Career as a Question

Why do I want to study Information Management?

In my first post on this blog, I gave my personal, introspective answer. This post is my “professional” answer, the one focused on the future and the outside world.

First, some background:

I’ve worked in tech support for almost all of the 20 years of my working life. I started as a lowly helpdesk minion who had never used Windows, and have worked my way up to be the IT manager for the student union at the University of Melbourne.

I’ve enjoyed the technical challenges, and I love helping people. But I don’t want to be running a helpdesk when I’m 60. One of the goals I set myself for this year was to plan out a change of career direction.


I have some very clear values that I look for in any organisation that I work for. They are:

  1. Contributing to the social good
  2. Collaboration and sharing, not competition
  3. Fairness towards staff (equality, diversity, a respect for the work/life balance)
  4. The use of technology to help people achieve all the above

To help me rethink  my career, I used my list of values to make a list of the type of organisations that would be most likely to share them: educational institutions, healthcare, social services, government, NGOs, and libraries.

When I wrote that last item down, a light went off in my head.

My first post explains why:  I have a long history and a deep emotional connection with libraries. But a deep emotional connection is not a career. I needed to think in practical terms what working in libraries would mean.

I spent a lot of time talking to the librarians I know, asking them about their careers and where they saw libraries going. And through those conversations, I narrowed it down little. I knew I wasn’t interested in “putting books back on the shelf”. I didn’t want to be a children’s librarian, or an archivist. I wanted to use my IT experience to improve people’s access to libraries, but I couldn’t solidify that down into a specific role.

Until, over lunch, it hit me.

Career as a Question

I couldn’t think of a specific role because I didn’t want a specific role. What excited me was the question:

How can we use IT to improve access to library collections and resources?

The moment I wrote that down, everything clicked into place. It wasn’t just a question, it was The Question, the single question that clarified how I could use my experience in IT to service the libraries that I love.

The Question opened up a huge variety of roles that would involve trying to answer it: contractor with software vendors, interface designer, project manager, IT architect embedded in an institution, consultant, cross-training at galleries and schools, research, teaching…

And in The Question I could see the shape of my career, as clearly as the level progression of a character in Dungeons & Dragons:

  • Apprentice: studying information management, learning what systems are currently in place
  • Journeyman: applying and refining my learning in the real world
  • Master: teaching and mentoring others
  • Wizard: growing a long white beard, saving the world with the power of books.

(I thought that last one was just a joke, until I read a speech by Chris Bourg, MIT’s Director of Libraries, about how libraries can save us.)

I finished my pizza buzzing with excitement. Career as Question, I joked to myself. But that question brought everything into focus.

Questions within Questions

After my lunchtime revelation, I went back to my office and did what every grown adult does when planning the rest of their lives: I made a multi-coloured mind map. I wanted to capture some of the other questions that flow from the original.

Mindmaps aren’t very accessibility-friendly, so I’ve reproduced it below as a nested list.

  • How can we use IT to improve access to library collections and resources?
    • What is being done now?
      • What works well? What doesn’t?
      • What is missing?
      • What ideas can we steal from other fields?
    • What does “improve” mean?
      • What do patrons need? How do we know this?
      • How do you measure improvement?
      • How do we remember what was tried and failed?
    • What tools are there?
      • How do we deploy them effectively?
      • What is the future(s) of libraries, and how do we build for that?
      • How do we work within limited budgets?
      • How do we develop new tools, and integrate existing ones?
    • What skills are needed?
      • How do we acquire those skills?
      • How do we stay up to date?
      • How do we pass those skills on?

There’s a lot of questions there. And there are probably a million more that I’m too much of a library noob to even know that I should ask them.

But I felt like I was on the right track when MIT released their report on the Future of Libraries, and it addressed exactly these issues.

The Inevitable Problems

I was, perhaps, a bit too giddy with excitement about distilling my career plans down into a single question. So it was a useful reality check when I showed my multi-coloured mind map to RMIT’s Program Manager for the Masters of Information Management.

This looks like a Master by research, he said. Maybe even a PhD.

Hold up, I answered. I am a level 0 Library Nerd. I know nothing about libraries at the moment. I need to actually learn how things work before I race ahead and try to reinvent them.

Another problem: framing my career goals as a question can confuse people into thinking that I’m only interested in researching the answer.

Research will be a part of my career, I have no doubt. But mostly I’m excited about answering The Question by doing it; using IT to improve access to library collections.

And look – it’s entirely possible that in studying information management I will discover the perfect role for me, and my career goals might change. I’m not shutting those doors closed forever.

I suspect my goals won’t change, though. The more I think about The Question, the more right it feels.

It doesn’t just feel like an exhilarating career.

It feels like a life well lived.

Next post: I’m going to make a dad-pun about SWOT and swotting, and talk about my strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities in studying information management.


About davidwitteveen

IT person. Zine Maker. Level 0 Library Nerd. Doctor Who fan.
This entry was posted in library nerding and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Career as a Question

  1. Pingback: Learning Koha 01: A new project… | LIBRARY_3000

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