Lattice by keithcr at

Sound Advice

I was honored to be highlighted in 2006 by the Law Librarian Blog and shared some of my career and advice I received from others.  I was reminded of this when I participated in a panel at the University of Toronto’s Information School.  A number of people who worked in non-profit information environments, including the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Knowledge Ontario, talked to library students about our experiences and career paths.

Career Path and Dream Job

One thing we were asked to discuss was our career path, and also to talk a bit about our dream job.  I don’t subscribe to the dream job concept.  There is no ideal position any more than is an perfect person or perfect house.  Everything has upsides and downsides.  Over time, I have found the things that I value more than others and these are the things that I look for when I change positions or extend my current one.  They include:

  • Challenge.  I want to be in a position that pushes me beyond what I knew when I walked into it.  Most jobs offer this but I suppose it is a matter of degree.  I think it is fair to say that most of the positions that I have been able to secure have had a substantial component that I had never done before.  Some people prefer a more gradual approach.
  • Working with entrepreneurial or creative people.  I like to work with people who are constantly pushing themselves.  This can be a significant challenge if you join a company whose culture emphasizes longevity rather than creativity.  Information environments are particularly challenging, if you have not only to deal with the operational and organizational change that is impacting libraries and information centers externally, but also need to build a culture of initiative within a larger culture of stasis.
  • Autonomy.  I have experienced micromanagement and I have also experienced management who have no interest in what my people do and our role within the organization.  This may seem surprising, but in the non-profits in which I have worked, there are rarely external pressures to sunset any internal teams or functions.  It is easier for a senior manager to just ignore a team than to try to tie it closer to the organizational mandate or to cut it loose.
    My goal is to have the independence to get my job done with the understanding from my senior management that they can rely on my expertise and that of my staff to show the value we bring to the organization.  From this perspective, I look for a pretty clear command structure.  I can work with others across the organization, either working with peer managers or driving issues up through my management chain to other management chains.

I mentioned to the students that it is more of a dream portfolio.  I think of each position as a possible match to some number of the things I that look for.  In some cases, the alignment works and in others you find out that the culture you thought you were joining actually only permeates your immediate team, not the entire organization, which can be extremely dysfunctional

The topic of career path really didn’t come up but that’s something else that I haven’t followed, and I am not sure it exists in information environments.  It reminds me much more of a lattice, where you can move up or across, zigging and zagging from position to position.  That certainly reflects my own experience but I think it supports a theory that I have about my own career which is that it is important to move on.  Not up, but out, and try your skills and interests and passion in different environments, with different people.  Thinking of a career as a lattice, where you may lateral significantly to the left or right of your initial direction, can provide options that might not have appeared otherwise.  In general, when I think about my own career or that of others who are interviewing for positions with me, the number of years in a position is important.  The failure to recreate myself, reenergize my interests and abilities, on a regular basis will make me less competitive.

Advice from Mentors

As I say below, my experience in Dallas really generated that interest in autonomy, to have managers above me who showed leadership in how they dealt with people and provided direction for the organization.  The advice of John Hanle, our CFO at the American Bar Association – who took me and my department on after the departure of the senior manager who I interviewed with but who retired about 9 months later – also continues to ring true.  I try to stay in the mix, making myself available to people inside and outside my organization as much as I can.  This does not include professional associations, which I have little interest in or use for.  Instead, I would rather help an individual, someone who I can share information with or for whom I have respect.  In most positions I have held, it has led to a far broader portfolio than I had initially accepted when I took on the role.

For example, my current CEO has transferred the oversight of the organization’s Web sites and content management to me this year.  But it was based on an awareness within the organization’s management and some staff that I had some ability and passion in this area.  That was backstopped by my own staff’s skill in information access and management.  When senior management decided to make a change, they looked to my area because they were already aware that we had a lot of ability in the necessary areas, and there were managers who already had some regard for our abilities.

I suppose I am reaching that point in my career when I hone what I know as much as try to learn new tricks.  Perhaps its time to refresh myself!

2006 Original Post

Here’s the original post.

I might be considered a second career law librarian, although I never really had a first career. I was in law school at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and found that there were a number of other things I’d rather do than practice law. SMU’s Underwood Law Library gave me a place to start, where the dean referred to me as the “electric” law librarian. While the name was slightly off, the new opportunity gave me a real charge. It was the confluence of the electronic services and technology that lit up some new career paths. I was fortunate to come under the guidance of two fabulous managers, Gail Daly and Gregory Ivy, who gave me a lot of latitude to try new things as well as plenty of advice and support. It’s amazing what a difference an excellent manager can be.

I left Dallas for the American Bar Association soon after getting my MLS at the University of North Texas. Anyone in law school had heard of the ABA and the Legal Technology Resource Center sounded like an unusual information center. It became clear quite quickly that “technology reference” wasn’t as strange a concept as I’d originally thought. It also highlighted how many information sharing jobs there are that are well off the beaten library track. Here the CFO gave me some more sound guidance: stay in the mix. It doesn’t matter if you’re not invited to the party, get out there and stay out there meeting decision-makers and other peers. I had never really considered how much work an information center director had to do just to keep the library’s profile high in other people’s minds. After 5 years at the ABA, I had been acting CIO, manager of the ABA’s Web team, and director of the Legal Technology Resource Center.

I contemplated a return to a more traditional library and moved to the Cincinnati Law Library Association. What an amalgam of things! A law library with over 150 years of history. A court library that has survived 4 court houses. A membership library with hundreds of lawyers seeking legal research help and services. In a time when state support of county law libraries is diminishing, where electronic research causes lawyers to skip using print materials, it is an interesting time to be a librarian. My children cheer when we see a car pulled over by a state trooper for a traffic violation in Ohio because, like Clarence and his wings, some good county law librarian is going to get a bit more money.

In a way, I’m back where I started. From the UALR School of Law Library, a.k.a. the Pulaski County Law Library, I’m in a county law library with a mixed audience. It’s a niche library, a truly special library. It’s the latest opportunity to explore the varied roles a law librarian can have. I have adopted a much looser definition of what it is to be a librarian and what a library should be. Take advantage of, and give others the benefit of, wide latitude and see what can happen. Stay in the mix, and make sure that the library remains an important, viable resource for your organization and patrons. Who needs a first career when you can start a second one instead?


David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.