I’m doing a presentation at the LibTech conference in St. Paul on March 16th (which would be today), and wanted a post with some background on my job I could point people to. (Standard disclaimer applies: I’m speaking for myself, not for my employer.)
I’ll be posting notes from the presentation sometime soon, but it may be when I get home next week,
About the Research Library
Where do you work?
I am the Research Librarian at the Hayes Research Library at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA. I started in May 2015, so I’ve been there about 10 months at this point. (This is about long enough to realise what I don’t know.)
We’re one of the largest libraries open to the public focused on non-medical materials about blindness in the country. Most others either only serve their own immediate community, or have many fewer items in their collection.
What’s your collection like?
We have books, journals, magazine files, pamphlets, multimedia recordings, and of course the digital materials and archives. We have about 48,000 items in our catalog, but that includes individually cataloged articles in our primary journals of interest, and does not include most of our Archives holdings.
We don’t weed material for age, so we have teaching materials stretching back to the 1800s. This can make for fascinating historical reading, but also requires some finessing when doing searches. (Older material is moved to a different floor of our stacks, so it’s not as confusing for people browsing.)
What does the Research Library do?
Research! More seriously, we provide research and information support to a wide range of patrons, both on campus and worldwide, everything from K12 students to educators to professors doing research. You can read more on the services page on the Research Library website.
We’re average about 50 reference questions a month right now. Some take a few minutes, but others can take hours or days to answer. (We’re the source of last resort for some kinds of questions.) The rest of the time, I work on research projects and create materials to support use of the library and our materials.
Who works there?
The Research Library and Archives staff is three people – me, our Archivist and our shared assistant. I do most of the reference questions, but I consult our Archivist regularly about anything historical and both of them for “Help me think through stuff for this.”
We are part of the Training and Educational Resources Department at Perkins, which also includes the eLearning program and other teacher education programs, and a number of other programs (basically, anything about education that isn’t aimed at K-12 students is probably in my larger department.)
There are also several other people who answer related questions through related projects and sites at Perkins, and we coordinate as needed, but mostly it’s a fairly solitary sort of job.
How do people ask you questions?
About 30% of our questions are in person (usually “Do you have this? Can I get it?”), and the rest come by phone, email, or other online sources. We get a noticeable number of questions from outside the United States, too.
Because we get a lot of our questions by email or voice mail, it’s often hard to do a useful reference interview, so I rely on things like cues in the question to help me start pointing them at materials that will help.
What’s the space like?
The Research Library is located in the Howe Building, the big building at the center of the Perkins campus. (It’s gorgeous.) I have an office which is big enough for a work table for visiting researchers, and there are other computers and desks. Our books are kept in a climate controlled space just off the work space (on three floors which are not very accessible – they have narrow stairs and narrow aisles.)
The Research Library is a few dozen feet from the Secondary School Library (there are bookshelves that separate the space, but no wall) and there are offices for several people in our larger department upstairs, so I see people coming and going fairly often, but it’s mostly pretty quiet without much walk-in traffic.
Our Archives space is across the building from us and our Archivist’s office is also in a different space, so sometimes figuring out where people are is a little tricky.
Questions I’ve been asked a lot
Did you have previous relevant experience?
I’ve been interested in accessibility and technology for a long time, but I had no previous experience in blindness education or special education. They posted the ad, I applied, and I walked away from the interview hoping they’d make me an offer (and was delighted when they did.) I am still delighted.
I’m still learning a lot of content knowledge: besides blindness education and related special education topics, we also get a number of questions about Perkins history, and particularly Samuel Gridley Howe, Anne Sullivan, and Helen Keller. (We also really love it when people ask us about Laura Bridgman, one of the most famous women most people have never heard of.)
One thing I learned very quickly is that the histories of all of these people are much more complex than many people realise! I also was sure about a week into the job that I was rapidly going to develop very strong opinions about them. (This is true.)
Do you have to read braille to do your job?
Not required, but I’ve been slowly teaching myself, because it’s helpful, and we do sometimes get braille-only materials through donations. I’m lousy at reading it with my fingers, but I can piece together what’s being said by sight most of the time.
It’s more complicated to learn beyond the basics because besides the letter-per-cell version that most people know about, there is also a contracted form of braille, where one cell stands for multiple letters, or even a word. (My favourite is that the letter k, by itself with a space on either side, is knowledge.)
In other cases, it saves you a letter or two per word. For example, in contracted braille, my name is J-en-n-i-f-er Ar-n-o-tt, and Research Library is R-e-s-e-ar-ch L-i-b-r-ar-y. Since braille books are already often large and unwieldy, every cell helps.
Braille is different in other languages (the basic letters are pretty similar, but the contractions are different), so I’m still pretty pleased at myself for figuring out the names of several maps our Archivist photographed a few months ago which were labelled in German (and because they were from 1901, a number of the names have changed since then.) Sch is a contraction in German, but not in English, for example.
Could your job be done by someone who is visually impaired?
My job, working exactly the way I do, probably not. Large chunks of my job, with someone else readily available to help with the parts that aren’t, quite possibly. It’d also depend on the specifics of someone’s visual impairment: someone who has limited range of vision but good acuity would probably have an easier time than someone who has poor acuity but a larger range of vision.
Many of the items I work with are older printed titles, sometimes without much consistency in layout or design. Some have handwriting (some of it is gorgeous, some of it is very scrawled.)
A lot of our collection only exists in print form, and skimming print using magnifying tools can be very slow. Some of it is in online digital archives, which have unedited optical character recognition (so there are lots of typos) and no chapter or other heading markers, which can make them harder to scan with a screenreader. These tasks usually aren’t a huge part of my work, but there are some kinds of questions and some kinds of tasks where I use these particular methods for several hours at a time.
That said, there are people I interact with regularly in related departments who are visually impaired, and who do process a lot of information and manage data very efficiently. There are a lot of tools for more common kinds of Word, Excel, and web browsing tasks that make files and information much easier to navigate.
The big thing many sighted people don’t realise is that someone who’s skilled with a screenreader can listen to hundreds of words a minute (faster than many people read print). There’s a video of a demonstration of accessible technology at UNC that does a great job of illustrating some of the speed possible that suggests that 1000 words a minute is something many people can learn.
Why does a lot of your collection only exist in print?
Perennial questions! Most of our collection is material about blindness education, people who are blind, or related topics, and most of it is written for a sighted audience. A number of publishers we get things from (especially organizations for the blind) do provide materials in multiple formats, and when we can, we also get a digital file format.
We can sometimes also get braille, but it’s less requested, even by visually impaired teachers here. Braille is a very important literacy tool, especially for students who are learning to read and write, but many visually impaired people use other tools too – screenreaders, audio materials, digital files that can be read aloud or via an electronic braille display.
Digital files make it easier to move around in the text than a braille book does, and also take up much less room.
Got more questions?
Feel free to ask in the comments.