD in library and information science immediately after!
Did your education prepare you for your first professional job?
Yes, my education trained me for my job in the sense that the kind of training of our core LIS knowledge is so foundational, in terms of core principles of information access, usage and organization, that transcendent concepts naturally apply and are transferable to a number of environments.
No, in the sense that from the time that I completed my MA in 1990, new tech at that time was CD-ROM, email was nascent, there was no internet. So my education did not prepare me for working in the user experience space, directly. I brought an understanding of information organization and principles…but I wasn’t trained formally in user experience. I leveraged my training naturally in those areas, but I wasn’t taught.
I’ve never just seen a job posting and applied—it’s all been other ways of getting jobs. When I completed my PhD I became a professor at the University of Arizona for three years, and then ended up moving to the Bay Area, and there weren’t any faculty positions available. So that’s when I had to think about what I was going to do. I had a master’s and PhD in LIS; I’d been a faculty member; but I hadn’t worked in a library in a while and wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do at that time. I tried to think about how my skills could be applied in different ways. And that became a theme of how my career evolved, and an underlying theme in the Information Services Today textbook: the fact that there is such a wide range of environments that the training, expertise, knowledge and skills you develop with a degree in LIS opens up so many different possibilities, in library environments and outside of them. And you’re given more possibilities now, because what we teach in school is so aligned with a broader range of opportunities than when I went to school. The internet didn’t exist! Look at how it’s changed our lives, and all the roles we can play. Our field has engaged as a key part of that change.
So how did your skills combined with the wide range of LIS environments lead you to your next job?
When I was moving to the Silicon Valley in 1998, I ended up getting this amazing opportunity. I realized what I wanted to do was to continue doing research in the information field, because I was enjoying that, and it would be a nice tie-in to the technology innovations that were happening in Silicon Valley. But I didn’t have contacts, didn’t know anyone there. I was coming from academia and it was just hard to figure these things out—which is why I used my personal network. I contacted my dissertation advisor from UCLA, and she gave me three names of people to talk to: one was the head of the library at Sun Microsystems; one was head of Xerox Parc library; third was head of library at Hewlett Packard (HP) Labs. I cold-called them up and said, I’m Sandy, I’m moving to the area, looking for this type of work in research labs, maybe you know a company that might be appropriate to work in? Here’s my CV… Each one shopped me around their companies, but nothing really panned out of that.
But I called Eugenie Prime at HP Labs and conveyed that I was not necessarily looking for a job at a library, and she said, ‘I have a dream, and you might make it happen.’ The dream was the information research program: a research and development (R&D) arm of the HP library that would work in collaboration with the scientists and engineers in HP Labs to help advance research by improving the way information was integrated into R&D processes, to help improve output generation.
It wasn’t a job she actually had, but something she wanted to create. So I told her that I was going to be in the area (I wasn’t) and did she want to meet with me? I flew myself out at my own cost, stayed with my brother, rented a car, drove over—and she said, ‘Here’s the idea: I’d like you to write a white paper.’ I thought—this is a nightmare! Now I’m doing the work for her but there’s no job! But I wrote the paper, submitted it to her, and thought nothing would happen. Eventually, I ended up getting hired, they created a position for me, and I worked at HP Labs for 6.5 years until 2004, when my mentor retired and I decided it was time for me to leave too.
Having a research job created specifically for you must’ve been an amazing experience. But it still wasn’t a job in a library. How did you showcase your skills to your next employers?
Working at HP, I didn’t do user experience work, so I had to translate to employers what I was bringing to the table and how I was qualified for positions. What I did was attend a local Bay Area computer-human interaction session, it was on the topic of cost-justifying usability: I thought I could make a contribution. I went to this event, in traffic—it’s hard, going to the networking events! It was just awful. I go into the meeting and I’m running late, I run into the room and just introduce myself to the first person I see, and it turns out to be someone recruiting for a position at Microsoft! From that event, I ended up with two on-site interviews and one job offer from Microsoft, and that’s where I ended up working, in user experience. I worked on WebTV! I felt that it was a big stepping stone, which it was.
When I left HP Labs and started looking for another job, this is when I tried to look closely at my job skills and background to see what I was going to do next. I had an awesome job for 6.5 years but it wasn’t a job title anyone was familiar with; there wasn’t going to be another opportunity custom made for me like that. I had to really think about what I wanted to do with my career next.
When I left Microsoft, I used LinkedIn as part of the job seeking process, because it’s a great tool. I reached out to people in my network, got introductions through LinkedIn, and that ended up being one of the tools I used when I was ready to make a move. And then I got hired at LinkedIn! I was ready to leave Microsoft, it was time to move on, and I’d applied for a number of opportunities. One was a position as director of the SJSU iSchool, but I felt like I was a longshot because I had a different background—I hadn’t been in academia for a long time, I just didn’t think they would hire me for it. I had a great opportunity to go to LinkedIn and I loved it as a product, I believed in it, and was excited to work at a company like that, a startup.
Then I was surprised when I got the offer to work at SJSU—it was an amazing chance, an amazing opportunity to work at an amazing school, helping to mentor the next generation of information professionals and contribute back to the field and profession in a direct way. It was really appealing for me.
What did SJSU iSchool appreciate about your skills and experience as a good fit for the Director role?
They liked my diverse background! My perspectives were what SJSU was looking for, in terms of taking the broader approach to the field of LIS. The fact that I came from industry, brought those perspectives, it was unique, and our placement in Silicon Valley makes it a really useful and appealing background. I like to build on strong foundations, and my predecessor had a built strong foundation. SJSU liked their foundation and wasn’t looking to toss that aside, and I didn’t see any reason to do that either. I don’t feel the need to tear things down and make it up in my own image. I’ve been here 4.5 years, and it’s been so amazing! There have been good, positive changes that are reflected in the school.
Final Tip for the Job Seeker?
Don’t be overly narrow in where the opportunities are. The underlying principles of our field are valuable no matter what. You still have to continually be aware of changes in the field—there will be new things that will evolve and emerge that are opportunities for people with our expertise to apply those skills to. My examples are illustrative of those opportunities.
Alison Peters is currently obtaining her MLIS from San Jose State University’s iSchool, where she’s been having fun taking a variety of courses ranging from web design to reference services to information architecture. Alison has worked on the iSchool’s LIS Publications Wiki, participated in fantastic project-based-learning internship with Librarians Without Borders, and currently finds fascinating people to interview as a student assistant writing the school’s Community Profiles. Alison got her BA in English from UC Berkeley, and, when not working, querying, or in class, puts her MFA from Mills College to good use and and shares her love for all things bookish on Book Riot. You can find her serious professional side on LinkedIn and the fun stuff on Twitter @onellestarfish.